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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, Vol. 17, No. 168
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Water techniques might have ill-served Mayans during a major drought
By the Technische Universitat Wien news staff

Something really drastic must have happened to the ancient Maya at the end of the Classic Period in the 9th century. Within a short period, this advanced civilization in Central America went from flourishing to collapsing. The population dwindling rapidly and monumental stone structures, like the ones built at Yucatán, were no longer being constructed.

The reason for this demise remains the subject of debate even today. Model calculations by Technische Universitat Wien in Vienna, Austria, may have found the explanation: the irrigation technology that served the Mayans well during periods of drought may have actually made their society more vulnerable to major catastrophes.

The lessons learned may also suggest important conclusions for the future.

"Water influences society and society influences water," says Linda Kuil, one of Günter Blöschl's doctoral students of the program on water resource systems at the university. "The water supply determines how much food is available, so in turn affects the growth of the population. Conversely, population increases may interfere with the natural water cycle through the construction of reservoirs, for example."

Researchers at the university explored the interactions between sociology and hydrology and represented them by coupled mathematical models. The emerging field of socio-hydrology establishes mathematical interrelationships, such as between food availability and birth rate, or between recent water shortages and society's plans for building water reservoirs. These kinds of interrelationships, combined with a large amount of historical and current data, ultimately yield a complex system that produces different scenarios of human–nature interactions.

"It's well-known that the Mayans built water reservoirs in preparation for dry spells," Ms. Kuil says. "With our model, we can now analyze the effects of the Mayans' water engineering on their society. It is also possible to simulate scenarios with and without water reservoirs and compare the consequences of such decisions."

As it turns out, water reservoirs can actually provide substantial relief during short periods of drought. In the simulations without reservoirs the Mayan population declines after a drought, whereas it continues to grow if reservoirs provide extra water. However, the reservoirs may also make

Maya
              temple
Technische Universitat Wien photo
Water is one of the principal needs in order to build temples like this one at Tikal.

the population more vulnerable during prolonged dry spells. The water management behavior may remain the same, and the water demand per person does not decrease, but the population continues to grow. This may then prove fatal if another drought occurs resulting in a decline in population that is more dramatic than without reservoirs.

Researchers will probably never know all the reasons for the decline of the Mayans.  Wars or epidemics may have played their part, too. The socio-hydrological model developed by the university researchers at TU Wien does, however, say that droughts and water issues are one possible explanation for their demise and shows just how vulnerable an engineered society can be.

The University of Southampton reported in 2012 that rather modest rainfall reductions between times when the Classic Maya Civilization flourished and its collapse, between 800 and 950 A.D., seems to have caused the collapse. These reductions amount to only 25 to 40 per cent in annual rainfall, but they were large enough for evaporation to become dominant over rainfall, and availability was rapidly reduced, researchers there said.


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