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A long straight ditch with a little water in the bottom - irrigation farming

Irrigation farming: an irrigation canal in Mali (Africa)

Dry farming (without irrigation)

Often people farm in a place where enough rain falls during the year (and at the right times) to water the plants just with rainfall. Farmers don’t have to worry about the plants getting enough rain. That’s called “dry farming” because the farmers don’t have to carry water to the plants.

History of farming
Farming in ancient Egypt
Why does it rain?
More weather articles

What is irrigation?

But in other places, like Egypt or the Arabian peninsula, it hardly rains at all. Farmers can’t rely just on the rainfall to water their crops. They have to find some way of getting water from the river to their fields. That’s called “wet farming,” or “irrigation farming,” and the way they get water from the river is called “irrigation.” The word comes from Latin words, meaning maybe to lead (water) somewhere, or to go in a straight line .(Nobody is sure which.)

Where is the Arabian Peninsula?

A shaduf

A shaduf used for irrigation

Different ways to irrigate the fields

There are lots of different ways to get water from the river to the fields. One way is just to carry it yourself in buckets, and plenty of people irrigated this way in the ancient and medieval periods (and plenty of people still do today). But it’s very hard work carrying water in buckets, and you can’t carry very much even if you work very hard. Even a donkey or an ox can’t carry enough water to irrigate big fields.

Project: carrying water in a bucket

Irrigation kit

Install an irrigation kit in your own garden and save water and trouble!

Using a lever to move water

So whenever they can, people use some kind of machine to help them carry the water. Often this is a lever: a long wooden pole with a bucket on one end so people can hold the other end of the pole and lower the bucket into the water and then raise it and swing it around and dump it into a canal that is a little higher up, and that carries the water to the fields. In Egypt, people call this machine a shaduf.

What is a lever?
Types of levers
Project: build your own shaduf

Water wheels and irrigation

Or sometimes people use a water wheel to lift the water up and dump it into the canal. The first water wheels were probably in India. They were wheels that people or donkeys pushed around and around so they would lift up water from the river and pour it into a canal. Later on, people figured out how to use the water itself to turn the water wheel. That way the water can power the lifting as well as feeding the crops.

India and the water wheel

Did you find out what you wanted to know about irrigation farming? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: building a shaduf
More about early farming

Bibliography and further reading about irrigation

Ancient Agriculture: From Foraging to Farming, by Michael and Mary Woods (2000). For middle schoolers, with plenty of information about how farming got started, and how it worked.

Engineering in the Ancient World, by John Landels (revised edition 2000).

Greek and Roman Technology : A Sourcebook, edited by John Humphrey, John Oleson, and Andrew Sherwood (1998). A collection of essays by specialists about different things people made or invented around the ancient Mediterranean, including irrigation machines like water wheels. Humphrey is a very careful and thorough researcher.

Greek and Roman Technology, by K. D. White (1984). The classic in this field for the last twenty years. Pretty easy to understand.

Build an Egyptian shaduf
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