Thousands of years ago, parts of Mexico and Central America that are barren today were home to flourishing civilizations. Despite tough climate and soil conditions that make modern-day farming seem nearly impossible, the ancient Maya prospered.
Ezgi Akpinar Ferrand, assistant professor of geography, thinks the secret lies in a relatively low-tech method for collecting and conserving rain water, and believes these primitive techniques could help people in developing nations today.
So in June, Akpinar Ferrand will join a team of researchers in Pich, Mexico to reconstruct an ancient Mayan pond-and-canal irrigation system, which she hopes will help struggling farmers now living in the village. If successful, the team hopes to teach the village of 2,000 people how to grow indigenous crops organically, which they can then sell to surrounding resort towns.
The project was recently featured in a cover story last month in Global South Development Magazine as one of “12 Initiatives Taking Positive Steps Towards a Healthier, Fairer and More Sustainable Food and Agriculture System.”
“If successfully reconstructed, this system would help nourish the surrounding land, increase income and water security and be a model for other populations living in the area,” the article says.
The ancient Maya lived in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and parts of El Salvador from around 1,000 B.C. until the civilization’s collapse sometime after 1,000 A.D.
Akpinar Ferrand first began studying the Mayan water management system while researching her doctoral dissertation at the University of Cincinnati. But it was while interning at the U.N. Environment Programme, studying climate change, that she began thinking about the possibility of using her research to solve present-day problems such as hunger and drought.
Akpinar Ferrand was trying to understand how the ancient Maya could overcome the challenges of their terrain and climate while modern-day populations have failed. The hardships include alternating rainy and dry seasons, poor soil and a landscape riddled with sinkholes that cause rain water to seep underground.
She says the ancient Maya figured out a way to use a series of natural and man-made ponds known as aguadas to collect and store their rain water. They lined the ponds with natural materials such as clay, stone or plaster and built silting tanks at their entrances to filter the water. By building berms and dredging, they were able to maximize the ponds’ capacity.
The ancient Maya used the water not only for washing and drinking, but for agricultural crops and possibly even for fish farming, by building a series of canals and raised fields, according to Akpinar Ferrand.
“They were pretty savvy with their natural resources and we don’t do the same thing today,” she says.
Since thousands of abandoned aguadas continue to exist in many of the regions where the ancient Maya lived, Akpinar Ferrand says it makes sense to try to reconstruct them to help boost economic opportunities there. She says villagers in the Yucatan peninsula need an irrigation system that is low-tech, inexpensive and relatively easy to adopt.
“The underground water in that area is very deep and could be up to several hundred feet underground,” she says. “To pump that is quite a lot of work and a lot of money. With this, you don’t need a lot of money or very complex technology. You just need a little bit of human power.”
The Pich, Mexico project is being led by ethnographer Betty Faust of the Centro de Investigacion Cientifica de Yucatan, located in Merida, Yucatan, and archaeologist Armando Anaya of the University Autonoma de Campeche.
The team is seeking a grant from National Geographic to help fund the project. Akpinar Ferrand says the first phase will involve paleoenvironmental field work to help the team better understand the canal and raised field system before it begins reconstruction.
“This reconstruction of old technology is not something that’s been tried,” Akpinar Ferrand says. “If it works, maybe it can be a model that would ultimately make sense to policymakers and local governments.”
In a related project, Akpinar Ferrand is working with Southern student Fatima Cecunjanin, a sophomore majoring in geography, to research how rainwater harvesting can help regions of the world deal with climate change. Vulnerable regions such as Western North America, Central America, Southern Asia and East Asia could benefit.
Cecunjanin will present a poster highlighting their work at the 2013 American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.