Lost Water – Notes from Athens and Southern India

Charlotte Evans | Lancaster University

We were standing at an intersection on one of Athens’ busiest roads when Tom pointed to the horizon, where the road and all the vehicles disappeared into the distance.

“Plato used to walk along here,” He said, “It was his favourite river.”

I squinted but couldn’t see anything that looked like a river, not even a straightened urban stream. In fact, you can’t see any of Athens’ rivers if you’re above ground; they’re all buried.

The river my colleague was talking about is the Ilisos, one of three rivers that flow through Athens right beneath your feet. After the Second World War, Athens saw massive urban development focused on transport, namely roads, to make it easier for cars to travel through the city. Yet, this came with a cost. Through building smooth concrete roads, the rivers were channelled underground, hidden, and lost.

Athens’ underground rivers, the Eridanos, flows through the Monastiraki metro station. You can see the archaeological site and information boards in both Greek and English.
One of Athens’ underground rivers, the Eridanos, flows through the Monastiraki metro station. You can see the archaeological site and information boards in both Greek and English.

Yet, there remain small clues within the fabrics of the Greek capital that point back to water. There are ancient pipes in the Evangelismos metro station, ancient drains and water management systems are evident in archaeological sites. In the museums, there are waterspouts shaped like lions and bathtubs used by the Romans. Despite the water not being obviously apparent in this great, ancient city, where there is humanity, there is always water.

The Eridanos river passing below your feet at the Monastiraki metro station.
The Eridanos river passing below your feet at the Monastiraki metro station.

My trip to Greece was a small excursion studying water histories as part of my PhD studies. My PhD thesis is concerned with water histories in South India, specifically the Kaveri River catchment. The particular focus for an historic water management comparison in these two very different places stems from the fact that both Greece and India entered their Bronze age at a similar time around 3000 BCE. Greece, with the Minoans and India, with what would become the Indus Valley civilisation. Britain, however, didn’t reach the Bronze age until around 1900 BCE. Thus, a comparison between these seemingly unlikely locations will give us a unique and fascinating perspective on how humans have developed their relationship with and management of water.

3000 BCE is an important spot on the timeline of water in India, with this being the estimate for the earliest evidence of the use of ‘tank’ irrigation. This ancient system of irrigation depended on a series of small-scale water tanks that captured the monsoon rain and stored the water. These tanks were essentially engineered ponds of different variations. In South India, the tanks were often designed with gravity in mind, so the captured water would drip down from tank to tank through the village. The tanks that then dried out would provide extremely rich silt that could be used for farming, so crops would be grown on the tank bed when it was dry.

The evidence of these tanks is still visible across South India, especially on historic maps. In fact, some of them are still in use, but this number has dramatically declined, and India now depends primarily on groundwater and canals for irrigation. Some of these tanks are now just depressions on the land, some have been taken as farmland, and some are built over by roads, houses, and railways. The erosion of these ancient practices arguably began before British colonialism. However, there is strong evidence that British colonialism acted as one of the final nails in the coffin, so to speak, with its desire for huge hydraulic engineering projects such as dams. The big-dam era of the 1930s caused an unprecedented shift on irrigation sources in South India.

Projects like the Mettur Dam on the Kaveri river aimed to provide a new resource of water storage to provide huge amounts of water for a new canal system in the delta. Whilst the sustainable tank-system may have been a viable option in the past, these tanks require constant management, often from entire communities. If there are new sources of water, these tanks fall into states of disrepair and become unusable; when India’s ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1960s and 70s provided technologies to make groundwater accessible to the masses, more and more people moved away from tanks towards an arguably easier, but less sustainable form of water management.

Modernity has presented unprecedented challenges to the environment and its resources. Population growth has created a greater demand for resources such as water. Furthermore, urbanisation has caused a huge shift in the way we live, which has knock-on effects on how we manage our water. Alongside these paradigm shifts, improvements in technology and its increasing availability has made it easier for people to access new sources of water stored underground in aquifers. Water used to be a resource primarily accessed through its surface storage (such as lakes and rivers). However, surface water is becoming increasingly disregarded as a resource. In India, this is reflected in the neglect of irrigation tank systems and reliance on groundwater. In Athens, the rivers have been engineered to flow below the ground. And this altered relationship with water has consequences further than pressure on the resource.

Whilst I was in Athens, we experienced flash flooding. The city is built on hills, and so the intense rainfall flowed down, increased run-off due to the impermeable concrete surfaces. The flooding caused chaos with the city’s infrastructure, shut several metro stations and overwhelmed the drains. All this water flowing down the hills would usually have gradually found its way to the river, slowed on its way by vegetation and soaked up by soils and soft rocks. I was mesmerised by the flooding in the streets because as I watched it, I knew: we did this. We buried the rivers; we built the roads, we covered our land in concrete.

Archaic terracotta and clay water pipes displayed at Evangalismos metro station, Athens.
Archaic terracotta and clay water pipes displayed at Evangalismos metro station, Athens.

That being said, there is still hope for the future. Our mistakes can sometimes lead to understandings that can bring real change. That’s what I saw in Athens and the Ilisos. In a particularly interesting twist of fate, this river is currently being revived and brought back to the surface. Interestingly, this is all thanks to a failed, flooding tram system built for the 2004 Olympic games. The story goes that the team of engineers were looking for a perfect route for a tramline through the city. They managed to find a relatively clear, smooth line that ran on a slightly lower point to the rest of the city. Suspicious? Yes. The engineers had, in fact, found the old channel of the Ilisos and used the river’s old course as the new tramway. Believe it or not, in heavy rains, this tram route often floods. This has also caused such significant rates of erosion that the trams had to be temporarily stopped.

The tramway disaster and the high maintenance costs of the underground tunnel through which the Ilisos flows have led to calls for the ancient river to be restored and returned to the city’s surface. Channelling rivers underground is expensive and unsustainable. I experienced some of the consequences, like flooding, first-hand on my trip. However, restoring deliberately submerged rivers is not only a considerable feat of engineering; it also involves changing people’s perceptions about water and urban space. That’s an even bigger job. I just hope that future visitors to Athens will be able to take a stroll along Plato’s favourite river and watch the sunlight catch the ripples on the water. “This river used to be underground,” someone might say, “Imagine that.”


Charlotte Evans is a PhD researcher at Lancaster University specialising in Environmental History and Digital Humanities. Her main research interests are water, rivers and digital mapping. Charlotte has an BA(Hons) degree in Geography from the University of Nottingham and a MA in Digital Humanities from Lancaster University.