Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

Historical Irrigation System at l'Horta de València, Spain

GIAHS since 2019
©PAT de L'Horta - Generalitat Valenciana


Detailed Information



Global importance

The L’Horta waterscape has been created thanks to a hundreds years old systems adopted since the Islamic times that provides healthy food products and economic sustenance to local communities. It is the result of a cultural adaptation to the climate conditions and site features.

The unique features of the irrigation system here adopted have contributed to avoid the water scarcity and make possible fruits and vegetables cultivation in this dry area. The channels that constitute this systems together with the morphology, roads, ditches, farms, rural constructions and mosaics of crops that structure L’Horta configure a landscape that survives in a densely populated costal region. The peri-urban area provides environmental, agricultural, cultural and patrimonial services that contribute to improve the quality of life of those who inhabit it. Furthermore the landscape mosaic structure variety contribute to maintain a high biodiversity. Flora e fauna species are very numerous thanks to the diversity of land uses and habitats existing in this site so that it results fundamental the conservation of such landscape structure. The singular irrigation systems characteristic of L’Horta landscape is also a valid sustainable alternative to the modern ones, respecting the sustainable development purposes. In addition it is influenced by a unique social organization that foresees water resources sharing, making possible a homogeneous and continuous availability of water for each farmer all the yearlong. 

Food and livelihood security

The L’Horta de Valencia is a historical agricultural system supported by two structural conditions: water availability and soil fertility. The 80% of the all cultivated area is devoted to fresh fruit and vegetables crops and the products obtained partly contribute to the families’ own consumption and partly are commercialized to local and municipal markets. Among the products variety, the main cultivations are represented by orange and mandarine trees, artichokes, onions, potatoes and khakis, followed by other kind of orchards products such as zucchini, cauliflower, pumpkins and pomegranates.

The agricultural system adopted is based on sustainable agricultural techniques thanks to the efficiency of the traditional irrigation system still largely spread in the area. The construction of acequias network has ensured the water supply of the fields and population settlements so that it is possible the cultivation of fruits trees, orchards, rice fields and other crops. Furthermore, it is strongly typical to re-use the materials provided by secondary products for soil preservation. That has contributed to the creation of a self-efficient system respecting the surrounding environment.


The waterscape of L’Horta de Valencia is the results of centuries of man adaptation to the surrounding environment so that it could be considered as a dynamic system with changing land uses. The ecosystems created thanks to the land use diversity, even if they have an anthropogenic nature, contribute to maintain a high natural biodiversity of the area. The water availability that characterized the area thanks to the traditional irrigation system has contributed to increase the agrobiodiversity so that eggplants, spinaches, tomatoes, orange, mandarine and olive trees coexist on the same surface. In fact, the high number of species cultivated is a consequence of the resources availability due to the system of water management adopted here since the Muslim period.

The Agro-biodiversity is given by a list of 50 crops, mainly cultivated with fresh vegetables. The crops diversification is guaranteed by the high number of local varieties and the typical landscape structure divided into very small plots which guarantee also the ecosystem resilience. The unique landscape of L’Horta de Valencia provide living conditions for many plants and animals, e.g. the farms small size entail the consolidation of field boundaries, such as hedges and small trees, structure for feeding, nesting and shelter against predators.

L’Horta has some crops that are unique and hardly to found in other parts of Europe, furthermore in the souther part of the area, near the lake, local rice varieties, centuries old, are cultivated. The rice here produced is the one used for the traditional worldwide known dish Paella Valenciana. Agro-biodiversity is here supported by some local projects which encourage the maintenance of local seed use and the preservation of genetic stock of local varieties.

Local and traditional knowledge systems

The uniqueness of this agricultural system is strictly related to the water distribution method adopted for irrigation which founds his roots in the Muslim period. This water system is composed by the Acequia Real de Moncada, the Canal del Turia and all the hydraulic channels or acequies managed by the Tribunal de las Aguas, all them designed for a gravity-fed irrigation method. This system is the symbol of a secular domestication of the water resource in order to make possible the cultivation all over the year.

Traditional knowledge has been transmitted generation after generation and it is necessary for the landscape maintenance. The water resource is distributed among farmers according to a contiguous order of irrigation from top-bottom of the system. This kind of system is known as turno, an irrigation cycle that usually lasts one week; when water availability decreases the irrigation cycle is extended in time.

The Muslim agricultural tradition influence is clear from the measuring unit adopted for water sharing and distribution, the fila, and from the use of the Egyptian elbow as pattern for gauging the width of embankments for the main canals.

Also other jobs connected with the traditional irrigation system are preserved as the case of the specialist makers of farmers tools. There are agricultural tools that have been the same for millennia and even if the presence of new machineries is certain it results widely spread the traditional tools use.

Cultures, value system and social organization

L’Horta de Valencia influences local culture and living institutions, among these the Tribunal de las Aguas, the oldest institution of justice in Europe. This court has the authority over all the acequias and is responsible for enacting and enforcing their traditional rules for distributing water. Another important institution is La Tira de Comptar, founded during the Arab domination and made official in 1238 by King James I. It has guaranteed the supply of fresh produce in the city, the right of farmers to take part in the market of fruits and vegetables, as well as regulated their particular activity. Today the Tira’s warehouse covers an area of 6000 m2 in which a total of 1300 farmers sell products they grows and harvest themselves. The peculiarity of this system is that each farmer is in charge of carrying out the sale of the products grown in his or her property so that the Tira is the shortest and direct marketing channel of fruit and vegetables. Furthermore in L’Horta de Valencia there are a series of architectures of different nature spread all over the centuries and strictly connected to the rural organization of the site so that these architectural elements represent a way of living characteristic of the local irrigated landscape.

Landscape and seascape features

The landscape of L’Horta is the combination of multiple kind of environments such as the Mediterranean coast, the banks of Turia river and the Albufera. The secular interaction between man and the local territory structure has contributed to shape a unique landscape result of the mixture between traditional irrigation system, rural communication network and settlements and agricultural patterns.

Important elements of this landscape are the agricultural mosaic and the natural channels while, among all, the irrigation system constitutes the most conditioning element in landscape structure. The L’Horta de Valencia could be described as the result of the combination of the network of ditches and bracers that distribute the irrigation water to the fields, the network of rural roads and scattered agricultural settlements. Furthermore a unique contribution is given by the presence of the Albufera which is home to the largest lake in Spain and one of the most important wetland areas in the Iberian Peninsula. The Albufera is a metropolitan natural park, a rural area that endow the area with a peculiar identity.