Learning About Water Crises Prevention the Ancient Way from The Maya 

Learning About Water Crises Prevention the Ancient Way from The Maya 

It’s getting hotter everywhere, but water is getting scarce at the same time.  

There have been efforts to improve the situation, but many areas all across the country still experience drought. 

But maybe, learning water management the ancient way could give us more insight to mitigating water crises.  

A new study had examined ancient Maya. This civilization used aquatic plants to filter and clean the water.  

By taking a look at the ancient systems, it may serve as archetypes for natural, sustainable water systems to address future water needs. 

Water management in the Maya 

It’s amazing to know that the Maya built and maintained functioning reservoirs  for more than 1,000 years. According to anthropology professor Lisa Lucero at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the reservoirs proved to be good for the people. 

To give you a clearer example, these reservoirs provided potable water for thousands to tens of thousands of people in cities. They continued to do so during five-month dry season that happened every year and in periods of prolonged drought.  

Lucero said, “Most major southern lowland Maya cities emerged in areas that lacked surface water but had great agricultural soils. They compensated by constructing reservoir systems that started small and grew in size and complexity.” 

As time went, the Maya built canals, dams, sluices and berms to direct, store and transport water.  

To make the water clean, the people used quartz sand for water filtration. They also used zeolite sand as a construction material.  

It was an ingenious move by the ancient Maya. Modern studies have shown that quartz sand can filter impurities and disease-causing microbes from water. 

According to estimates, up to 80,000 people lived in Tikal and its environs in the Late Classic period, roughly 600 to 800 C.E. The reservoirs kept people and crops hydrated during the dry season. 


nymphaea alma. Photo by Reinhard Jahn, Mannheim Wikimedia Commons


Keeping the water clean, chemical-free 

Having reservoirs came with a challenge, in the ancient Maya case. How does one prevent standing water from becoming stagnant and undrinkable? 

Experts have stated that the Maya might have relied on aquatic plants. These include cattails, sedges, reeds and others. 

This conclusion cane into place because some of these plants have been identified in sediment cores from Maya reservoirs. 

These plants are capable to filter water. Therefore, the Maya used them to reduce murkiness and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus. 

 According to Lucero, “The Maya would have had to dredge every several years… (and) harvest and replenish aquatic plants.”  

Then, the people removed the soils and plants from the reservoirs and used them to fertilize fields and gardens. 

A good testament to the quality of the reservoirs is e water lilies, Nymphaea ampla. These plants only thrive in clean water, and the ancient Maya had them in abundance.  

Lucero explained, “Water lilies do not tolerate acidic conditions or too much calcium such as limestone or high concentrations of certain minerals like iron and manganese. 

“The Maya generally did not build residences near reservoir edges, so contamination seeping through the karstic terrain would not have been an issue.” 

Surviving the droughts 

There’s evidence from several southern lowland cities which indicates that  constructed wetlands, Maya reservoirs supplied potable water.  

As mentioned, this went on for over 1,000 years. The reservoirs only failed when several unforgiving droughts took place between 800 and 900 C.E. 

Lucero said that the current occurrence we have nowadays need many of the same approaches the Maya did. That includes the use of aquatic plants to naturally improve and maintain water quality. 

In comparison with our current, conventional wastewater treatment systems, constructed wetlands have the upper hand. “They provide an economical, low technology, less expensive and high energy-saving treatment technology,” Lucero said. 

And not just clean water, such method may also support aquatic animals. That may become a source of nutrients to replenish agricultural soils.  

What the researchers need to do next to move forward is to combine expertise and implement the lessons from ancient Maya reservoirs with what we’ve known about constructed wetlands. 



Today’s water shortages 

The current findings from Lucero’s research can be a good answer to the increasingly frequent water shortages.  

These have happened in many parts of the world, like Johannesburg, for example. Well, actually, freshwater problems have become too familiar in South Africa. 

In the country, there’s been a growing issue on available freshwater resources, unequal distribution of clean water access, and lack of sanitation services. Even Gauteng province, the country’s economic center, hasn’t been immune to the water problems.  

Experts say that the crises is a product of multiple factors, such as: 

  • Deterioration of water infrastructure in some areas, posing a risk of total collapse. 
  • Prolonged droughts. 
  • Allegations of corruption which have affected municipalities and treatment facilities. 

Moreover, there are other contributing factors have exacerbated the water crisis.  

As we know, the rising temperatures that we’re experiencing have led to a lot more water consumption. People in the province consume about 300 liters per day. That’s higher than the global average of 173 liters. 

Now, none of the national or regional authorities on water could find effective solutions to the growing crisis. 

In fact, the situation has gotten worse. Certain communities, like Brixton in western Johannesburg, have experienced dry taps for over three weeks. 

The people have depended on water tankers, but they still use bottled water for drinking and cooking. Both the water quality and reliability are not fully trusted by the residents. 



Poor water management that makes it worse 

Could water crises in this area been avoided? To put it shortly, yes. 

Despite being avoidable, poor water management and insufficient control that goes on for a long time can make things worse. Why? Such poor governance may lead to underfunding water infrastructure and its lack of investment.  

Therefore, a collapsing water system that spans supply, treatment, storage, and management happened. And the water crisis got worse when authorities also failed to address surging water demands due to population growth and urban expansion. 

Basically, mismanagement and the overall shortfall in water services have further driven the issue a lot worse. 

Within the last 5 years, the province faced frequent water cuts. According to the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, about 33% of residents reported water interruptions in the 2020-2021 period. 

The report stated that the country’s water infrastructure is now riskier than ever. It emphasized the need for immediate action to improve the severe water shortages. 

Experts say that current officials, authorities, and stakeholders in risky areas should put aside blame games. They should instead collaborate to tackle the fundamental issues behind the water challenges, and not just address the symptoms. 

The experts also emphasized that there should be more urgent attention to the deteriorating water infrastructure. So, there won’t be any water rationing anymore. 

Could the Maya way to control and manage water help for cases like Johannesburg? As we know, each place is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But the question still stands: can the ancient way help? 

What do you think? 





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