Machu Picchu Water Management

A clean water source and supply is one of the most crucial aspects of any community. Based on the layout of Machu Picchu and the research and exploration that has been conducted there, the ancient Incan engineers had an advanced understanding of civil engineering, specifically in water resources and management. This report will outline the various methods used by the Incans to collect, distribute, and discharge water from Machu Picchu. These methods can also be seen at other water temples and civilizations within the Incan empire. Machu Picchu is located in southern Peru on the edge of the Andes mountain range, northwest of the city of Cusco. Its location can be seen in Figure 1 below.  The ancient city is at an elevation of about 2430 m, nearly 8000 ft, and the Urubamba River flows below. Machu Picchu is believed to have been occupied from about 1450 to 1540 AD with a population of around 1000. Rainfall was abundant in the area during this time. Hiram Bingham, a history professor at Yale, discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911.

Figure 1. Map of the Inca Empire in 1525 showing the capital of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Lima, Peru is shown for reference. [1]

Kenneth Wright and his wife, Ruth, both attended UW-Madison in the 1950s. Ken founded Wright Water Engineers in 1961 and it has grown into one of Colorado’s leading water resources engineering companies [2]. Ruth is extremely well known for being a public servant who strongly advocates for natural resources policy. She served in the Colorado House of Representatives and was instrumental in developing water quality standards after the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972. Both Ken and Ruth are passionate about their careers and public service and have won numerous awards.

Ken and Ruth both have spent years traveling to Peru and conducting research at Machu Picchu. They conducted research with a team of hydrologists, geologists, archaeologists, geographers, soil scientists, and employees from Wright Water Engineers. Peruvian archaeologists and community members were also part of their research team. Both Ken and Ruth were curious about where the water in the ancient city comes from. They spent 20 years preparing and seeking permits from the Peruvian government to be able to conduct research at Machu Picchu [2]. The research team studied the way clean water was delivered through the city with springs, canals, and fountains, and have shared this research with the world. The Wrights founded the Wright Palaeohydrological Institute (WPI) to provide a platform for this kind of research around the world [2]. This report is developed from various sources that were developed from the Wrights’ work, including research papers, books, and online sources. Much of their research and publications around the world can be found on their WPI website, which is provided in the references [3].

The ancient city of Machu Picchu uses a water source of natural springs that are located on the north slope of the mountain of Machu Picchu [4]. The ancient Incan engineers created a very sophisticated collection system to carry the spring water to the city. What is incredible is that the system remains functional to this day. A canal carries the water from the first spring to the city center [1]. The canal is 749 m long, varying in width between 10 and 12 cm and depth between 10 and 16 cm, and stone lined. A cross section of the canal can be seen below in Figure 2. The average slope of the canal is about 3 percent [5] and gravity flow is relied upon for delivering the water to the city [4].

Figure 2. Plan and Profile of the Machu Picchu Water Supply Canal from the Spring Source to Fountain 1. [1]

Kenneth Wright’s team found the design capacity of the canal to be 300 L/min while the typical yield from the primary spring is 25 to 150 L/min [1]. The ancient Incan engineers planned the canal well to be able to accommodate varying flow rates over time. The canal first enters the city in the agricultural sector and then into the urban center where it starts flowing through the system of fountains. Figure 3 below shows the canal flowing into the city and Figure 4 below shows a cross section of the canal as it flows from the spring source to fountain 1. The canal has a fairly steady slope on its way into the city.

Figure 3. The Inca Canal flows gently into Machu Picchu on a terrace at a steady engineered slope. [5]
Figure 4. Cross Section of the Inca Canal on the north slope of Monte Machu Picchu. [1]

The water from the canal empties into a system of 16 fountains throughout the city. The first fountain, fountain 1, is at the Inca ruler’s residence [1]. This would have been the first part of the city planned out after the spring water source was discovered, with the rest of the city developing around it. Fountain 1 gives the Inca ruler the first access to the city’s water supply. Fountain 3 can be bypassed using a buried channel that carries water from fountain 2 to fountain 4. Starting at fountain 4 the water flows in series all the way to fountain 16 and then discharged. The 16 fountains are known as the stairway of fountains based on their layout [5]. A map of the city with the spring, canal, and fountains can be seen below in Figure 5. Not only do the 16 fountains provide domestic water to Machu Picchu, but they also provide an aesthetic enhancement to the city with the sight and sound of the flowing water [1]. The total vertical drop from fountain 1 to fountain 16 is 26 meters, and all the fountains besides the last one are easily accessible with common stairways and walkways. Each of the 16 fountains have the same general design and function. An image of fountain 1 can be seen below in Figure 5. There is a stone channel at the top and a sharp spout edge that creates a water jet for easy filling of an aryballo, an ancient water jug used by the Incans. A drawing of an aryballo can be seen below in Figure 6. The water fills at the bottom of the fountain and flows to the next fountain through a small circular drain. If the Incans at Machu Picchu experienced a dry period from their spring water source, they could use the Urubamba River as a secondary water source. A trail leading from the city to the river was discovered, and Ken Wright concluded that a water shortage does not explain the abandonment of Machu Picchu [5]. Table 1 below shows average precipitation in the city around the time of its occupancy.

Figure 5. Map of Machu Picchu site showing the Inca Spring and Canal, and the 16 Domestic Water Supply Fountains (left) and an image of Fountain 1 (right). [1, 6]
Figure 6. An aryballo, a clay water jug used by the Incans. [4]
Table 1. Average precipitation at Machu Picchu and the amount per decade around its time of occupancy. [4]

The infrastructure of Machu Picchu was designed to maintain the purity of the domestic water supply by directing the agricultural and urban stormwater discharges away from the domestic water canal. Drainage of excess water was crucial at Machu Picchu due to the location of the city. There is a threat of mudslides due to excess or extreme rainfall events. The agricultural terraces are one of the most recognizable and visual characteristics of the ancient city. These terraces not only maximize the available land for farming, but they help to protect against erosion. The subsurface of the terraces reveals a very well-planned drainage system with stones at the bottom, then gravel, sandy material, and finally the topsoil [7]. Figure 7 below shows a basic schematic of the terrace layers. This layering effect provides strength for the terraces and ensures that water drains at an appropriate rate. The agricultural terraces are also sloped slightly which will direct the runoff into drainage channels that lead to a main drain that carries the water out of the city safely. The city incorporated many drainage holes into the walls and structures of the city, and many drainage channels into stairways, walkways, and buildings that carry runoff to the main drain [8]. The Incans also built channels that collected water from the roofs of their buildings to be able to protect the building foundations and structures. Two collecting locations for excess spilling water are located above urban sector to keep runoff out of the main domestic water source. The very extensive drainage system at Machu Picchu is one of the reasons why the ancient city is still in very good condition and works to this day. The Incans built the city for longevity and it definitely shows.

Figure 7. A schematic of the soil layers in the agricultural terraces and throughout the city. [7]

1. K. R. Wright et al., “Machu Picchu: Ancient Hydraulic Engineering,” Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, vol. 123, no. 10, pp. 838–843, October 1997.

2. R. Meiller, “Kenneth and Ruth Wright among three to receive UW-Madison honorary degrees at spring commencement,” College of Engineering – University of Wisconsin-Madison, 11-May-2011. [Accessed: 02-Jan-2019].

3. “WPI: Wright Paleohydrological Institute.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 03-Jan-2019].*

4. K. R. Wright et al., “Hydrogeology and Paleohydrology of Ancient Machu Picchu,” Ground Water, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 660–666, July-August 1997.

5. J. L. Brown, “Water Supply and Drainage at Machu Picchu.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 03-Jan-2019].

6. “Peru: The Fountains of Machu Picchu, a Photo Album.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 16-Jan-2019].

7. K. R. Wright, “Inca Foundations, Site Preparation, and Drainage at Machu Picchu,” Practice Periodical on Structural Design and Construction, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 131–142, May 2013.

8. K.R. Wright et al., “Ancient Machu Picchu Drainage Engineering,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 03-Jan-2019].

9. “Best Machu Picchu Treks: The Ultimate Guide | Bookmundi.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 17-Jan-2019].

*See the Wright Paleohydrological Institute (WPI) website,, for more information about research conducted at Machu Picchu and around the world.

Makenzie Gingras, Graduate Student