As the first cities formed in Mesopotamia in the Middle East, probably around 3000 B.C., it became necessarily to provide food for larger populations, and thus to find ways of increasing agricultural production. This, in turn, led to the problem of obtaining sufficient water. Irrigation must have started on a small scale with rather simple constructions, but as its value became apparent, more effort was invested in new construction to divert more water into the canals and to extend the canal system to reach greater areas of potential farmland. Because of changing water levels and clogging by waterborne particles, canals and their intakes required additional labor to maintain, besides the normal labor required to guide water from field to field. Beyond this,some personnel had to be devoted to making decisions about the allocation of available water among the users and ensuring that these directions were carried out. With irrigation water also came potential problems, the most obvious being the susceptibility of low-lying farmlands to disastrous flooding and the longer-term problem of salinization (elevated levels of salt in the soil). To combat flooding from rivers, people from early historic times until today have constructed protective levees (raised barriers of earth) between the river and the settlement or fields to be protected. This, of course, is effective up to a certain level of flooding but changes the basic water patterns of the area and can multiply the damage when the flood level exceeds the height of the levee. Salinization is caused by an accumulation of salt in the soil near its surface. This salt is carried by river water from the sedimentary rocks in the mountains and deposited on the Mesopotamian fields during natural flooding or purposeful irrigation. Evaporation of water sitting on the surface in hot climates is rapid, concentrating the salts in the remaining water that then descends through the soil to the underlying water table. In southern Mesopotamia, for example, the natural water table comes to within roughly six feet of the surface. Conditions of excessive irrigation bring the water table to eighteen inches, and water can rise further to the root zone, where the high concentration of salts would kill most plants. Solutions for salinization were not as straightforward as for flooding, but even in ancient times it was understood that the deleterious effects of salinization could be minimized by removing harmful elements through leaching the fields with additional fresh water, digging deep wells to lower the water table, or instituting a system of leaving fields uncultivated. The first two cures would have required considerable labor, and the third solution would have led to diminished productivity, not often viewed as a likely decision in periods of growing population. An effective irrigation system laid the foundation for many of the world's early civilizations, but it also required a great deal of labor input. Growing agrarian societies often tried to meet their food-producing needs by farming less-desirable hill slopes surrounding the favored low-lying valley bottoms. Since bringing irrigation water to a hill slope is usually impractical, the key is effective utilization of rainfall. Rainfall either soaks into the soil or runs off of it due to gravity. A soil that is deep, well-structured, and covered by protective vegetation and much will normally absorb almost all of the rain that falls on it, provided that the slope is not too steep. However, soils that have lost their vegetative cover and surface mulch will absorb much less, with almost half the water being carried away by runoff in more extreme conditions. This runoff carries with it topsoil particles, nutrients, and humus (decayed vegetable matter) that are concentrated in the topsoil. The loss of this material reduces the thickness of the rooting zone and its capacity to absorb moisture for crop needs. The most direct solution to this problem of slope runoff was to lay lines of stones along the contours of the slope and hence, perpendicular to the probable flow of water and sediment. These stones could then act as small dams, slowing the downhill flow of water and allowing more water to infiltrate and soil particles to collect behind the dam. This provided a buildup of sediments for plants and improved the landscape's water-retention properties.