A few notes from a morning rant
“Although rainwater harvest has been accomplished by humans in virtually every drought prone region of the world for millennia, our society seems to have collective amnesia about the utility, efficiency, sustainability and beauty of these time-honoured practices.”
Gary Paul Nabhan
The tendency of the technocrat is to only look for solutions within their paradigm. Drought and floods are but one example. The response to the mega-drought currently hitting California and its neighbouring states is a case in point. Senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti has caused a stir in California by highlighting the extreme drought situation they face, and the lack of systemic thinking to resolve this problem.
He criticized Californian officials for their lack of long-term planning for how to cope with this drought, and future droughts, beyond “staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”
When we were focusing on droughts in Hawke’s Bay (New Zealand) in 2009/10, the approach from most technocrats was similar: think within the box, wait for rain, destock, and argue for the need for large-scale irrigation schemes (subsidised, and the water ‘commons’ enclosed to those with the biggest bucks – no issues there?). Most of the researchers, policy people & consultants only spoke that language – i.e. there is nothing we can do to our land systems because it is a fixed factory of mechanical parts (a version of hydroponics – just add soluble chemical & water).
We came in to the discussion talking about building ‘self-organised’ functions within the landscape (for drought and flood resilience – and much more, including economic, social & environmental positives). We asked the question, “What is a drought?” We argued that it is not just the lack of rain, because you can have 25mm of rain in a day, and if all but 1mm flows off, and evapotranspiration is running at 3mm/day, then you have a drought by the afternoon. A drought is to an extent dependent on the health of the land. As is the flood. We discussed some ideas and principles to avoid this:
- Reduce overland-flow and stream-flow peaks;
- Infiltrate the rain thru healthy soils (ours tend not to be due to reduced organic matter and compaction);
- Build water holding capacity in soils (we have lost much of the soil mantle above bedrock – up to a metre in some cases – and organic matter [OM], so WHC tends to be declining);
- Reduce evapotranspiration rates thru higher vegetation covers, both herbaceous and woodland systems (we have progressively lost covers and farm foresters and those who put back wetlands are often considered a little fringe);
- Diversity pasture composition with deep rooting species for water access and to build deep OM (we tend to monoculture short-rooting spp with declining depths of dark soil horizons containing organic matter);
- Hold water in decentralised on-farm wetlands/ponds or local systems, as well as your soils;
And there is more you can do in the landscape to build even more synergies above and beyond creating a sponge for water detention:
- Build diversity & functionality of ‘patches’ within a farmscape (pasture systems, woodlands, wetlands, etc.);
- Build linkages between patches;
- Build diversity and functionality within patches;
- Read about the degradation & restoration of systems documented by Eric Collier, Fred Pearce, Brian Fagan, Steven Mithen, Brad Lancaster, Gary Paul Nabhan etc.;
- Work on Brad Lancaster’s principles (see appendix);
- Research how the drought/flood hill country systems around the world have treated water in their landscapes for literally 1000s of years from the Hopi, the Mediterranean, the deserts, the monsoon lands, the sub-Saharan desert edge communities of Africa, etc.;
- Look at the incredible stuff coming out of new paradigms of policy, research and practice: agro-ecology; eco-agriculture; socio-ecological systems; participatory knowledge systems, traditional ecological knowledge – many of which represent a fundamental shift from mechanical deterministic ‘modernity’ hard systems single-disciple frameworks of thinking, to integrated, complex adaptive systems transdisciplinary frameworks of thinking;
In essence, think in integrated land use systems, not parts – more particularly not hard mechanical parts. Build sponges that hold water within the landscape and retain potential energy. Avoid hard plate landscapes, and the rapid realisation of kinetic energy with accelerated run-off, like the plague. The streams and aquatic ecosystems improve, the valuable soil, nutrients and organic matter are kept on the land or trapped in the wetlands, the springs revive, those creeks that flow permanently increase. Downstream irrigators and communities benefit.
But we have to think in a systems way, not a mechanical way. And we have to avoid the propensity we have to create more and more problems because we believe the ‘normal’ (within the paradigm) science & technology focused on symptoms will create the solutions. And then the new techno-fix creates new problems.
This is what we do: think of complex issues and associated ‘wicked problems’ as ‘tame problems’ with simple solutions. When they don’t seem to work, we run around more and more desperately within our own paradigm, and when that doesn’t work, claim it’s out of our hands.
And we create more problems by exacerbating the dysfunctional system. Less sponge, more plate. More defining land and water by priced and owned ‘resource’, less as qualitative ‘function’ owned by no-one, or by all. Corporates are even lobbying to make it illegal for people to build sponge-like systems in places like Colorado and Utah (Joel Salatin takes this thinking to task as mechanical and senseless in any other paradigm than short-term control of a valuable limited resource – i.e. corporate wealth)
The farmers loved what we had to say. Many of the consultants also became enthusiastic. But the idea of the “big dam to save us all” together with the large-scale, industrial, homogeneous “agribusiness to feed the world” is still the dominant, corporate & public technocrat paradigm.
And so, we continue to seek even more industrialism and mechanical large-scale centralised ‘solutions’. Exacerbating fragility, increasing production of climate change gases, reducing supply chain lengths with the focus on cheap commodity, increasing finite energy-dependency, reducing rural equity and social wellbeing, centralising governance & control, colonising regions, causing environmental harm, and degrading regional economies as profits and spend is centralised out of regions.
I’ve always liked the approach of asking the question ‘why?’ five times in order to get to the root cause of any problem. Perhaps we should go further. With every such approach you eventually end up at the level of philosophy. And that is where many of the problems – and solutions – lie. How do we ‘see’ the world? What ethics – utilitarian; duty; virtue? What metaphysical worldview? Cartesian mechanical determinism; reducible & quantifiable? Or do we incorporate the three great discoveries of the 20th Century – Relativity, Quantum physics & Complexity theory? Do we believe in a reducible and predictable ‘modernity’, or a complex adaptive contingent world where objectivity is but a dream. What idea of knowledge and knowing do we hold – what Epistemology – hierarchical knowledge, or a system where all can learn and teach and where Aristotle’s Phronesis (practical wisdom/judgment) is more important than mere ‘facts’, however subjectively chosen and ordered on the page? Cosmology – where we dare not tread?
What is failing us is I think our worldview: the metaphysics of modernity – all reducible machines and universal laws – the hierarchical epistemology of centralised law-givers from technocrats and their teachers – the ethics of utilitarianism with its dollars, spreadsheets, and convenient rationalisation of the unjust and the unworkable – and a soulless mechanical cosmology which validates making invisible the meaning of life and consciousness.
Sort those, and perhaps we may learn to solve some of our very wicked problems.
Principles for Rainwater Harvest
From: Brad Lancaster 2013
Rainwater Harvesting for Dryland and Beyond: Volume 1, 2nd Edition: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape, Rainsource Press
- Begin with long & thoughtful observation:
- Solutions are place-based and contingent on local context. Use all your senses to see where the water flows and how. What is working, what is not? Build on what works.
- Start at the Top of your watershed and work your way down:
- Capturing the energy higher up where there is less velocity & volume (keep it as potential energy), for easier capture & gravity fed distribution to more places within the land system (release kinetic energy slowly).
- Start Small & Simple:
- Work at the human scale so you can build and repair anything (more adaptive and resilient).
- Many small strategies are more effective when the aim is to infiltrate water into the soil.
- Spread and Infiltrate the Flow of Water:
- Avoid run-off, but encourage water to ‘walk around’ the land, infiltrate
- Slow it, spread it, sink it.
- Always Plan an Overflow Route:
- And manage that overflow as a resource
- Maximise Living & Vegetative Groundcover:
- So the water creates more vegetation and soils improve their infiltration and water holding capacity
- Maximise Beneficial Relationships & Efficiency by ‘Stacking Functions’ (Multifunctionality):
- Do more than hold water, access paths, recreation, harvestable food and fuel, shade, shelter, clean stock water, environment & aesthetics
- Continually Reassess Your Systems:
- Continual improvement and feedback – the adaptive management cycle – observe, adapt, reapplying the principles above.
 Cf the agro-ecology research & reports centred around UN Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter