Acequia is the Spanish and Arabic word that describes the ancient system of irrigation that, in Andalusia and other parts of Spain, is still the lifeline of small scale agriculture. Much is written of the great old muslim cities of Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada but these are famous of course for their buildings which are just monuments for tourists to gawp at. And beautiful places they are indeed but dead in many ways as well – just relics of a lost world. The acequias, on the other hand, are for me, a living and quite miraculous vestige of a civilisation which was overwhelmed by the greed of the reconquistadors who led Spain into five centuries of darkness, tyranny, injustice and famine. Culminating of course in the Spanish Civil war which ended in 1939.
Most ascequias are private associations which levy a very reasonable fee for a year’s rights to water….and a lot of it too. I speak here from practical experience having used and benefited from them for the last five years. Your land, if it has water rights, is flooded with water at a fixed time in the month or week or else when the neighbour has finished and your time comes. It varies with every association but the farmers jealously guard this life giving resource. Early on when I didn’t fully understand the system I once had an irate farmer jumping up and down waving his arms around in protest at my having taken his time for the water.
The first time my land was flooded with acequia water it was night time and for an hour or so I was wandering around up to my knees in water and mud trying divert it where it was needed with just a torch and a shovel. It was exciting, mysterious and primordial, something which many must have experienced down the centuries. Just you and all this water. Although for much of the year it is very dry here, you learn to respect water as when it does come (like the winter rains) it sweeps everything before it as it comes down the mountain. The most powerful of the natural elements that we daily deal with and so essential to our lives.
The summers are scorching hot here in the Alpujarras – a region which lies in a large valley to the south of the great Sierra Nevada mountain range that is to the south of Granada and which you see in the distance towering behind the famed Alhambra Palace in that city. But despite the heat, the acequia water can flood a field or terrace very quickly with enough water to keep the ground wet enough till the next allotted time, whenever that is, sometimes 10 days or two weeks later. The water itself comes from a variety of sources, mostly river water from the high Sierras but also from wells when the rivers dry up in mid summer. For anyone who grows crops, vegetables or fruit trees or who even just maintains a garden of any sort it is the great giver of life. The acequias also feed the wild flora and fauna of the valleys as the old water courses invariably leak. Without this it would be an arid landscape. Most of the old water courses that I know have been in use for over 500 years and very likely go back much further and are an engineering marvel considering how hostile the area must have been to the first inhabitants up here. I for one would love to know more about them and I’m pretty sure there are detailed histories in Spanish libraries if only my Spanish was better. They really are a living miracle and one of the very tangible legacies of the Moorish presence here not forgetting of course the orange, lemon, grapefruit and pomegranate trees, rice, jasmin, cherries, apricots, saffron and, and, and…