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Water management in Mesopotamia from the sixth till the first millennium B.C.

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The organization of ancient water control and irrigation has been a matter of debate in particular with regard to the role of the state. More often than not a deeply centralized management is assumed, especially for large‐scale water control and irrigation systems, despite the lack of empirical evidence. Such assumptions are frequently based on the perception that irrigation and water control requires a massive (though often unquantified) amount of capital investment, labor, and a level of coordination and cooperation which could only be provided and enforced by a central authority. Given that most early civilizations, in particular of the Old World developed in river valleys, allegedly supported such notions of a close correlation between water management and socio‐political complexity. More recently, claims about heavy state involvement in ancient irrigation and water management has been called into question, often however without being able to provide evidence for alternative explanations. Reason being that for most relevant cases we lack the necessary empirical evidence to measure the level of state involvement in the management of water and irrigation. The major exception is Mesopotamia with its exceptionally rich archeological and textual record on ancient water control which allows for a more nuanced understanding of the actual role of ancient states in the organization of irrigation and water management. This article reviews this evidence from the sixth till the first millennium B.C. and shows that state involvement in the organization of irrigation and water control within the same environmental context varied considerably over the course of several millennia. I argue for a close correlation between the level of state involvement in irrigation and water management and the way arable land was exploited by state institutions. In addition, I argue that environmental changes at times warranted state interventions out of necessity but also to the ideological concept of rulership as the protector and provider of agricultural profusion. WIREs Water 2017, 4:e1230. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1230 This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change Human Water > Water Governance
Difference in water levels of the Tigris at Baghdad (1906–1932) and at Amarah (1918–1932). (Source: Ionides: pp. 45, 153, 180, table 96, 191, table 98.)
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Herring‐bone patterned irrigation system (based on Vaumas 1965: Pl. XXII).
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Crevasse splay in the western plain of southern Iraq. (Courtesy of Wilkinson et al., p. 403, figure 5.)
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The Euphrates and Tigris river system and the location of ancient sites.
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Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water
Human Water > Water Governance
Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change

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