Mayan Engineering Could Help Today's Flooded Waterways

Mayan building

Published Apr 22, 2018 8:07 PM by Harry Valentine

Seasonal flooding has on occasion suspended maritime transportation along inland waterways. However, over 1,000 years ago, the engineers of the Mayan Empire devised a method that was implemented at higher elevations that reduced flooding at lower elevations.


While Swiss physicist Daniel Bernoulli (1700 – 1782) is regarded as the father of modern hydraulics, the engineers of the Mayan Empire of Central and South America achieved feats of hydraulic engineering some 1,000 years before he was born. They developed a method of using kinetic energy to cause water to flow uphill through underground channels and into hidden reservoirs located beneath their enclaves. They built the world’s first known suspension bridges, and they developed a method to reduce flooding at low elevations, where Mayan farmers cultivated a variety of food crops.

The Mayan engineers built a succession of rock dams at high elevation, along the streams and tributaries that fed into major rivers that were prone to seasonal flooding. Even today, evidence of the ancient rock dams still exists along tributaries of several South American rivers. At the present day in the modern world, rising water levels have occurred along several navigable waterways internationally including sections of the Lower Mississippi River and sections of the Danube River where maritime traffic was suspended, also along a section of the Upper St Lawrence River.

The Mississippi

A recent scientific analysis of the history of flooding along the Mississippi River concluded that while seasonal flooding occurred prior to the installation of dams and navigation locks along the waterway, flooding became worse following the installation of dams and navigation locks. However, the Mississippi and navigable rivers that connect to it form the basis of an important corridor that carries millions of tons of bulk freight annually. The economic importance of the waterway requires that methods other than the dismantling of dams and navigation locks be investigated as a possible method by which to reduce flooding.

When the Mississippi River overflows its banks, maritime traffic is suspended as areas next to the river become flooded. Hordes of volunteers appear to help fellow citizens cope with the floods. The sheer extent of the waterway system that connects to the Mississippi River involves thousands of stream and hundreds of small rivers that flow into successively larger waterways that in turn connect to the Mississippi. While extremely onerous, it may actually be possible to organize armies of mainly volunteers to build thousands of Mayan-style rock dams along streams and small rivers that eventually flow into the Mississippi.

Environmental Considerations

Any such proposal will inevitably attract the attention of the environmental movement as well as government departments that oversea environmental matters. A large percentage of the environmental movement would likely call for the dismantling of the navigation locks and the dams. There is massive monetary value of damage that flooding causes almost annually along the Mississippi River. If a solution were possible, it could prompt a government department to commission a study to investigate such possible solutions.

If such a commission were supportive of the method developed centuries ago by the engineers of the Mayan Empire, it could invite thousands of interested people who might seek to install small-site and micro-size hydroelectric installations plus a series of kinetic river turbines along streams and small rivers located at high elevation. As a result, the American department of energy would likely become involved due to the possible potential mass decentralized power generation. Recent initiatives aimed at increasing grid-scale, electrical energy storage capacity across North America could justify an increase in mass small-site power generation.

Inflatable Dams

The development of heavy duty, submersible and inflatable plastic bags that can be secured to a lake or river floor and pumped with air allows a variation of this technology to also be pumped with water while secured at strategic locations across a stream or river. A series of such water inflatable “dams” placed at regular intervals could duplicate the objective of the rock dams built centuries ago by the engineers of the Mayan Empire. Unlike rock dams that would be permanent fixtures, water inflated dams could be installed seasonally at some locations along some rivers.

There may be scope to implement the combination of rock dams and inflatable dams along numerous streams and rivers that flow at high elevation before flowing into larger rivers that carry far greater water volumes. From upstream, navigation locks regulate the flow of water from Lake Superior into Lake Huron and a control dam regulates the volume of water that flows from Lake Erie over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario. The may be scope to install water inflatable technology on the channels floors between Lakes Michigan and Huron as well as between Lakes Huron and Erie.

Upper St Lawrence River

During the northern spring of 2017, water levels rose to near record levels on Lake Ontario and along the western section of the St Lawrence River located upstream of Montreal. Water levels rose to levels where authorities debated whether or not to allow ship traffic to continue to sail between Montreal and the Great Lakes. Excluding the Upper Great Lakes, water also flows into Lake Ontario along rivers that originate in three jurisdictions of Pennsylvania, New York State and Ontario. Since spring flooding rarely occurs on Lake Ontario and Upper St Lawrence River, no flood reduction action would occur.
However, if changing weather conditions result in regular springtime flooding along the waterway located upstream of Montreal, the three jurisdictions would need to cooperate in regard to modifying the headwaters of rivers that flow into both Lake Ontario and the Upper St Lawrence River. 

European Barge Canals

Changing weather patterns have caused flooding along sections of some European barge canals. While rivers such as the Danube cross national boundaries, many rivers originate and flow to the ocean exclusively through sovereign states and include the Loire, Seine, Marne, Rhone, Weser and Vistula. Given that several of these rivers originate at high elevation in high mountains, there may be scope to adopt the Mayan approach to moderate water volume flow rate so as to reduce flooding at the lower elevations.

Asian Rivers

Most of Asia’s main navigable rivers originate and flow to the ocean within national boundaries of single nations. International cooperation between India and Bangladesh could reduce the annual flooding along the Lower Brahmaputra and Lower Ganges Rivers. While flooding sometimes occurs along the Indus River of Pakistan, the headwaters of that river originate in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Given that some of the headwaters of the Ganges River originate at high elevations in Nepal, there may be scope for international cooperation between India and Nepal to moderate seasonal monsoon water volume flow rate into the Ganges.


Dating back over 1,000 years ago, the engineers of the Mayan Empire devised a means by which to modify the headwaters of rivers at high elevation in mountains to reduce seasonal flooding at lower elevations. They did so to sustain agricultural food production. The Mayan method of flood control may still have application at the present day along navigable inland waterways.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.