The first Water Integrity Forum in Delft, The Netherlands (June 2013), defined the core of water integrity as ‘the integrity of people and institutions governing water resources, decision making that is fair and inclusive, honest and transparent, accountable and free of corruption’. Historic hydraulic structures are man-made ancestral water systems that helped sedentism and the emergence of cities where the resource is rare or partly available. The scope of the study is to present seven examples of historic hydraulic structures from different geographic contexts, as diverse as South America, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, as paradigms of indigenous knowledge in water governance. They are traditional gravity-flow water supplying systems whose functioning is based on eco-friendly and sustainable techniques such as the exploitation of surface and runoff water with ensuring minimal water losses, community-based management by already set rules upon common agreements, the preservation of ecological landscapes and the practice of traditional agriculture. This paper highlights those systems and connects their specifications to economic, social, political and environmental dimensions for good water governance and to water integrity key principles, Transparency, Accountability, Participation and Anti-corruption, in a way to explore their potential to do so.

  • This research joins together seven examples of historic hydraulic structures constructed in different eras and in various geographical areas: South America, Europe, Middle East and Far East.

  • The chosen structures are comparable regarding their functioning and the management of the water they provide.

  • This research also presents a concise historic overview of the evolution of hydro-technological achievements ‘rule by the people’ from ancient times and defines the contemporary concepts of good water governance and integrity in the water sector with detailing of their key principles.

  • This study gives a detailed description of the structures and lists their characteristics in relation to good water governance and sustainability.

  • This study concludes that within a context of global water crisis and inequity in access to fresh water among communities worldwide, historic hydraulic structures have shown a traditional integrity, have ensured equity in access to water for multi-stakeholders, have maintained life-sustaining ecosystems and have ensured energy and still continue providing fresh water and food for growing generations in some countries.

Good water governance and integrity in the water sector are key agents for human dignity, health and equitable access to water for populations. This paves the way for fair, sustainable and sustained socio-economic development for communities. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), ‘Water governance refers to the political, social, economic and administrative systems in place that influence water's use and management. Essentially, who gets what water, when and how, and who has the right to water and related services, and their benefits’ (UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility 2016). Also, ‘Governing water includes the formulation, establishment and implementation of water policies, legislation and institutions, and clarification of the roles and responsibilities of government, civil society and the private sector in relation to water resources and services. The outcomes depend on how the stakeholders act in relation to the rules and roles that have been taken or assigned to them’ (UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility 2016). By studying some key historic hydraulic structures around the world, it appears that the traditional governance of the water they provide is based on transparency and accountability practices in management involving various stakeholders. However, the know-how of the involved communities is the product of years of practice through generations who understood perfectly that the sustainability of their resource, and therefore their survival, depends mainly on how they manage it and how they resolve conflicts and issues related to it.

This study presents seven examples of historic hydraulic structures from different geographic contexts as paradigms of indigenous knowledge in water governance. Its scope is to explore their potential in meeting the fundamental dimensions of good water governance and water integrity key principles and to present them as such. The presented hydraulic works, chosen from various places of the ancient world (e.g. Oman, Switzerland, Greece, China and Peru), are traditional gravity-flow water-supply systems whose functioning is based on eco-friendly and sustainable techniques.

Regarding the regime prevailing in the prehistoric civilizations (e.g. Minoan and Indus Valley), there are insufficient data and mainly there are no written data to substantiate what it was. Indirectly, however, the prevailing view is that the Minoan civilization (ca 3200–1150 BC), the first European civilization, is characterized by democratic elements that prove that it was not a dynasty like other neighboring cultures. The historian Hirschfeld (2013) reported that: This civilization (the Minoan) is an amazing paradox: A great force without military aristocracy, a palace that was not a royal residence where neither the king was glorified, a religion without greatness and that women were equal to men. On the other hand, Evans (1921–1935) described the Minoans by Pax minoica or Minoan peace, a period when cities did not have walls.

Similarly, the Indus civilization had a well-disciplined way of life, civic controls and an organizational system which could only have stemmed from the kind of ‘rule by the people’ that was exercised in some Greek city-states some 2,000 years later (Naqvi 1993). Did Greece give birth to democracy, or did Greece simply follow a practice developed earlier?

It is of course difficult to prove conclusively the existence of such a sophisticated concept of democracy until the Indus Valley script is deciphered and provides written evidence on the subject.

On the other hand, the rich inheritance of hydro-technologies in some prehistoric civilizations (e.g. Minoan and Indus Valley) should not be restricted only to its cultural value, but also, and more importantly, viewed as an example for sustainable hydraulic works (Angelakis 2017; Khan et al. 2020). Some of those (e.g. the drainage system of Knossos palace) were in operation for millennia.

During the time of the Iron Age (ca 1100–750 BC), which is known as a dark age (i.e. from the end of the Bronze Age to the beginning of the Archaic period around 750 BC), very little information exists and technological development is considered as being minimal.

In Archaic Greece (ca 750–500 BC) and especially during the times of Peisistratus, a tyrant of Athens, the well-known Peisistrateion aqueduct was constructed, a part of which is still operating today. It was built in the ca 6th–5th centuries. It has a length of 10 km (with the terminal section) and transfers water from the Hymettus sources to the centre of Athens. There are also wells and a tunnel of 14 m maximum depth.

In the Classical and Hellenistic periods (ca 500–150 BC), direct or no-representative Democracy, as a constitution, appeared in ancient Athens at the beginning of the 4th century BC and quickly spread throughout the world. Then Aristotle (384–322 BC) considered the right and fair state ‘politeia’ where: the opinion of the majority takes precedence over the opinion of the minority and is for the general interest and not for the interests of the rulers. At the top of the Column of the Democracy 337/336 BC, in the gallery of Attalos, there is a representation of Democracy crowning the Municipality or Demos (i.e. people) (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Democracy crowning the Municipality or Demos.

Figure 1

Democracy crowning the Municipality or Demos.

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Historical sources and archaeological excavations provide evidence that this cultural explosion occurred in Greece from very early Classical times (ca 480–336 BC) including various disciplines of water sciences and technologies.

Independent of the so called ‘dark ages’ democratic regimes have not had a direct influence on technological development. There is evidence for cultural explosions during the Bronze Age and Classical and Hellenistic periods (e.g. ancient Greeks, Chinese and Egyptians). It was known that the cultural and technological achievements in ancient Greece were mainly due to the limited resources, as it was stated by Plato (428–348 BC) that ‘need induces creativity’.

Water governance: the four fundamental dimensions

Possibly, some of the water management know-how that emerged in Classical periods was of Mesopotamian origin (Chatelin 2001 as cited in Krasilnikoff & Angelakis 2019). Indeed, the first known laws, established by the Sumerians around 2000 BC, focused mainly on social and economic aspects including solving conflicts and mandating compensation for diverse damages (Krasilnikoff & Angelakis 2019). However, the earliest regulations exclusively related to irrigation were established by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (ca 1792–1750 BC) who created his own code of laws, based on previous Sumerian laws, consisting of 282 regulations covering three main domains: (a) the distribution of water among farmers based on cultivated acres; (b) responsibilities in maintaining the water distribution network which were assigned to farmers on their respective lands; and (c) water apportionment and policy on irrigation arrangements as a collective responsibility among farmers (Harper 1904, Breasted 2003 and Richardson 2004 as cited in Krasilnikoff & Angelakis 2019). Later, in the middle of the 7th century BC, the Greeks published laws on stone slabs and Draco wrote the first Athenian laws handed down to us in ca 621–620 BC, the so-called ‘Draconian Constitution’, which was reformed by Solon about 20 years later, who introduced the principle of sharing the limited water resources of Attica for the benefit of the farmers in need of water (Stroud 1968 and Plutarch, Solon 23.4, as cited in Krasilnikoff & Angelakis 2019).

Water governance, as defined recently, ‘determines the equity and efficiency in water resource and services allocation and distribution, and balances water use between socio-economic activities and ecosystems’ (UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility 2016). It encompasses four fundamental dimensions: social, economic, political and environmental.

The social dimension implies the equitable distribution of water resources and services among various social and economic groups, and its effects on society; the economic dimension considers the efficiency in water allocation and use and the role of water in overall economic growth; the political dimension refers to equal rights and opportunities for water stakeholders to take part in decision-making processes; and the environmental dimension involves the sustainable use of water and related ecosystem services (UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility 2016).

Water integrity: definition and key principles

The Water Integrity Network (WIN), the UNESCO Institute for Water Education (IHE) and the Water Governance Centre organized in June 2013 the first Water Integrity Forum in Delft, The Netherlands. The Forum defined the core of water integrity as ‘the integrity of people and institutions governing water resources, decision making that is fair and inclusive, honest and transparent, accountable and free of corruption’ (International Water Integrity Forum 2013). The key principles of water integrity are Transparency, Accountability and Participation. ‘Transparency refers to citizens’ rights to access information. This makes citizens knowledgeable about the standards to expect from public officials and enables them to protect their rights’ (UNESCO-IHE WIN & WGC 2013). ‘Accountability is a mechanism to hold people and institutions accountable; adhering to implementation of set rules and standards. An individual in a public function or institution must answer for their actions and includes political, administrative, and financial dimensions’ (UNESCO-IHE WIN & WGC 2013). ‘Participation entails anyone affected by a decision should have the chance of intervening in and influencing such decisions; it fosters ownership as decisions are increasingly accepted and implemented jointly’ (UNESCO-IHE WIN & WGC 2013). Then, anti-corruption comes as a goal and also a consequence of the TAP concepts (International Water Integrity Forum 2013).

Sustainability and durability

Present-day engineers typically use a design period for structures of about 40–50 years, which is related to economic considerations. Sustainability, as a design principle, has entered the engineering lexicon within the last decade. It is difficult to infer the design principles of ancient engineers. Nevertheless, it is notable that several ancient works have operated for very long periods, into contemporary times. For example: (a) the falaj Ain Al-Awar in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar in northern Oman; (b) the bisse Torrent-Neuf in Savièse in Valais in southern Switzerland; (c) the draining and exploitation of lake Ptechae in Eretria city in Greece; (d) Lingqu Channel, which Emperor Qinshihuang assigned to Shi Lu to build in Guangxi, China; (e) the Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct in Shaanxi, China; (f) Du Jiang Yan hydraulic engineering in Szechuan, China; and (g) water wells in Peru. Several other paradigms are known in other parts of the world.

Historic hydraulic structures are man-made ancestral water systems that helped sedentism and the emergence of cities where water resources are usually rare or partly available across seasons. These structures ensuring perennial water supply over time are encountered in diverse regions around the world where they are still operational, in most cases. It appears that these systems build and animate human and non-human lives in regions under low water availability, more in general in arid regions from the East to Mexico in the West and every country in-between including Oman, Greece, China, and Peru.

Falaj Ain Al-Aouar in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar in northern Oman

Falaj (plural aflaj) is a traditional water acquisition system common to arid and semi-arid lands encountered in most parts of Oman. Through a network of channels, it also distributes water for communities of users across a city or a village and irrigates farmlands (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018). Ain Al-Aouar or falaj Al-Aouar is located upstream of the mountain Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar of the Al-Hajar chain, in the north of Wilayat Nizwa. It is an aini-type system. (There are three types of aflaj: aini, ghaili and dawoodi, distinguished by the type of the source of water they exploit. The first type conveys water from neighborhood springs, the second diverts water from wadis in rainy periods, and the third drains water from aquifers (Megdiche-Kharrat 2017a, 2017b).) It draws water from the spring of Ain Al-Aouar, which means in Arabic ‘the source of the one-eyed man’. The spring from which this falaj conveys its water is located at UTM coordinates 40 Q 0567928 E 2551836 N, and at an altitude of 1,934 m (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018).

The local community cannot specify the date of construction of the falaj; according to them, it has always existed. It is likely that this rural community settled in the region following the discovery of this water spring. This falaj, perched at an altitude of some 2,000 m and estimated to be 1,500 m in total length, supplies water mainly to three villages: Al-Ain, Al-Aquer and Al-Quachea (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018). Water is first collected in a retention basin, directly from the spring (Figure 2), before being transported in two separate branches to the exploitation areas. A first canal supplies water to the village of Al-Ain, with 400 beneficiaries who use currently about 2,000 m2 of agricultural land; the second canal supplies water to the village of Al-Quachea (about 200 beneficiaries), then to the village of Al-Aquer (about 250 beneficiaries) where it irrigates an additional 2,000 m2 of agricultural plots (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018). In total, the water currently (June 2015) available in the falaj allows about 0.5 ha of farmlands to be cultivated, which used to be much more in the near-past, before the years of drought, explained by one of the stakeholders interviewed on site. The physical characteristics of this falaj are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1

Physical characteristics of falaj Ain Al-Awar in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar in northern Oman (adapted from Megdiche-Kharrat 2018)

Name and codeFalaj Ain Al-Aouar and F2575
Type Aini 
Constructor Unknown 
Date of construction Not specified 
Location Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar (northern Oman) 
Geographic context Upstream Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar of the Al-Hajar chain 
Principal regions of exploitation Four villages : Al-Ain, Al-Aquer, Al-Quachea and Al–Ouj Al-Olya 
Total length About 1,500 m 
Number of branches 2 (channel 1 and channel 2) 
State Good 
Location of the spring 
UTM coordinates 40 Q 0567931 E 2551847 N 
Altitude 1,934 m 
Total area of farmlands (currently cultivated, June 2015) About 0.5 ha 
Products Fruit (pomegranate, apricot, apple, grapes, walnut, kiwi), rose, alfalfa and cereals 
Other activities Beekeeping and stock-breeding 
Name and codeFalaj Ain Al-Aouar and F2575
Type Aini 
Constructor Unknown 
Date of construction Not specified 
Location Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar (northern Oman) 
Geographic context Upstream Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar of the Al-Hajar chain 
Principal regions of exploitation Four villages : Al-Ain, Al-Aquer, Al-Quachea and Al–Ouj Al-Olya 
Total length About 1,500 m 
Number of branches 2 (channel 1 and channel 2) 
State Good 
Location of the spring 
UTM coordinates 40 Q 0567931 E 2551847 N 
Altitude 1,934 m 
Total area of farmlands (currently cultivated, June 2015) About 0.5 ha 
Products Fruit (pomegranate, apricot, apple, grapes, walnut, kiwi), rose, alfalfa and cereals 
Other activities Beekeeping and stock-breeding 

In 2014, the falaj was managed by a wakil (local appellation given to the director of the system who is in charge of its water management and is responsible for its good functioning and maintenance (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018)), Sheikh Hamed bin Ahmad Al-Mayahi; during our visit in June 2015, we noticed that the system was being managed by a six-person committee. Its representative, Sheikh Zaher bin Majid Al-Mayahi, aged 58, explained to us how the system works, which is very specific. Water is shared according to a nine-day cycle (dawaran) and daily cycles that vary slightly according to seasons: each day is divided into three irrigation periods, each allocated to a village (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018). Details of the distribution of the water provided by this falaj are explained in Table 2.

Table 2

Management and distribution of the water provided by falaj Ain Al-Awar in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar in northern Oman (adapted from Megdiche-Kharrat 2018)

DirectorManagement body of the falaj
Members 
Representative member Sheikh Zaher bin Majid Al-Mayahi 
Type of water management Distribution by irrigation cycle (dawaran
Number of days by cycle 9 (in June 2015) 
Water-sharing physical system Through retention basin and channels, regarding seasons 
Channel 1 
Provided village Al-Ain 
Irrigation timing 
  • In summer

  • In winter

 
From 5:30 to 17:00
From 6:00 to 17:15 
Number of beneficiaries 400 persons 
Total area of irrigated farmlands About 0.2 ha 
Channel 2 
Provided village 1 Al-Quachea 
Irrigation timing 
  • In summer

  • In winter

 
From 17:00 to midnight
From 17:15 to midnight 
Number of beneficiaries 200 persons 
Provided village 2 Al-Aquer 
Irrigation timing 
  • In summer

  • In winter

 
From midnight to 5:30
From midnight to 6:00 
Number of beneficiaries 250 persons 
Total area of irrigated farmlands More than 0.2 ha 
DirectorManagement body of the falaj
Members 
Representative member Sheikh Zaher bin Majid Al-Mayahi 
Type of water management Distribution by irrigation cycle (dawaran
Number of days by cycle 9 (in June 2015) 
Water-sharing physical system Through retention basin and channels, regarding seasons 
Channel 1 
Provided village Al-Ain 
Irrigation timing 
  • In summer

  • In winter

 
From 5:30 to 17:00
From 6:00 to 17:15 
Number of beneficiaries 400 persons 
Total area of irrigated farmlands About 0.2 ha 
Channel 2 
Provided village 1 Al-Quachea 
Irrigation timing 
  • In summer

  • In winter

 
From 17:00 to midnight
From 17:15 to midnight 
Number of beneficiaries 200 persons 
Provided village 2 Al-Aquer 
Irrigation timing 
  • In summer

  • In winter

 
From midnight to 5:30
From midnight to 6:00 
Number of beneficiaries 250 persons 
Total area of irrigated farmlands More than 0.2 ha 

This region is particularly known for its production of roses and rose water. Local farmers also grow alfalfa, cereals, mainly wheat, barley and maize, as well as various fruits such as pomegranate, apricot, grape, kiwi and walnut, and practice beekeeping and the stock-breeding of cows, goats, rabbits and poultry. According to Sheikh Zaher, the water shortage since 2013 is partly due to the recent wells and boreholes built upstream in the vicinity.

The presented characteristics and management specificities of falaj Ain Al-Awar meet to a large extent the requirements for good water governance at the local level and largely embody the principles of integrity in the water sector. In fact, this is not unique to this falaj, but Omani aflaj in general fit in the same category as follows:

  • (a)

    Aflaj are sustainable and environmentally friendly water acquisition systems adapted to a hot and dry climate as is the case in most parts of the country. They depend entirely on rainwater and runoff through gravity. In addition, the nature of crops is chosen regarding the climate, the soil and the availability of water.

  • (b)

    Around those systems, as is clearly noticed for falaj Ain Al-Awar, very specific social links are forged which organize local communities through the roles assigned in the management of their water resource. The various stakeholders are engaged in the good functioning of the system for the benefit of all.

  • (c)

    The water provided by aflaj is managed as a common-pool resource within a private common property frame. Conflicts are resolved and issues are treated by common agreements.

  • (d)

    As observed for this falaj, rules and regulations, set by the community of users themselves, are evaluated regarding changes and updates. By a common agreement, the responsibility of the management of the falaj moved from one nominated person to a group of persons chosen among the stakeholders.

The bisse of Savièse (Torrent-Neuf) in central Valais (Switzerland)

The bisse (also referred to as Rayes or Suonen, depending on the region; bisses are irrigation canals, typical of Valais in Switzerland, that divert water from streams, fed by the melting of glaciers and/or snow, and carry it to agricultural land) of Savièse, also named the Torrent-Neuf of Savièse or Sainte-Marguerite, is a historic hydraulic structure about 11 km long constructed before AD 1430 on the path of Torrent-Neuf, a mountain river in the commune of Savièse in central Valais, Switzerland (Gisiger 1997). This area is known for its typical climate, relatively dry and hot, which is quite different from the other regions in the neighbourhood. Indeed, central Valais extends spatially between two mountain ranges with peaks of 3,000 m to 4,000 m in altitude: the Valaisan Alps to the South and the Bernese Alps to the North; they protect the Rhône Valley, between Brig and Martigny, from Mediterranean and Atlantic depressions (Reynard 2008).

In general, the bisse system consists of four major components: the head of the bisse where the water is taken in, the main channel which transports the water, the water storage areas in land depressions forming lakes and ponds, and the water distribution network including secondary and tertiary channels and distribution points (Mariétan 1948). Bisses twist the landscape often openly, dug into the ground or suspended on the rocky walls by ‘boutzets’; the channels are sometimes covered or have sections in tunnels which, in many cases, replace the suspended parts for they are difficult to access and their maintenance is dangerous, which is properly the case for this bisse (Reynard et al. 2012). Indeed, in 1936, a 4,700 km long tunnel, named tunnel du Prabé, replaced the suspended part of the main channel (Mariétan 1948). The bisse of Savièse is still active (Figure 3), and it is providing water from Nétage and Morge at about 1,400 m altitude to irrigate the grasslands and vineyards of Savièse and Grimisuat, mainly (Gisiger 1997).

Figure 2

Falaj Ain Al-Awar in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar in northern Oman (February 2014): (a) retention basin and distribution channels (b) spring (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018).

Figure 2

Falaj Ain Al-Awar in Al-Jabal Al-Akhdhar in northern Oman (February 2014): (a) retention basin and distribution channels (b) spring (Megdiche-Kharrat 2018).

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The management of the water of the bisse has outlined the foundations of a social construction typical of the Valaisan community, which has been organized into users’ associations, called consortages (consortia). These are self-organized groups of all the beneficiaries of the water rights provided by bisses; they were previously created within the framework of a feudal organization of society and have managed to persist through several political systems to the present day (Reynard 2008). Moreover, these strong and lucid forms of community organization in the Valais have been recognized as national intangible heritage; this system of bisse has been classified as of cantonal importance (Reynard et al. 2012).

Regarding good governance and integrity in the water sector, the bisse, as a historic hydraulic structure, presents several characteristics that inscribes it in that field. This can be asserted as follows:

  • (a)

    The bisse is operating by simple gravity-flow taking advantage of the natural melting of glaciers and snow in the hot and dry season, from April to September, which allows the maintaining of farmland productivity during this period with neither overexploitation of the resource nor the loss of the water that flows naturally from upstream.

  • (b)

    The infrastructure and material aspects of bisses and their route have direct and indirect impacts on fauna and flora and local environments, generally, which make them major determinants of the construction of the adret landscape of central Valais. For example, the passage of a bisse on a rock face is often marked by a green line where some plant species take advantage of water losses on the path of the bisse to develop and to be established in the landscape. These losses also maintain sloping marshes such as the Ninda Marsh in Savièse, which owes its existence to the bisse Torrent-Neuf and which was listed in the Federal Inventory of Lowland Marshes of National Importance in 1994 (Reynard et al. 2012).

  • (c)

    The agricultural society of Valais is a self organized community centred on water resources following ad hoc approaches that have traced the specific features of the agrarian structure of the area, thus giving it a remarkable dynamic aspect. Also, the bisse is governed by a common agreement between the stakeholders which allows it to develop according to circumstances and needs.

  • (d)

    Within the consortia, there is a steering committee, a sort of magistrate of the bisse, whose main roles are to control the use of the water, the proper functioning of the bisse and its maintenance (Vautier 1997).

  • (e)

    Water users and various stakeholders (consorts) are also responsible for the maintenance of the part of the bisse passing by their lands and take part in decisions about the overall system (Vautier 1997).

The draining and exploitation of lake Ptechae, in Eretria city, in central Greece

Another interesting paradigm is the contract for draining and exploitation of lake Ptechae in Eretria in central Greece. The precise location of the land reclamation is not known. However, the two candidate locations are at about 6–8 km distance, east/southeast of the historic town of Eretria in southern Euboea. Both sites are valleys at 100 m above sea level, covered by clay formations with underlying inclined alternated layers of marbles and schist (Tassios 2006). The second candidate location coincides with the actual marshy area of Dystos, periodically flooded, even in our days. The project was probably referred to around the middle of the 4th century BC, just after a similar intervention in the lake of Kopaïs (Strabo, IX, 2, 18). In addition to the drainage of the lake, Walker (2004) suggested that an additional advantage of draining the lake was to prevent malaria.

The contractor of this remarkable public work was Hairephanēs, who probably originated from Megara, a city famous for its great engineers. However, Hairephanēs was acting as a representative of several partners (line 31 of the contract) or collaborators (line 39). That is another remarkable innovation in civil engineering businesses in ancient Greece (Tassios 2006). The other covenanter is the city-state of Eretria. A summary of the general conditions of the contract are as follows (Tassios 2006; Krasilnikoff & Angelakis 2019):

  • (a)

    Between the city of the Eretrians representing the municipalities of the Eretrian region and the contractor Hairephanēs, a contract is signed concerning the draining of the lake in Ptechae. The whole text of the main contract is written on stele EM11553, Epigraphical Museum, Athens, Greece (Figure 4).

  • (b)

    The contract contains rather detailed financial, taxation and legal provisions, as follows:

    • (i)

      All expenses are paid by the contractor (lines 2, 20).

    • (ii)

      A four-year construction period is agreed, which can be extended in case of war (lines 13–15).

    • (iii)

      Exemption of taxes is granted regarding imported materials (lines 3, 4).

    • (iv)

      Expropriations are allowed, but as distantly as possible from cultivated fields.

    • (v)

      The contractor and his staff are granted immunity from the local law.

    • (vi)

      The contractor is granted the right to exploit the dried fields for ten years, extended in case of war (line 17), commencing by the finishing of the drying works. Nevertheless, a lamp sum of 30 talents is agreed to be paid to the city.

    • (vii)

      In case of the death of the contractor, his heirs and collaborators will substitute him in the relations to the city (line 28).

    • (viii)

      The contractor is obliged to appoint six Eretria-citizens as guarantors; their names appear at the addendum of the contract (line 40), containing the final enactment voted by the Eretrian Parliament and the Assembly.

    • (ix)

      In compensation, extreme sanctions were voted by the Eretrians to be applied against anyone attempting to cancel the execution of the contract (line 30).

    • (x)

      Moreover, the contract was ‘signed’ by as many as 230 citizens of Eretria; all of them (their names appear on the back side of the stele) had taken an oath to respect the agreement.

  • (c)

    The technical provisions: unfortunately, half of the contract is lost. However, an overview of several clauses of the preserved text allow for the following technical description (Tassios 2006):

    • (i)

      Drainage works include the construction of drainage canals, sewers, and wells for the drainage of water to natural underground holes or cracks and miscellaneous protection works, including wooden or metallic railings (line 22).

    • (ii)

      Underground drains (φρεατίαι) are also mentioned (line 18).

    • (iii)

      All drains lead to a central drainage tunnel (sewer) (lines 18, 23, 25 and 27).

    • (iv)

      Irrigation works, such as the construction of a reservoir with side length up to two stadia (360 m) for storing irrigation water, and sluice gates, are included in the project (lines 22–27).

    • (v)

      Appropriate sluices (δρύφακτοι) are provided (line 24) for water distribution, to and from the reservoir.

    • (vi)

      The maintenance of all parts of the facility is clearly imposed (line 23) on the contractor, for ten years.

  • (d)

    Environmental provision: trenches and channels should be located outside cultivated lands (lines 20, 21).

Figure 3

The bisse of Savièse, Torrent-Neuf, in central Valais, Switzerland: sluice gate and channel feeding the artificial lake Les Ouchelets (courtesy of F. Megdiche-Kharrat, UTM coordinates: 32 T 0373470 E 5122564 N, alt. 733 m, November 2018).

Figure 3

The bisse of Savièse, Torrent-Neuf, in central Valais, Switzerland: sluice gate and channel feeding the artificial lake Les Ouchelets (courtesy of F. Megdiche-Kharrat, UTM coordinates: 32 T 0373470 E 5122564 N, alt. 733 m, November 2018).

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Finally, the technical and juristic information contained in the ‘Ptekhae treaty’ confirm that it is considered the first BOOT (build, own, operate, transfer) project worldwide it is admired for ‘this first truly entrepreneurial business culture, an economic system distantly related to the Anglo-American consumer and shareholder capitalism of our day’ (Zanakis et al. 2003).

The Lingqu Channel in northwestern Guangxi (China)

The Lingqu Channel is a symbol of united China (Figure 5). After the Qin Empire and the unification of central China, the Censor, Shi Lu, was assigned by Emperor Qinshihuang to build the Lingqu Channel in 219 BC for grain transport from northern to southern regions to support the military activities of the unification of the south. This channel, also known as Dou Channel or Xing'an Canal, is located in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is an ancient canal that was completed in 214 BC after over five years of construction and connects Xiang River with Li River and finally links two large river basins of the Yangtze River Pearl River, connecting the south to central China. It has a total length of 37 km and includes the diversion dam, the overshoot and two sections, the southern and the northern ones (Baba et al. 2018). It was originally purposed for military activities of the unification but it also played an important role in local urban water supply, irrigation and water transportation, and in the connection of the civilizations of the north and the south for subsequent ages.

Figure 4

Inscription of the treaty from the Epigraphical Museum of Athens (Tassios 2006).

Figure 4

Inscription of the treaty from the Epigraphical Museum of Athens (Tassios 2006).

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The nominated property of the Lingqu Canal meets the requirements of sustainability and integrity specified in the operational guidelines as follows:

  • (a)

    First of all, the hydraulic system of the canal has all the core elements supporting its effective operation.

  • (b)

    The whole canal is linked up for traffic whilst each section of the canal remains intact, and hydraulic facilities, except the dismountable components (locks) of Doumen and weirs and some missing components (e.g. some posts of Doumen), are preserved with sufficient scale and fully and effective operation.

  • (c)

    The overall project is not under urgent and severe threat. Traditional agricultural production and ecological landscape are preserved in most of the region. In some areas (e.g. inside Xing'an County) with the pressure of urbanization, regulations and plans have been developed for effective conservation.

Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct

Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct is a former aqueduct of the large irrigated areas in central Shaanxi Province. It is located at the north bank of Jing He River at a distance of 25 km from today's Jing Yang County town (Figure 6(a)). This aqueduct was constructed in 246 BC by Zheng Guo, when the Qin State was still in growth before the foundation of united China. One original diversion pass of the river water for irrigation which was built in the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) and well maintained today is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 5

The Lingqu Channel with the diversion dam and part of the Xiang River on the left side without any water flow (courtesy of A. N. Angelakis).

Figure 5

The Lingqu Channel with the diversion dam and part of the Xiang River on the left side without any water flow (courtesy of A. N. Angelakis).

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Originally, before Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct was constructed, the lands were very poor in the central part of Shaanxi with low harvest. It was very difficult for this situation to support the Qin State's quick growth, and especially to support its military. Accordingly, the aqueduct was purposed to take water from Jing He River to irrigate the central areas of Qin territory to improve irrigation and increase agriculture. In 246 BC, Zheng Guo with the permission of the king of the Qin State led the construction of the aqueduct. After ten years of construction, the aqueduct was built successfully. It took water from Jing He River to the irrigated areas and then linked with Lo Shui River, with 300 km length. After the construction of the aqueduct, the basin of the aqueduct was transformed from poor soil condition to be a well irrigated area. According to the historical record, largely poor farmlands were irrigated, and at the same time the farmlands were enlarged due to the improvement of irrigation. Additionally, the conditions of the land, including salinization of the soil, were much improved due to the water from Jing He River, which was rich in sediments. Therefore, the irrigated area was transformed to be a good harvest area. According to the historical record, people in the central areas of the Qin State no longer suffered from weather disasters. In addition, the most important thing was that the rich harvest effectively supported the strong military of the Qin State. The Qin State became a strong state, and as a result of this change, Qin conquered other states and established the first united country in Chinese history, the Qin Dynasty (Li Hong 2005).

The technological aspect of the aqueduct was advanced in that time. It was a gravity-driven aqueduct taking water from the river into the irrigated area. According to archaeological discovery, an earth dam was built to increase water level after the intake of the aqueduct. This means that hydraulic techniques, especially the technique of dam construction, were developed to a high level in that time (Zhao & Qin 1987). According to the historical record, it flowed across some rivers on the way without floodgates, and it was also a mystery due to the lack of record regarding how the aqueduct was built, crossing the rivers, and how the flood was controlled without floodgates (Chen 2007, pp. 11–13).

Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct is an initiative of the irrigated areas in central Shaanxi. After its construction, there were many aqueducts constructed following the Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct or depending on Zheng Guo Qu irrigated channels. For example, a new aqueduct Zheng Bei Qi was built in 95 BC. Unfortunately, Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct was destroyed several hundred years later. But, following the Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct construction, an irrigated network with aqueducts and channels was constructed for effective irrigation during the Tian Dynasty in around the tenth century in central Shaanxi areas. Its maintenance and reconstruction lasted until the 1980s, and this has transformed the irrigated areas of the former Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct to a rich agricultural region into the present day. In summary, the Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct meets the core idea of water sustainability and integrity as follows:

  • (a)

    It is a project in harmony with the environment, of gravity-driven engineering. Its design and construction depended on local environmental conditions but did not much affect the environment.

  • (b)

    The purpose of the construction was to improve the local farming conditions; therefore, it was beneficial for the local communities and the farmers and improved the local economy. The local people participated in the construction and in the management of the water.

  • (c)

    It was a sustainable project. Depending on the initiative and the foundation of Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct, the irrigation network was rebuilt continually to form a largely irrigated area and has been functioning for more than two thousand years until today.

Du Jiang Yan hydraulic engineering

Du Jiang Yan hydraulic engineering is located above the Min Jiang River around 50 km from Chengdu City, the capital of Sichuan Province. It was built during 256–251 BC by Li Bing, the governor of Zu Prefecture (today's Sichuan Province) of Qin State. Mainly, it is a hydraulic structure that divides the Min Jiang River into two waterways, one way as the main waterway and the other one is for introducing water into the Chengdu Flatland for irrigation, but this structure also functioned for flood control and water transportation, becoming non-dam diversion engineering (Figure 7). According to the historical record, the primary purpose of the construction was for water transportation, and it was maybe to meet the purpose of developing the territory during the age of the Qin State’ s growth, but later it functioned for irrigation and for flood control mainly (Wu 2009).

Figure 6

The Jing He River: (a) the original intake place of Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct (courtesy of Xiao Yun Zheng); (b) part of a river diversion pass (courtesy of A. N. Angelakis).

Figure 6

The Jing He River: (a) the original intake place of Zheng Guo Qu aqueduct (courtesy of Xiao Yun Zheng); (b) part of a river diversion pass (courtesy of A. N. Angelakis).

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Min Jaing River is the tributary with maximum water flow of the Yangtze River, and it is the main source of water supply of Chengdu Flatland. But before the river reaches the flatland, the upstream basin is precipitous. The distance from the Du Jiang Yan structure to Chengdu City is 50 km but there is 273 m difference in attitude. Regarding local weather conditions, 80% of the yearly rainfall occurs in the term of May to October. Therefore, local people often suffered flooding in the summer raining season; even the farmlands and residential areas were destroyed. But in winter, people suffered drought due to lack of rainfall in the upstream basin of the river. Accordingly, the Ming Jiang River was the main resource of water supply but simultaneously it was the major natural risk to Chengdu Flatland; local safety and development were greatly enslaved to the river. In 256 BC, Li Bing started the construction of Du Jiang Yan hydraulic engineering at the conjunction of the river flows from the mountain into the flatland. Once the construction was completed, the flooding from Ming Jiang River was controlled effectively and it irrigated large farmlands in Chengdu Flatland, which made it an abundant area in the region (Chen 2007, p. 9).

The engineering aspect of the work consisted in the building of a large dyke inside the river to divide the waterway into two ways, and then digging a canal at the right side of the waterway (the river flow direction) to take water from the river to the canal and then to the irrigated areas of Chengdu Flatland. The main structure included three parts: the dyke (Jing Ti), the dam (Fei Sa Yan) and the mouth of the canal (Bao Ping Kou). The front end of the dyke is a hard structure built with stones to divide the river into two ways called the inside river and outside river. Then the dam was built between the dyke and the mouth of the canal to increase the water level. Finally, water was taken from the mouth into the canal to the irrigated areas. Depending on the seasonal change of the water yield, water is controlled by the dam, the canal mouth and other dykes. Usually, water is controlled seasonally in a way that 60% flows into the outside river and 40% flows into the inside river in summer, then the inverse in winter to ensure the water supply of the canal for irrigation in winter and to control the flood in summer. The structure was rebuilt continually for subsequent years and has been well-functioning for more than two thousand years to the present-day (Xu 2006).

After the construction of Du Jiang Yan hydraulic engineering, the flood was controlled effectively in Chengdu Flatland; at the same time, water supply responded to the increasing demands for irrigation and urbanization. It also improved water transportation in the irrigated and the urban areas, driving trade and urban development (Lo & Tan 2001).

The characteristics of Du Jiang Yan hydraulic engineering relating to sustainability and integrity are reflected as below:

  • (a)

    This work is in harmony with the environment, and the system of hydraulic engineering has been driven by gravity for more than two thousand years. Designed and constructed depending on the local natural conditions, it does not much change the waterway and local nature but it greatly improved the local environment for human residence and subsistence (Chen 2003).

  • (b)

    Commonality is a main character of Du Jiang Yan engineering. It was purposed to be constructed to control the flood and improve the local irrigation and local economy without a private affiliation. For more than two thousand years, water reached the farmland and residential area in the rural and urban areas by the canal to meet local demands.

  • (c)

    The function of the work was under a good administrative institutional environment. The management was divided into two parts: the main structure (Du Jiang Yan) and the irrigated channels. From its early construction, the management of the Du Jiang Yan main structure was the responsibility of the national and the provincial governments, for twenty centuries. The main works of management were for maintaining the structure, including digging, the sludge of the waterway and the consolidation of the dykes, yearly. The water yield was managed seasonally to ensure the structure's safety. These works were hard and costly but the costs were funded by the central government usually in peace-time. The channels in the irrigated areas were managed by the local governments, at different levels, and by the communities in a way that the costs were shared by the water users equally. In this case, the locals participated in the management of the water facilities.

  • (d)

    The Du Jiang Yan structure is sustainable engineering. This structure and the linked irrigation system have been working for more than two thousand years, to the present day, and may work for subsequent future generations (Zheng et al. 2015). Enlarging irrigated areas dependent on the old form of the irrigation system is continuing today. During its historical periods, local people developed many techniques and depended on previous techniques to improve better techniques for water management; these are remarkable achievements that are still in use today (Yao 1987).

Water wells in Peru

The Nazca culture is without a doubt one of the most enigmatic ancient cultures of Peru from ca 100 BC to AD 800. These ancient peoples developed drainage systems, beside the arid southern coast of Peru, in the river valleys of the Rio Grande and the Ica valley, in one of the driest and most arid deserts on the planet (Silverman & Proulx 2002). It is today known as Ica, in modern day Peru, with a series of spiraling holes, known as puquios (Figure 8). The Nazca civilization had apparently been developing this type of well in the Peruvian desert where they utilized them thousands of years ago as a ‘sophisticated’ irrigation system in the desert (Klimczak 2016). There are several such systems at Cantalloc (Cantayo) which resemble the qanats (aflaj). The extremely advanced hydraulic system still functions today. However, these water wells and tunnels have never been understood completely.

Figure 7

An aerial view of Du Jiang Yan structures (courtesy of Xiao Yun Zheng).

Figure 7

An aerial view of Du Jiang Yan structures (courtesy of Xiao Yun Zheng).

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Figure 8

Spiraling holes, known as puquios, in Peru.

Figure 8

Spiraling holes, known as puquios, in Peru.

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The cases from the different locations and historical ages chosen in this paper all meet the principles of water integrity. Firstly, the purposes of hydraulic system construction were clearly for improvement of the local water supply, especially for agricultural irrigation. In this case, the systems reflect their public characters and sharing of common interests between the managing administration and the stakeholders. The construction of these systems was not controlled under personal or group-based interests; they have benefited all the stakeholders related to the system.

Secondly, the hydraulic works meet the principles of transparency and accountability. The hydraulic works functioned for water supply and irrigation and are generally managed as private common ownership systems led by a managing administration; they have already built the integrity of the water resource, as well as the integrity of people and related institutions. These systems, from ancient ages to now and from large scale to small scale, all show transparent and fair water use and ensure that water can reach residential areas and farmlands. Transparency and fairness are tangible in the effective, transparent and participatory aspects of water management. Regarding the cases in China, the construction of the works was led by the governments but relied on the participation of the farmers too; it also brought rights of water use and management to the farmers. Accordingly, the main frames of the works were usually managed by the governments but the downstream of the system was managed by the communities depending on local norms and regulations, for sharing interests and accountability. For the case in Greece, transparency was reflected in the fact that the work's construction depended on a contract that fixed the interests and the accountabilities between the stakeholders. The cases in Oman and Switzerland have been managed by self-organized committees formed among the stakeholders, within the related communities. Their management relies on direct contact between the governing body and multi-stakeholders. Participating in the management requires transparency and fairness in the process of the management; it is an inseparable principle between these elements.

Thirdly, it is worth noting that transparency, equity and participation are the foundation of the sustainability of hydraulic systems. These systems have been functioning for more than two thousand years; they have relied on transparent, inclusive, fair and participatory management, in general. We cannot say they always meet these principles perfectly, but these systems could not be functioning to the present day without the practice of these principles. Accordingly, these hydraulic systems are sustainable systems that depend not just on sustainable design but also on the integrity of their water management.

Within a context of global water crisis and inequity in access to fresh water among communities worldwide, the historic hydraulic structures have shown a traditional integrity and have insured equity in access to water for multi-stakeholders. They also have maintained life-sustaining ecosystems and have ensured energy and still continue providing fresh water and food for growing generations in some countries. They constitute a priceless lesson to learn from when dealing with actual social, political and environmental issues related to the water sector. Indeed, it is quite clear that hydraulic structures, through the chosen examples from different geographic contexts, involve not only their physical systems, but also cultural frames and social lifestyles very compatible with local environments.

Finally, it is now well documented that modern-day hydro-technologies have a foundation dating back three to four thousand years (Zheng & Angelakis 2018). These achievements include technologies such as dams, drainage systems, aqueducts, and water mills. These technologies have played an important role in the process of civilization growth in several places of the world. Also, it shows that the use of traditional knowledge may play a major role in solving some of the present-day and future water resource sustainability issues, especially in developing parts of the world. Today, a lot of urban water-related problems are strongly related to changes in and/or destruction of historical water systems. Undoubtedly, ‘our past can teach us a lot’.

A portion of the material included in this paper was presented in the 5th IWA International Symposium on Water Technologies in Ancient Civilizations: ‘Evolution of technologies from prehistory to modern times’, 11–13 September 2019, Dead Sea, Jordan. Also, it is a pleasant duty for the authors to thank very gratefully all those who helped in this study, experts, researchers and various actors from Oman, Switzerland, Greece and China.

All relevant data are included in the paper or its Supplementary Information.

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