The Qanat: An Ancient Technology Still Delivering Water Today

I was doing some light reading on hydrogeology the other day and came upon something that interested me, and hopefully will be of some interest and/or use to you.  I’m always fascinated by history and the way ancient civilizations came up with ingenious ways to survive in harsh conditions, and what I found in my book was exactly that.

The technology I’m talking about is called a qanat.  Well, that’s what it was called in what is present-day Iran, which is where the first one was constructed.  Since then it has spread to a number of other countries throughout the world where it is known by a number of names; kanat, khanat, kunut, kona, konait, ghanat, and ghundat.

A qanat is a fairly simple way to bring groundwater from one place to another. Well, simple on paper; construction took a lot of knowledge, time, and manpower.  Let me start with a picture so you can see what I’m talking about and then I’ll describe it in more detail.

 

Qanats are used to move water from underground aquifers deep inside a hillside to lower elevations.  The system is simple and basically consists of a gently sloping horizontal shaft (called qanat channel in picture) and vertical access shafts.  Not surprisingly, the first step in constructing a qanat is finding the water.  The location for a qanat is usually a hillside or somewhere where sediment has been (at some point in time) washed out and has formed an alluvial fan.

The process starts with a surveyor, or someone who is knowledgeable about the geology of the area, going out and finding a site that they believe has water.  From there 2-4 people start digging the first vertical shaft up on the hillside to see if they’re on the water. As they get dipper a windlass is set up to collect the spoils and haul them to the top.  The shaft can be anywhere from 50 feet deep to hundreds of feet deep depending on the depth of the groundwater.  One simple, but ingenious step in the process is to dump the spoils around the opening of the vertical shaft.  This creates a buffer around the opening and keeps rain water that is running down the hill from pouring into the shaft and adding sediment or contaminants to the groundwater.  If this first shaft does not hit water then additional shafts will need to be dug in different locations until the water is found.

Once water is found the next step is deciding on a path for the qanat to follow in order to carry water down to a place where it will be useful (a town, village, field, etc.).  Then, more vertical shafts are added along the path.  These additional vertical shafts serve as a way to ventilate the qanat as well as to guide the people digging the qanat along the decided on path.  Also, the spoils accumulated along the way are hauled up through these vertical shafts.  Once all the vertical shafts are complete the diggers can begin digging the qanat. Once the qanat is complete the water should start flowing, and can continue to do so for years to come.

Well, there’s actually a decent amount of other work that needs to be done before that.  Someone needs to figure out the slope of the qanat.  This seems like a simple task, but the slope is very important and must be given a lot of thought.  If you dig the slope too steep the water will move too quickly through the qanat and wash away or damage the tunnel.  If you dig the slope too gentle then the water will not flow down the tunnel.

Once the slope is worked out then the depth of all of the vertical shafts need to be calculated to match the slope. If the shafts don’t go deep enough then they will never intersect the qanat and will serve no purpose, and if they go too deep they will disrupt the flow of water.

All of this work is not easy.  Actually it is very hard, back-breaking, work.  On average a typical qanat is 6-10 miles long.  One very old qanat is Iran is 30 km long!  To give you an idea of how much work goes in, they say that it takes one year to dig one km.  Wow!

This work is not only hard, it’s dangerous.  Cave-ins are one of the dangers faced.  If a tunnel is being dug in hard rock or compacted clay it is fairly safe, and should not cave in.  However, if the qanat is being dug through less desirable ground then reinforcing of some kind will be needed.  Suffocation is another danger faced.  Lack of oxygen or the presence of gas can kill the workers. To stay safe the workers watch their oil lamps for signs of depleting oxygen.  Lastly, and maybe most dangerous, is the point when the workers reach the first shaft.  It could be years before the initial shaft is reached, and over that time it could have partially filled with water.  As the diggers break through into the shaft a wall of water can come through and drowned them, or wash them away (hitting them on rocks and injuring them).  To avoid this the first vertical shaft should be drained of water before it is penetrated if there is a means of doing this.  Otherwise, the diggers need to use caution to tap the shaft very gently and let the water drain into the qanat before continuing.

Finally, it must be decided what will happen at the mouth of the qanat.  In most cases there is one, or several, canals that branch off from the mouth and distribute the water to different places.

 

For a technology to still be in use thousands of years after it was introduced to the world it must be beneficial to the population it’s serving.  In the case of the qanat there are several benefits.  Considering qanats are generally used in arid/semi-arid environments where it can get very hot, one of the benefits of keeping the water underground as long as you can is that it is not lost to evaporation.  This may seem like a small thing, but over the years keeping the water underground can save millions of gallons.  A second benefit is that no electricity is needed for pumps since the system uses gravity to keep the water flowing.  Thirdly, a qanat is sustainable because its source is groundwater.  The qanat will never significantly deplete an aquifer because it only takes as much as the aquifer can give.  If the level of the aquifer drops too much then the water will stop flowing into the qanat, and the aquifer can recharge itself.  Further, once the water gets into a town or village the water can be used as a power source to turn mills.  And finally, needless to say, a qanat brings much needed water to an area so that it can flourish, grow crops, and establish itself.

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While qanats were first developed centuries ago, they are still very much in use today.  For instance, in Iran there are still 37,000 qanats in use that are providing water to millions of people (and that is just in Iran).  It astounds me that an idea someone had thousands of years ago is still providing an essential need to so many people around the world.  It’s nice to know that in our day and age, where you can’t turn a corner without hearing about some new technology, there are still some traditional, simple, technologies being put to use.  Below you’ll find a great video where you can get a closer look at the inside of a qanat and how they were/are built.  Finally, this is just a brief overview; there are a lot more details of the qanat system that I did not include in this article.  If you’d like to read some more please take a look at the sources listed below.

As always, thank you for reading, and please leave a comment and let me know what you thought.

 

Sources:

Introduction to Hydrogeology by Johannes C. Nonner

WaterHistory.org – Qanat

The Qanats of Iran

Underground Power Plants in Iran; Qanats

The Qanat: An Ancient Technology Still Delivering Water Today
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11 thoughts on “The Qanat: An Ancient Technology Still Delivering Water Today

  • May 9, 2014 at 12:26 am
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    Thanks to the author, it is an interesting insight into out ingenious technologies that were used by our forefathers. Necessity is the root of invention, many such technologies exist in semi-arid areas like Rajasthan in India. The chain of water tanks linked to sources of rainwater intake served well in Tamil Nadu, India, but now they have been neglected, encroached up on, and or filled up for other uses. We are digging our own graves by misusing ancient rainwater collection ponds or tanks and over-pumping of groundwater for cultivating water hungry crops like rice in hot summer. With many industries and municipal governments discharging their waste-water directly into rivers or tanks, they are turning them into cesspools. When will we awake to the dangers of misusing our water bodies? Soon, it may be too late to take corrective actions and we will all die due to lack of freshwater for our consumption. Thanks. Bala..

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  • May 9, 2014 at 7:59 pm
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    This is a most interesting article., even though i am an natural resource economist and sustainable agricultural production systems specialist I am particularly interested about how such traditional qanat sytems are adapted using modern technologies.
    I have been involved in water harvesting projects in arid and semi arid areas of Ethiopia, Jordan and Pakistan(NWFP and Azad Kashmir, in Nepal Terai /Northern India. I am now more heavily involved in tropical systems in highland and mountainous regions. Currently working in cordillera autonomous region of northern Philippines with Philippines indigenous communities and agricultural production cooperatives . there our problems is more pollution and contamination of groundwater systems. A major problem in the Philippines is a fractured hydro-geology about which very little is known or mapped. i presume this was not a problem in traditional Iran?.

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    • May 29, 2014 at 1:32 pm
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      Hi David,

      I was curious who you are working for / have worked for in the past? Your experience sounds very interesting. Please email me at hydratelife@gmail.com.

      Regards,
      Brian

      Reply
  • May 12, 2014 at 1:03 am
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    very interesting!
    I once read an article in the National Geographic about it, I think…

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  • May 19, 2014 at 9:00 am
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    Thanks for sharing. Amazing ancient understanding of hydrology and engineering. We usually only hear about the Roman water projects.

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    • May 29, 2014 at 1:28 pm
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      Great, thank you! I’ll take a look

      Reply
  • June 2, 2014 at 1:25 am
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    Great article. I worked in Oman in the 1990s in the Ministry of Water Resources, who at that time had a programme of surveying and renovating the extensive and still widely used qanat system (I presume they still are). In Oman it is called falaj (plural aflaj). Many mountain and desert villages remain dependent on them for a major part of their water supply, especially for maintaining date palm groves. They are also critical for binding the village together as all are dependent on maintaining and sharing the water supply. Some include an ingenious u-tube whereby a surface falaj crosses a wadi via an underground U so as to avoid it being destroyed when the wadi floods (perhaps once a year). Qanat are impressive engineering feats as reported, but it seems that to construct them today under appropriate modern working and health and safety standards would make them very difficult and expensive.

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  • June 4, 2014 at 9:38 am
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    Great article .Thanks for sharing.Not to rob the Iranians of their pride ,i would like to point out that such systems of water transportation have been the hall mark of all ancient great civilizations and you can find them still working in those regions which inherited them.For example Pakistan ,the inheritors of the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished from 3500 BCE to 1500 BCE , has several such under ground water channels in Baluchistan province. Known as Karaiz, these water channels were dug by the Indus people who depended too much on water technology for their survival and growth: that is why Indus valley civilization is known as hydrological civilization because of the advanced technology to harness the water resources.I am sure Chinese must also had developed similar systems more than 5000 years ago

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  • October 27, 2014 at 4:26 am
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    Thanks for sharing a valuable information

    Reply
  • October 28, 2014 at 9:54 am
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    hat a fascinating article. This is obviously a technique that should be known more widely.

    Reply

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