Wednesday, May 02, 2012

What might the Nabateans be able to do for us?

PATH turned into waterway.

WE had a power cut round my way which lasted most of Sunday, and was caused by heavy rain, and water getting into a sub-station. What began as seasonal April showers endes in the wettest April since records began, with swollen rivers bursting their banks, fields and racecourses flooded, a man killed trying to ford a stream in his car, thousands told to evacuate their homes to avoid floods, and end to the drought alarm and hosepipe ban.

"Be proud to be dirty," said a message on the Thames' water website urging vigilance in the drought that officially covers most of England and Wales. "A dirty car shows you are doing your bit to save water. Installing a water butt ... will help new plants survive without using precious tap water." But it added that anyone needing sandbags should ask their local authority.

Today in Trafalgar Square myself and a colleague helping to guard the lions, that is controlling access to the plinth for the May Day rally, were just agreeing that we'd felt spots of rain when, lo, the sun came out, and it remained sunny and warm for the rest of the afternoon.

But thinking about the weather, which is something not even we socialists can claim to control, I could not help mentally adding this combination of scarcity and flood to some of the other contrasts mentioned by speakers - such building workers being unemployed while thousands of people need homes, and decent schools; or millions of people around the world suffering hunger when we have the ability to produce vast surpluses of food.

Seeing scenes on telly of streams in torrent and the town of Tewkesbury once more an island, taken from the air, and listening to explanations as to why this rain was still not enough, I found myself thinking about the Nabateans. Or as they are referred to in Arabic, al Anbat.

Living in the few centuries either side of BCE/CE, or old style BC/AD, in the southern parts of what are now Israel and Jordan, this Semitic people, speaking Aramean with a mix of Arabic names and words, built Petra, the "rose red city half as old as time", in the words of the poet, and are said to have controlled the trade routes between Arabia and Syria, and even the longer route between Egypt and China when it ran across their lands. But though they had once had a reputation as warriors, this control was not just a matter of taking tolls.

What the Nabateans did was to dig out underground cisterns, and carefully channel and conserve each drop of rain in what was even then a dry region, so they not only had drinking water but could keep animals and raise crops, sufficient to maintain khans, or caravanserais where travellers and caravans travelling the trade routes could rest safely overnight and be fed and watered. The Nabateans themselves had begun as nomadic pastoralists, coming via Edom from Arabia, but become great traders. The spices and incense of the East came via the Gulf to Petra, and thence to the Mediterranean coast where they could be shipped to Rome.

I have not been to Petra, with its rock-hewn temples and palaces, but in 1960 I visited Avdat, further West along the spice route, standing on a hillide in the northern Negev. Here I marvelled at the channels cut into rock which fed into cisterns, and the dams which made sure flash floods in wadis were not wasted. Below the ancient town a small group of modern Bedouin were camped, with camels, perhaps revisiting the home of their grander ancestors?

"In the mid-1950s, a research team headed by M. Evenari set up a research station near Avdat (Evenari, Shenan and Tadmor 1971). He focused on the relevance of runoff rainwater management in explaining the mechanism of the ancient agricultural features, such as: terraced wadis, channels for collecting runoff rainwater, and the enigmatic phenomenon of "Tuleilat el-Anab". Evenari showed that the runoff rainwater collection systems concentrate water from an area that is five times larger than the area in which the water actually drains.

"Another study was conducted by Y. Kedar in 1957, which also focused on the mechanism of the agriculture systems, but he studied soil management, and claimed that the ancient agriculture systems were intended to increase the accumulation of loess in wadis and create an infrastructure for agricultural activity. This theory has also been explored by Prof. E. Mazor, of the Weizmann Institute of Science."

Tuleilat el Anab are piles of stones perhaps designed to increase water flow to terraces. The name means "grape mounds". Besides evidence of goats and sheep being raised at Avdat, the archaeologists have found grape presses and wine vats. Evidently travellers who stayed at this place were well looked after.

I can't help thinking how remarkable it is, that two thousand years after the Nabateans were so skilled at using limited water supplies they could keep vineyards in the Negev(Naqb), overlooking desert, we Brits are so cackhanded we have trouble growing spuds while floodwaters sweep away drivers, as well as topsoil.

But of course there are two aspects to any society, technology and social organisation, or in another word, politics. It is one thing learning how to make best use of resources, and another being so organised to do so. Even in ancient times those civilisations which had to conserve water and irrigate crops tended to be state planned. But in modern rainy Britain, so clever in the Thatcher years, even water has been privatised.

Here's a report in the Morning Star on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 by Rory MacKinnon, Corporate Affairs Reporter:

Engineers said today that water privateers have drained Britain dry despite the recent wet weather. The GMB union, which represents utilities workers, urged MPs to call companies to account for selling off the country's reservoirs - infrastructure that could have helped ease this winter's drought.

Enviroment Agency officials warned in April that the south-west of England and Midlands were in drought, with it likely to continue at least until next year.

Yet this week's spate of flash floods are ironically a symptom of the drought, with hard-baked soil unable to soak up the sudden downpour. GMB blamed water profiteers for the crisis, saying less than one per cent of Britain's rainfall actually ended up in tanks.

Thames Water has closed 25 storage facilities in England's south-east, the union said, leaving rainfall to run off into the sea - in a region where hosepipes have been banned twice in six years.

National secretary for water Gary Smith said he could not stress enough that Britain had no shortage of water, just a shortage of competent management.

"Storage and transfer are two of the main elements of water resource management - one to move water from times of plenty to times of shortage, the other to convey water from places where it is plentiful to areas where it is in short supply."

Water was a natural monopoly, Mr Smith said, but the government insisted on a "nonsense policy" of privatisation.

"Since 1990 Thames Water has paid out £5 billion in dividends to shareholders, raised from households, that should have been used to divert water into south-east and eastern England."

He urged Parliament's environment selcet committee to call Thames Water, its competitors and regulators to account.

A Thames Water spokesman said many closed sites had stored only small amounts of treated water, while others were only treatment plants. The sites had been shut down because they weren't needed, he claimed.

I'm no water expert. But droughts or not, I can't help thinking there is something wrong when in a country like Britain we manage to have a water shortage. And however good and smart and dedicated our water engineers might be, and knowing the weather can't be planned, you do need plans and investment based on need, whereas companies are responsible to shareholders.


Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home