It is one of the questions from history that haunts so many: what happened to the Maya civilization? It turns out that the entire culture could have ended because of poor water management issues coupled with its increasing population.
The civilization fell in 900 AD, but the influential culture still lingers throughout Mexico and beyond. Even now, their battle with water could impact how we face struggles in the coming centuries.
"Water influences society, and society influences water," said one member of the team that found out about the problem, Linda Kuil from the Vienna University of Technology in Austria. "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."
The team used a mathematical model to account for major factors that impact how a community fares. They took into account, population density, food supplies, birth rates, and, in particular, water and rainfall. This is called socio-hydrology, the study of how water supply and water management affects a population.
Most historians agreed that drought probably played a part in the downfall of the Maya, that was the intention from the start. The team tried to reason out how the Maya would have handled the problem.
"It's well-known that the Mayans built water reservoirs in preparation for dry spells," says Kuil. "With our model, we can now analyse 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."
The team then looked to see what would have happened if those hadn't been built - and as predicted, the population fell. Still, the Maya built reservoirs, so that couldn't have been the problem.
The team continued to look and found that eventually, as that population grew, the reservoirs simply would have been too small.
"The water management behaviour may remain the same, and the water demand per person does not decrease, but the population continues to grow," the team said. "This may then prove fatal if another drought occurs resulting in a decline in population that is more dramatic than without reservoirs."
This could be why the Maya civilization fell as quickly as it did. This doesn't bode well for us - quickly fixes and even careful planning might not be enough to overcome nature, according to the study published in Water Resources Research.
"When it comes to scarce resources, the simplest solutions might turn out to be superficial and not always the best ones," Kuil says. "You have to change people's behaviour, reassess society's dependency on this resource, and reduce consumption - otherwise society may in fact be more vulnerable to catastrophes rather than safer, despite clever technical solutions."