The importance of irrigation systems in Mesopotamia to the continued existence of the ancient accounts for why the Mesopotamians were so creative in inventing, developing, and maintaining them. The earliest efforts to control the flow of water were in Mesopotamia and Egypt. While it happened some 6,000 years ago, the ruins of prehistoric irrigation works from the era still exist today.

This article discusses the reasons behind the creation of irrigation systems by Mesopotamians and tries to answer one question: how did irrigation help early civilizations?

Did Mesopotamians Invent Irrigation?

The Mesopotamians did not invent irrigation. The credit goes to an Egyptian king called Menes in 6,000 BC. Menes used dams and canals to channel the flow of the Nile River into farmlands.

The major problem with this irrigation system was that it was hard to predict when the flooding by the river would occur. An invention called the Nilometer was later used to gauge the level of the Nile River and used to indicate the time the flood would occur.

However, the Mesopotamians introduced several inventions that were the first of their kind for irrigation. The creation of levees, for example, is unique to the Sumerians that occupied Mesopotamia at some point. To make this, they raised the soil against the river and made holes at the side of the levees when the time was right to provide water to the crops.

Why Did the Mesopotamians Create Irrigation Systems?

Mesopotamians created irrigation systems to protect their land and agricultural produce against water damage. The irrigation system was also crucial to ensure a stable supply of water for cultivated crops and livestock.

Thanks to this system, in Mesopotamia stable food supply was not usually an issue.

Irrigation in Mesopotamia was first conducted by drawing water from the Tigris-Euphrates river system directly onto the fields using small canals. They also used Shadufs, which are crane-like water lifts that have existed in Mesopotamia since 3000 BC. Irrigation was highly vital to Mesopotamia. Irrigation was the first example of engineering that the Mesopotamians created.

In addition to city walls and temples, the Sumerians dug the canals in southern Mesopotamia, which was the world’s first engineering work. There are records of successive fights over water rights to emphasize how necessary irrigation was to the Mesopotamian people.

Ancient Mesopotamia Irrigation Model

The ancient Mesopotamian irrigation model was a development that still influenced modern agriculture irrigation. The region’s earliest inhabitants drained the swampy lands and built canals through the dry areas to irrigate the land.

This model was also done in a few other places before Mesopotamian times. What made Mesopotamia the home of the first irrigation culture was that the irrigation system was built according to a plan. An organized workforce was essential and available to keep the system maintained.

The Sumerians had made canals between the two rivers that enclosed Mesopotamia, Tigris and Euphrates. These Mesopotamia canals took water out of one river and distributed it among many agricultural fields.

The canals, then, led to the other river. Mesopotamians made these canals by digging a trench, then stacking up dirt on both sides while creating breaks when needed to water plants.

Much later, the Sumerians made their levees. Levees are embankments made through floods and built up over time. They are perpendicular to the surface of the water.

The Sumerians replicated this by making small walls by fire-hardening reeds, tying them together, and filling their edges with mud. They then proceed to attach clay bricks to the exterior. Afterward, they built canals leading inland. This system of irrigation is the foundation of what we know as modern irrigation in today’s world.

What Is the Importance of Irrigation to Mesopotamian Agriculture?

The importance of irrigation to Mesopotamian agriculture was immense as they learned how to domesticate plants and animals as far back as about 10,000 years ago. As a result of irrigation, farming in Mesopotamia became easier with fewer worries about too much or little water.

Instead, sufficient water from the two mighty rivers flooded every spring, depositing nutrient-rich silt on the already fertile soil. As a result, significant crops planted included barley, dates, wheat, lentils, beans, olives, grapes, and vegetables; in short, everything that was needed for a rich and balanced diet.

Without the irrigation system, there would have been no Mesopotamia at all. It was the foundation on which the Mesopotamian civilization thrived. During floods, they redirected water obtained from the river, thereby saving their crops from destruction in the process. This was done because the rivers had enough silts in them, which could have hurt their crops.

However, people helped change the arrangement of the canals and clean up the silt from the previous ones every year. While this system was efficient, it could be easily manipulated, which meant it could get destroyed easily.

The Problems With the Irrigation System in Mesopotamia

One of the significant problems with the irrigation system in Mesopotamia was silting. This problem descended from the fact that the Tigris and Euphrates carried so much silt when the rivers flowed into the dug basins.

The resultant effect was that the muds filled up the basin, thereby reducing the water stored. The farmers then had to either drill the basins again or deal with water scarcity.

Another problem was the freezing up of the rivers during winter. This problem also reduced the amount of water that flowed into the canals. The farmers also had to deal with the accumulation of salt on the farmlands, which refers to salinization, reducing the fertility of the soil.

According to some historical accounts, the excessive amount of salt in the Mesopotamia farmlands was the cause that eventually led to the end of the civilization of the area, as the once-fertile soil became increasingly sterile.

Why Was Contact With Neighboring Lands Important?

Contact with neighbouring lands was necessary because the natural resources the Mesopotamians had were not many. While Mesopotamia had a stable supply of food because of their irrigation system, they still needed to trade with neighbouring lands for other resources. The resources they obtained through trade included jewelry, ornaments, and weapons.

Mesopotamians established import and export trade routes to facilitate the exchange of resources. For example, while Mesopotamians export their grains, basket, and fine textiles, they import Arabian copper, Egyptian Gold, and Persian Tin.

When the Mesopotamians invented wheels and sails, trading activities received a boost. With the wheels, various goods travelled long distances on land. The sail was crucial for trades that happened across water bodies. However, what formed the bulk of long-distance trading activities was the use of caravans. Donkeys served as beasts of burden in these caravans that stretched for miles.

Caravans were efficient because donkeys could travel four to five miles per day carrying heavy loads. While this looked like a bit of distance compared to today’s transportation system, it meant a lot then. In addition, this system of travelling with a long chain of merchants also served as a defence against thieves.

Mesopotamia Climate and Geography

Mesopotamia’s climate and geography also played a massive role in building irrigation systems because of the agricultural activities in the area. While the climate had hot summers and sporadic rains, other features such as the presence of the twin rivers made these harsh conditions bearable.

The twin Rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, also encouraged the settlement of dwellers in this area. These two rivers flow down the Taurus mountains and empty into the Persian Gulf.

However, the climatic conditions of present-day Mesopotamia are no longer the semi-arid they used to be. The region currently lies between modern-day Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.

They now have hot, dry summers and short cool winters. The implication of this is the reduction of water supply from rivers that provided irrigation in the past. Some theories have even suggested that the drastic climate change is responsible for the fall of the Mesopotamian civilization.

The civilization of Mesopotamia was one of the most advanced in its time and famed for its several innovations, such as the irrigation system. Even though some theories suggest that climate change, culminated in a disastrous sand storm, and internal tensions and conflicts were the cause of decline of Mesopotamian civilizations, their acts and inventions still live on with considerable relevance in today’s world. They can be found on cuneiforms and in several modern technologies.


Here is a reminder of some of the salient points contained in this article, especially as it concerns irrigation systems in Mesopotamia.

  • Mesopotamia did not create irrigation; Egypt did under King Menes.
  • Mesopotamia, however, introduced several inventions to advance the use of irrigation.
  • The people of Mesopotamia created irrigation purposely to protect their agriculture, land, and homes against unwanted excess water.
  • Mesopotamia is also known as the home of the first irrigation because its construction followed a plan.
  • The Mesopotamians encountered problems with the irrigation system, such as silting, salt accumulation on farmlands, and water freezing during winter.

Did you imagine that ancient people could have such advanced farming techniques and instruments at their disposal?

The fact that their inventions still live up to this day partially makes up for the unfortunate end of these glorious people of the past.

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