Aveneu Park, Starling, Australia

“How responded with novel social mechanisms. Since then, the

“How have you engaged with history during your studies?”


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A history of water managing is also a history of humanity. From the beginning of our species, coping with the obtainability – or unobtainability – of water resources has been a crucial element of human beings’ strategies for survival and well-being. Throughout history human imagination was clear in how water was acquired, transported and allocated to various uses. The quality, distribution, seasonality and amount of water have been key factors of subsistence, health and settlement potentials.

For millions of years, hunters and gatherers depended on the wild plants and animals sustained by rainfall, which varied significantly from one place to another, but was overall insufficient to provide food for large, dense, settled populations.

Around 10,000 years ago, the structure and dynamics of human societies were radically transformed due to the development of food production in favourable habitats all around the world. Communities that settled along the banks of great rivers and those that had access to abundant groundwater were faced with frequent food shortages to which they responded with novel social mechanisms. Since then, the reciprocal relationships between water supply, arable land, food production and social organization have led to significant transformations in the configurations and structural dynamics of human societies. In general, the management of water on both local and regional levels has undergone a series of historical transformations in association with significant developments in social organization.

These transformations included the invention and widespread use of irrigation and drainage methods, water-lifting devices, long-distance water transport technologies

and storage facilities. In part, these transformations were stimulated by the emergence of urban centres and the growing demand for water as cities expanded and the spectrum of water-demanding activities broadened. Successful water management leading to greater food production was accompanied by a sustained increase in the size of the human population.



Why Study Water History

Studying water history will not only inform us about why we choose for certain solutions, such as big dams versus traditional water technologies, and why we might approach a water crisis from the stance of a certain economic theory, but will also guide us in assessing the long-term significances of specific decision-making strategies.

History can apprise us how we got to be in this particular difficulty, and may indeed provide us with means by which we can make informed choices concerning our future. We can only ignore history at our peril.

Historical studies also provide us with an understanding of the deeply rooted symbolic values of water, which play an essential role in how people today perceive water shortage and the solutions proposed to alleviate it.

Water history also clarifies how water management policies, practices and technologies are dynamically interrelated with political, ideological and economic forces in society, as well as to society’s impact on and responses to external climatic and environmental events.

Current Situation

Today, humanity faces a serious challenge as perceptions of current water shortage and the ominous prospect of global droughts and changes in weather conditions are prompting policy-makers to seek out political solutions, and water professionals to find managerial and technical solutions to water scarcity. In this context a study of water history becomes more than an idle intellectual pursuit. It may be argued that conditions today are so different from those in the past that a study of water history is irrelevant. But such an argument would be overlooking the important transcultural structures, continuities and principles that inform human actions. Even within today’s technologically and scientifically dominated water management systems, a hydrologist operates within a socially constituted tradition, shaped by an overall scientific and engineering paradigm, and historically accumulated and legitimized canons and ‘facts’. Such a paradigm is in turn situated within a scientific paradigm, shaped and structured within the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment. Placing this currently dominant approach in a wider historical context can help us to improve contemporary actions and consider their consequences from new angles.

India is now facing a water situation that is significantly worse than any that previous generations have had to face. India is facing a perfect storm in managing water. Centuries of mismanagement, political and institutional incompetence, indifference at central, state and municipal levels, a steadily increasing population that will reach an estimated 1.7 billion by 2050, together, these are leading the nation towards disaster. Dwelling deep into history the situation was never the same.

In History

“In India, water has always played an integral part in architecture and city planning. The subcontinent has a long tradition of buildings connected with water.

The connection between architecture and water is generally observed as a connection between the secular and the sacred, between earth and heaven. Baolis1, Vavs2 or Bawadis3, as they are called in various parts of the country, are a building typology unique to the Indian subcontinent. They are testimony to the traditional water-harvesting systems developed in ancient times, and to the engineering and construction skills and the craftsmanship of those who built them.” The stepwells4 celebrated water.

This is a concept with the most profound abstract meaning. For water is the contributor of life as well as its dreadful taker. And wells, being among the prime sources of water, were particularly significant. They became elaborate architectural constructs, and the path down to the water level a ritualistic pilgrimage.

Descending into the earth was analogous to other crucial areas of existence: as for instance, the furrowing of the fields for the planting of seed. And so, going down into the well becomes analogous to submersion in water, i.e., to rebirth. It is like the dissolving of the germinating seed into nothingness, into the world of unformed matter, before it reappears in the form of a plant. If the temple is a model of the cosmos, then could this subterranean architecture be a model of the dissolution of the cosmos.


Stepwells are unique to India. They served as water tanks, a space for social gatherings and, in some cases, temples of Hindu worship. The water collected in stepwells was used for everything – drinking, irrigating fields and religious ceremonies. Tourists throng India’s temples, palaces, forts and mosques, but the country’s ancient stepwells are largely unknown.

These remarkable subterranean structures not only provided communities with water all year long but also served as civic centres, refuges, remote oases and, in many cases, active places of worship. But besides their many functions, stepwells were marvels of engineering, architecture, and art. Some were lavish and ornate, others minimal and utilitarian. They could be enormous, plunging nine stories into the earth, or could be intimately scaled for private use. The step-wells constructed all over India in the middle ages and right till the modern period are a repository of knowledge about water collection, storage and distribution in water starved areas.

Thousands of these fascinating edifices once proliferated across India, but most were abandoned because of modernization and depleted water tables. While some have been restored by the government, most are sadly neglected and in danger of extinction.

Rudimentary stepwells first appeared in India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., born of necessity in a capricious climate zone bone-dry for much of the year followed by torrential monsoon rains for many weeks. It was essential to guarantee a year-round water-supply for drinking, bathing, irrigation and washing, particularly in the arid states of Gujarat (where they’re called Vavs). Over the centuries, stepwell construction evolved so that by the 11th century they were astoundingly complex feats of engineering, architecture, and art.

Construction of stepwells involved not just the sinking of a typical deep cylinder from which water could be hauled, but the careful placement of an adjacent, stone-lined “trench” that, once a long staircase and side ledges were embedded, allowed access to the ever-fluctuating water level which flowed through an opening in the well cylinder.

In dry seasons, every step – which could number over a hundred – had to be negotiated to reach the bottom story. But during rainy seasons, a parallel function kicked in and the trench transformed into a large cistern, filling to capacity and submerging the steps sometimes to the surface. This ingenious system for water preservation continued for a millennium.

They were the ultimate public monuments, available to both genders, every religion, seemingly anyone at all but for the lowest-caste Hindu. It was considered extremely meritorious to commission a stepwell, an earthbound bastion against Eternity, and it’s believed that a quarter of these wealthy or powerful philanthropists were female. Considering that fetching water was (and is still) assigned to women, the stepwells would have provided a reprieve in otherwise regimented lives, and gathering down in the village Vav was surely an important social activity.

The skilful architecture of these stepwells is reflexive of the transitions in Indian history. Some are a combination of the Hindu aesthetic of ornamentation and the architectural innovations introduced by Muslim rule, upon to reflect the eighteenth century Mughal aesthetics.

The reasons for which the Stepwells were made. This was an important trade route, and travellers and merchants would often find themselves unprotected from elements both natural and human while making stops along the way. The Stepwell offered them a place to bathe, rest, eat and remain protected (as the entire structure is built ground level down and is almost invisible along the horizon).

Built five stories low, the ceilings have openings that allow indirect sunlight to filter in, leaving the structure at least 5 degrees cooler than it is outside. An octagonal well provided water for travellers to bathe in as well as offer prayers.

 “Mother goddesses are associated with water and fertility in so many cultures, so the development of stepwells as subterranean temples was (and still is) a natural evolution from the purely utilitarian.

Women meeting in the wells for the daily gathering of water and performance of rituals would be a social experience too, and who wouldn’t want to take refuge from the scorching summer sun? These ancillary functions of a stepwell had built-in social components.”

“It is unusual to see these distinctive styles of architecture in such proximity, since the Islamic faith forbade any figuration; but it is certainly fortunate that much of the ninth-century edifice was left in place close to the water’s edge,” writes Victoria Lautman

“Women struggle down the dizzying steps, trying to reach the sacred water,” she writes. “After bathing, they leave their wet clothing behind, along with a piece of fruit or a vegetable that they pledge never to eat again.”

In the delicate matter concerning water, when billions of people do not have access to it, not only each drop of it counts but also all the past knowledge systems about its storage, conservation and distribution would add to man’s capacity to deal with it in a better manner. 

The stepwells of India illustrate how loss of community purpose leads to the disintegration of the built environment through socially random processes.

Hundreds of stepwells, usually large, ornate stone structures built around steps descending to water, were constructed in semi-arid western India between the eighth and eighteenth centuries. Social and religious practice originally protected them from activities which interfered with their key role in community life – the provision of clean water – but once stripped of that role by the construction of modern water systems in the twentieth century, collective interest in the wells dissolved, leaving them unattached and unprotected resources.

Their succeeding use depended on the needs of those in their immediate vicinity, and varied as widely as those needs. Wells now in the countryside provide water for irrigation, and shelter for shepherds and farmers. Those in villages and urban areas became swimming holes for local children, washing basins for women, and dwellings for the poor. They became objects of local or personal religious devotion ad were incorporated into neighbouring vernacular construction.

While superficially different these uses have two important similarities.

First, they appropriate only parts of the well: religious devotion usually focuses on a design element, and even modern shrines built in a well take up only part of it: usually an entrance or an interior corner. Only the pavilions are needed for shelter, only the lower steps for clothes washing.

This partial appropriation allows for many simultaneous, and sometimes conflicting uses. Second, the uses are relatively unspecialized: the purity of their water no longer matters for washing or swimming; their covered parts became mere shelters from the elements; their sophisticated structural elements became supporting walls for newer construction. Consequently, what little maintenance is carried out about current activities extends to only one part of the well, frequently involves considerable alteration, and is always blind to the original nuances of form and design.

The stepwells of modern India are an extreme example of the entropy of use, and consequently form, that follows the loss of original community purpose, but because the phenomenon arises from such universal processes as technological innovation and change in social needs, all built remains of the past are subject to this entropy in varying degrees.

It will be likely be most intense where the forces of modernity and traditional culture are highly disjunct, however, as they are in India, and cause such places to experience the cruellest contradictions between the preservation of the monuments of the past in their entirety and full complexity, and their useful incorporation into contemporary.

Water Wisdom in a Time of Crisis:


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