Member Login

Forgotten password?

Leading the industry for a sustainable development

Global History of Irrigation, Irrigation Timeline and History of Irrigation in Australia

Water is the most important input required for plant growth for agriculture production. Irrigation can be defined as replenishment of soilwater storage in plant root zone through methods other than natural precipitation. Irrigation is seen to have found its roots in the history of mankind since earliest beginning.It helps reduce the uncertainties, particularly the climatic uncertainties in agriculture practices.

  • Archaeological investigation has identified evidence of irrigation where the natural rainfall was insufficient to support crops.
  • Perennial irrigation was practised in the Mesopotamian plain by coaxing water through a matrix of small channels formed in the field.
  • Ancient Egyptians practiced Basin irrigation using the flooding of the Nile to inundate land plots which had been surrounded by dykes.
  • The Ancient Nubians developed a form of irrigation by using a waterwheel-like device called a sakia.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa irrigation reached the Niger River region cultures and civilizations by the first or second millennium BCE and was based on wet season flooding and water harvesting.
  • The Qanats, developed in ancient Persiain about 800 BCE, are among the oldest known irrigation methods still in use today.
  • The irrigation works of ancient Sri Lanka, the earliest dating from about 300 BCE, in the reign of King Pandukabhaya and under continuous development for the next thousand years, were one of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world.
  • In the Szechwan region belonging to the State of Qin of ancient China, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System was built in 256 BCE to irrigate an enormous area of farmland that today still supplies water.
  • The floodplain of the Santa Cruz River was extensively farmed during the Early Agricultural period, circa 1200 BC to AD 150.
  • Terrace irrigation is evidenced in pre-Columbian America, early Syria, India and China.

History, it is said is the greatest teacher of the mankind. Study of the history of irrigation, development of irrigation technology, sustainability of the old irrigation systems provides an insight into the factors that have sustained the outcomes over the generations.

Source - ICID



6000 BC

Irrigation began at about the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia (present day Iraq and Iran) using the water of the flooding Nile or Tigris/Euphrates rivers. The flood waters, which occurred July through December, were diverted to fields for 40 to 60 days. The water was then drained back into the river at the right moment in the growing cycle.


3500 BC

Nilometer Water Level Measurement

The annual flood season along the Nile was unpredictable without records, so the Egyptians created a flood gauge called the Nilometer. The simplest design was a vertical column submerged in the river with marked intervals indicating the depth of the river. A second design was a flight of stairs leading into the river. The nilometer data was then used by the ancient Egyptian priesthood who mystically predicted when the flood would occur.


3100 BC

The first major irrigation project was created under King Menes during Egypt’s First Dynasty. He and his successors used dams and canals (one measuring 20 km) to use the diverted flood waters of the Nile into a new lake called lake "Moeris."


000 BC

Cement pipe

Cross-section of pipe made with cement and crushed rock by the Romans to carry water. Similar pipe was used a century ago to carry domestic water into the San Gabriel Valley of California.


1792-1750 BC

Water Regulations

Babylonian King Hammurabi; was the first to institute water regulations within his kingdom. This early code covered:

  • The distribution of water proportionally based on the acres farmed.
  • A farmer’s responsibilities in maintaining canals on his property.
  • The collective administration of the canal by all users


1700 BCIrrigation Shaduf (Shaduf / Shadouf / Shadoof)

(Shadoof) A large pole balanced on a crossbeam, a rope and bucket on one end and a heavy counter weight at the other. By pulling the rope it lowered the bucket into a canal or river. The operator would then raise the full bucket of water by pushing down on the counter weight. The pole could be swung around and the bucket emptied in a field or different canal. This development enabled irrigation when a river wasn’t in flood which meant higher ground could be used for farming.


700 BC


700-600 BC

(Egyptian Water Wheel) A wheel with buckets or clay pots along its circumference, the wheel was turned by the current of the river. The flow filled buckets by immersion and as it rotated the upper buckets are emptied by gravity into a trough or aqueduct. The empty buckets then returned to be refilled. The Noria provided the ancient world with its first non-human operated lifting device.


604-562 BC

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, were created under King Nebuchadnezzar in Mesopotamia. What is lost to history is how the gardens were watered although it is known they were irrigated


550 BC


550-331 BC (Kareze in Mesopotamia) The development of this technique allowed the use of ground water to become the primary source for crop irrigation. A Qanat was built by first digging a vertical well into sloping ground. Once the well was completed a tunnel was dug nearly horizontal to the lower end of the well. The natural slope would allow well water to travel by gravity down the tunnel and emerge some distance down slope from the well. Construction of Qanats was labor intensive and vertical openings were placed every 20-30 meters to allow the tunnel diggers to breathe and to remove the debris from the tunnel. Once the tunnel was completed, the area had a constant source of water. Qanats are still in use today and at least 20,000 still operate from China to Morocco.


500 BC


Persian Water Wheel

The first use of what is now called a pump. This device was an endless series of pots on a rope which ran over two pulleys. The oxen-powered device powered a cogged wheel allowing the pots to enter the water supply, fill and then be raised and emptied. The Sakia was similar to the Noria except that it was powered by an external force rather than the flow of the river’s current.


250 BC


Archimedes Screw

While visiting Egypt the Greek scholar Archimedes created this device which consisted of a screw inside a hollow tube. The screw was turned and as the bottom end of the screw rotated, it scooped up water. The water traveled up the length of the screw until it poured out the top of the tube. Today the principal is used in transporting granular materials such as plastic granules used in injection moulding and in moving cereal grains.


500 AD


When the first use of a windmill occurred is unknown, although drawings of a water pumping windmill from Persia (current day Iran) exist. This design had vertical sails made of bundles of reeds or wood which attached to a central vertical shaft.


1800 AD

Irrigated Acreage Worldwide

Irrigated acreage worldwide reaches 19,760,000 acres. This compares with an estimated 600,000,000 acres today.



Irrigation Furrow / Canal

Nebraska, USA

Hand digging an irrigation canal in Nebraska during the late 1800s.



Residential Sprinkler

This patent was issued to John Gibson, of San Francisco, California, USA on July 16, 1872. It is unknown if this sprinkler went into production.



Residential Hose Nozzle

Solid Brass Nozzle

This garden hose nozzle was first patented on Oct. 16, 1877, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA. The later patent date was on June 2, 1885.


Early Irrigation Development in Australia

The formative years of irrigation in Australia were in the 19th Century and the major irrigation developments occurred initially in the Murray-Darling Basin, where the conditions were the most conducive to such development.

Initially, the technology of large scale irrigated agriculture was introduced to Australia through two avenues, either via British experience in Egypt and India or through developments in western North America. The latter proved to be the more important source of irrigation technology in the long term, as the social and economic climate of the western United States more closely resembled that of Australia.

Most of the early information flow to Australia was channelled through Victoria and, with few exceptions, the most significant events associated with the emergence of irrigation in Australia resulted from Victorian efforts. Irrigation settlement design concepts, water allocation systems and irrigation administration machinery spread from Victoria to the other colonies.

The early emphasis was on engineering technology, and for advice the colonies turned initially to British engineers from India, which in the 19th Century was regarded as the premier theatre of irrigation initiative. Such engineers as Derry, Culceth and Gordon in Victoria, Home and McKinley in NSW, and Arthur Cotton abd Hugh Cotton in Tasmania became leading figures during the formative stages.

Early Private Irrigation Schemes

The first instances of irrigation in Australia were in the form of initiatives by private individuals aimed at increasing production on their farms.

The Hobart Town Almanac of 1830 records what would appear to be the first essay in irrigation, which was implemented by Governor Arthur. The scheme involved reclamation of marshland along the Derwent Estuary, and utilised tidal fluctuations to irrigate the land via a series of sluices. In the mid-1830's a rudimentary dam was constructed in the Clyde River which permitted irrigation of the property 'Raths', commencing about 1885. This property appears to have been irrigated on a continuous basis since then, and almost certainly has the longest continuous record of irrigation in Australia.

Other schemes for irrigation commenced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Goulburn Weir, constructed from 1887 to 1891, was the first major diversion structure built for irrigation development in Australia.



A major drought in Victoria from 1877 to 1884 prompted Alfred Deakin, then a minister in the State Government and chairman of a Royal Commission on water supply to visit the irrigation areas of California. There he met the Canadian brothers George and William Chaffey who had worked on irrigation schemes in California.[5] In 1886 the Chaffey brothers came to Australia and selected a derelict sheep station covering 250,000 acres (1,000 km2) at Mildura as the site for their first irrigation settlement.[5] They signed an agreement with the Victorian government to spend at least A£300,000 on permanent improvements at Mildura in the next twenty years. Also in 1886/87, the Chaffey brothers were invited by John Downer, the Premier of South Australia, to commence a settlement at Renmark, South Australia


Commonwealth Government Role

Prior to federation in 1901, each Australian Colony managed its own water resources. In the Federal Constitution the primary responsibility for these resources remained with the States, although it gave powers to the Australian Government that related to meteorology. Furthermore, interstate trade became a responsibility of the Australian Government and this had implications for river navigation.

Section 96 of the Constitution provided the power to make grants to the States for specific purposes, and this has enabled the Australian Government to play a major role in the development of the nation's water resources. This funding role was enhanced by the actions of the Australian Government in 1941 to become the sole collector of income tax throughout the nation.

The first major instance of Commonwealth involvement in irrigation was through participation in the River Murray Waters Agreement, which was ratified in 1915 by the parliaments of the Australian Government, and the States of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The agreement provided for the creation of the River Murray Commission to manage the operation of works and the distribution of waters to each State.



Dethridge Wheel

The wheel was invented by John Dethridge in Australia in 1910. Dethridge was then commissioner of the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. The wheel consists of a drum around an axle with four spokes originating from each end of the axle. Eight v-shaped vanes are fixed to the outside of the drum which then spins. Wheels generally last for 15 to 20 years, and the axle is replaced every five years. The revolving wheel measures the flow of water from the irrigation supply channels into the farm channels. This provides the basis upon which irrigation farmers are charged for water.



Irrigation in the Murrumbidgee valley began in with the irrigation experiments of agricultural pioneer, Samuel McCaughey at North Yanco station in 1900. This private scheme involved the construction of around 320 kilometres of channels to irrigate about 162 square kilometres (63 sq mi) of land.[8] McCaughey's success appeared to have encouraged the New South Wales government to commence large scale irrigation. This process began in 1906 with the proclamation of the Barren Jack and Murrumbidgee Canals Construction Act 1906 (Cth). Burrinjuck Dam on the Murrumbidgee River near Tumut was commenced in 1907, work commenced on the channels and the first farms were established soon after.

In 1907, the Victorian government invited American Elwood Mead to become chairman of the newly formed State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria. The high hopes for government-controlled irrigation in Victoria owed much to Deakin's earlier efforts, who now as Prime Minister, expected Mead to advise at both national and state levels. Mead was not content with proposing only higher water-rates in attempting to recover maintenance, management and construction costs, he also insisted on the logical extension which demanded higher-yielding uses of water and land. The Water Act of 1909 was passed despite the fierce opposition of large landowners, and Mead's influence on rural development was greatly increased by his assumption of overriding control in the planning of closer settlement in Victoria's irrigation districts. Mead claimed much credit for the hierarchical arrangement of allotment sizes which characterized these designs, but his impact was rather in the very scale and complexity of the commission's operations, in Mead's salesmanship, and in the bureaucratic web in which the new settlers became enmeshed. Mead worked in Australia full-time for four years, but his involvement would continue until his resignation became effective in May 1915; this professional experience consolidated Mead's international reputation. In 1923, Mead's four-month Australia advisory tour was punctuated by disputes with Joseph Carruthers and leading irrigation authorities in New South Wales over the selection and use of land in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Mead rejected plans for further fruit planting, advocating larger dairy farms and an improved co-ordination of grazing and irrigation enterprises which would favour stock fattening and the intensive production of lucerne.

In Western Australia the state's first controlled irrigation scheme, the Harvey Irrigation Scheme, was officially started in 1916. It was further developed during the latter part of the 1930s depression to take unemployed workers to dig and build the extensive irrigation channels in the district.


Snowy Mountain Scheme

Since the 1830s, both the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers have been subject to development and control to meet water supply and irrigation needs. By contrast, the Snowy River, that rises in the Australian Alps and flows through mountainous and practically uninhabited country until debouching onto the river flats of East Gippsland, had never been controlled in any way, either for the production of power or for irrigation, and a great proportion of its waters flowed into the sea. The Snowy River has the highest source of any in Australia and draws away a large proportion of the waters from the south-eastern New South Wales snowfields, and was considered a means of supplementing the flow of the great inland rivers, a means for developing hydro-electric power, also a source of increasing agricultural production in the Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys.

Following World War II, the Government of New South Wales proposed that the flow of the Snowy River be diverted into the Murrumbidgee River for irrigation and agricultural purposes; however there was little emphasis placed on the generation of power. A counter proposal by the Government of Victoria involved a greater generation of power, and involved diversion of the Snowy River to the Murray River.Additionally, the Government of South Australia was concerned that downstream flows on the Murray River would be severely jeopardised.

The Commonwealth Government, looking at the national implications of the two proposals, initiated a meeting to discuss the use of the waters of the Snowy River, and a Committee was set up in 1946 to examine the question on the broadest possible basis. This Committee, in a report submitted in November 1948, suggested consideration of a far greater scheme than any previously put forward. It involved not only the simple question of use of the waters of the Snowy River, but consideration of the possible diversion of a number of rivers in the area, tributaries, not only of the Snowy, but of the Murray and Murrumbidgee. The recommendations of the Committee were generally agreed to by a conference of Ministers representing the Commonwealth, New South Wales, and Victoria, and it was also agreed that the Committee should continue its investigations.

However, limitations in the Australian Constitution meant that the Commonwealth Government was limited in the powers it could exercise, without the agreement of the States. Subsequently, the Commonwealth Government introduced legislation into the Federal Parliament under its defence power; and enacted the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act 1949 (Cth) that enabled the formation of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority. Ten years later, the relevant States and Territories introduced their own corresponding legislation and in January 1959 the Snowy Mountains Agreement was reached between the Commonwealth and the States.

The legislation created the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority that was given responsibility for the final evaluation, design and construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The final agreed plan was to divert the waters of the Snowy Mountains region to provide increased electricity generating capacity and to provide irrigation water for the dry west. It was "greeted with enthusiasm by the people of Australia" and was seen to be "a milestone towards full national development".[citation needed]

The chief engineer, New Zealand-born William Hudson (knighted 1955), was chosen to head the scheme as Chairman of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority, and was instructed to seek workers from overseas. Hudson's employment of workers from 32 (mostly European) countries, many of whom had been at war with each other only a few years earlier, had a significant effect on the cultural mix of Australia.

Construction of the Snowy Scheme was managed by the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority, it officially began on 17 October 1949 and took 25 years, officially completed in 1974.

Tunneling records were set in the construction of the Scheme and it was completed on time and on budget in 1974, at a cost of A$820 million; a dollar value equivalent in 1999 and 2004 to A$6 billion. Around two thirds of the workforce employed in the construction of the scheme were immigrant workers, originating from over thirty countries. The official death toll of workers on the Scheme stands at 121 people. Some 1,600 kilometres (990 mi) of roads and tracks were constructed, seven townships and over 100 camps were built to enable construction of the 16 major dams, seven hydroelectric power stations, two pumping stations, 145 kilometres (90 mi) of tunnel and 80 kilometres (50 mi) of pipelines and aqueducts. Just 2% of the construction work is visible from above ground.

Two of the towns constructed for the scheme are now permanent; Cabramurra, the highest town in Australia; and Khancoban. Cooma flourished during construction of the Scheme and remains the headquarters of the operating company of the Scheme. Townships at Adaminaby, Jindabyne and Talbingo were inundated by the flooded waters from Lake Eucumbene, Lake Jindabyne and Jounama Reservoir. Improved vehicular access to the high country enabled ski-resort villages to be constructed at Thredbo and Guthega in the 1950s by former Snowy Scheme workers who realised the potential for expansion of the Australian ski industry.

The Scheme is in an area of 5,124 square kilometres (1,978 sq mi), almost entirely within the Kosciuszko National Park. The design of the scheme was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. Over 100,000 people from over 30 countries were employed during its construction, providing employment for many recently arrived immigrants, and was important in Australia's post-war economic and social development. Seventy percent of all the workers were migrants. During construction of the tunnels, a number of railways were employed to convey spoil from worksites and to deliver personnel, concrete and equipment throughout.

The project used Australia's first transistorised computer; one of the first in the world. Called 'Snowcom', the computer was used from 1960 to 1967.

At the completion of the project, the Australian Government maintained much of the diverse workforce and established the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC), which is now an international engineering consultancy company. The Scheme is the largest renewable energy generator in mainland Australia and plays an important role in the operation of the National Electricity Market, generating approximately 67% of all renewable energy in the mainland National Electricity Market. The Snowy Scheme's primary function is as a water manager, however under the corporatised model must deliver dollar dividends to the three shareholder governments - the NSW, Commonwealth and Victorian Governments.

The Scheme also has a significant role in providing security of water flows to the Murray-Darling Basin. The Scheme provides approximately 2,100 gigalitres (7.4×1010 cu ft) of water a year to the Basin, providing additional water for an irrigated agriculture industry worth about A$3 bn per annum, representing more than 40% of the gross value of the nation's agricultural production.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme, is one of the most complex integrated water and hydro-electric power schemes in the world and is listed as a "world-class civil engineering project" by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The scheme interlocks seven power stations and 16 major dams through 145 kilometres (90 mi) of trans-mountain tunnels and 80 kilometres (50 mi) of aqueducts. The history of the Snowy Scheme reveals its important role in building post World War II Australia.

Sir William Hudson was appointed the first commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority, serving between 1949 and 1967. The Commissioner's role was the overall management of the Scheme. He represented the Scheme at the highest levels of government, welcomed international scientists and engineers, encouraged scientific and engineering research, as well as attending many social and civic activities. Sir William's management style 'stressed cooperation between management and labour and scientific knowledge.

The Scheme was completed with the official opening of the Tumut 3 Power Station project by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Paul Hasluck GCMG GCVO KStJ on 21 October 1972

Information sources:

  • ICID
  • Wikepedia
  • Irrigation Museum
  • The History of Irrigation in Australia - P.J Hallows and D.G. Thompson