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Sustainability has become a buzzword, and for good reason. The finite nature of earth’s resources is clearer than ever and the demands of human society are greater than ever. 

As far as this discussion is concerned, sustainability is defined as the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

We would naturally suspect that our ancient predecessors wouldn’t pay much mind to the rate of consumption of human resources. But the Incas were very mindful of the footprint they left on the natural world. This is evident in the way Machu Picchu was designed and engineered. It was so cleverly and brilliantly put together, than even modern day experts are learning from the science of the citadel.

Machu Picchu’s Advanced Water System

Water was the reason that Machu Picchu was able to exist at all. The brilliant ways that the Incas channeled their water was the key to their viability. 

The city’s water originated from a spring on the northern slope of the mountain. From there, the water was directed in genius ways.

A stone canal was constructed to carry about 26 gallons of water per minute to a fountain that was central to the emperor’s residence. This ensured that he would have first dibs on that fresh mountain water. From there it was distributed to the rest of the city. By the way, that fountain still functions to this day! As do the 16 other fountains scattered through Machu Picchu. 

Water, of course, entered the city through other means, such as rainfall. The city was specifically designed to handle such water so that it would properly and efficiently drain. Many buildings, especially the emperor’s residence, had careful and specific drainage plans that would direct rainfall and excess water into the main drain. 

Granite stairways and walkways also served as a network of runoff channels to the main drain that emptied into the rainforest below the city. 

It’s especially noteworthy that water for drinking was channeled separately from runoff water, keeping the domestic supply pure and wholesome. 

But the urban center wasn’t the only part of Machu Picchu carefully designed to handle water.

The Sustainability of The Terraces

The terraces of Machu Picchu are lovely to look upon, but only when you start digging into them do you find the sheer brilliance of their design.

The stair-step model alone prevented excessive erosion and runoff, but their contents were more than just soil.

The very bottom of each terrace contained large, chunk-style rocks and gravel. Then there was a layer of sandy soil. Only the very top contained the soil that was meant to sustain crops. This setup allowed a balance of retaining water for cultivation, but plenty of drainage to prevent excess water from building up and ruining either the crops or the retaining walls of the terraces.

The design allowed a sufficient amount of water to be retained during droughts. It’s been discovered that terraces, once irrigated, would still have moisture six months later. 

The wonders of ancient Inca science don’t stop there. The stone retaining walls would heat up during the day and slowly release the heat at night when temperatures would be dangerously cold for tender crops. This kept plant roots warm even during frosty weather, extending the natural growing season.

Modern Applications of Ancient Science

The Incas didn’t leave behind a manual, but in 1977, a development charity called the Cusichaca Trust rehabilitated a large area of terraces and canals in the Patacancha Valley near Cusco. Results were swift. Water access and agricultural production were improved across the region. This led to efforts to restore Incan water systems in other parts of Peru.


Words alone cannot do the handiwork of the Incas justice. Their engineering marvels demand to be seen to be appreciated. Book your trip to Machu Picchu with TOUR IN PERU and let your own eyes drink in what the masters of sustainability left behind!

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