Building Land Systems for Drought-Flood Resilience


Kaweka drought: Chris Gregory

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

  US drought Early 2015US-Drought-Monitor-Map1

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.

swale-fish-scaleNever mind that other land use systems actually mitigate climate change, are more equitable to rural communities, more sustainable and resilient to floods and droughts, and actually produce more[1].

Swale & BermI’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

  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Always Plan an Overflow Route:
  • And manage that overflow as a resource
  1. Maximise Living & Vegetative Groundcover:
  • So the water creates more vegetation and soils improve their infiltration and water holding capacity
  1. 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
  1. Continually Reassess Your Systems:
  • Continual improvement and feedback – the adaptive management cycle – observe, adapt, reapplying the principles above.

Chris Perley


[1] Cf the agro-ecology research & reports centred around UN Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter

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12 Responses to Building Land Systems for Drought-Flood Resilience

  1. Daphne Bell says:

    Hi Chris

    Happy New Year! your blog is the most thoughtful, sensible approach I’ve read in a long time. Keep going!

    Regards to Viv,

    Best wishes,


  2. Justin Drinnan says:

    Hear, hear! May you rant long, loud and cheerfully to encourage us all to cherish the land and its people. Down with the plates and hail the epoch of the sponge!

    • Justin Drinnan says:

      If you wanted to sound a little more ranty perhaps could throw in a bit about showing some guts.

  3. petichinin says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this….good one~! I have another book suggestion for you: The Watchman’s Rattle by Rebecca Costa. It’s in the Hastings library and it is a great and deep read and she uses water systems and our cultural responses to drought crisis as one of the major themes of the book but it is about the need to ditch silo thinking and tap into pre-frontal cortex bursts of true insight into problem solving on a MACRO basis.

    Just do it! And then get back to me…..


    Phyllis Tichinin
    General Manager
    06 874 7897 or 0800 878 343
    Fax 07 888 4869
    PO Box 8055
    Havelock North, 4157 NZ


  4. Angus Macdonald says:

    Back in the 50’s
    Land was given:
    Gifted by the government
    Not to farmers
    To men:
    Soldiers returned from warfare
    Trenches … Mortars madness
    Strategic forays of destruction:
    Not quite the mindset
    To farm equanimously
    With zen calm
    At one with the World
    Feeling The Force
    Keeping the peace
    Building up
    Layer upon layer
    Whatever nature lays down
    Not quite the mindset
    For agri-care
    Mindful of delicate cycles
    Full of aptitude
    To augment natural flows
    No: Anecdotal evidence suggests
    This ‘Officer-To-Returned-Servicemen’s’ exchange:
    [BRITISH OFFICER ACCENT:] “Have you ever thought about ‘farming’?”
    [KIWI SERVICEMAN:] “Yeh…nah: Can’t be too hard”
    “Good oh: We’re going to give you some land:
    [grabbed just for beginners like you]
    Throw in a Fergy … Massey … John Deere:
    Give you incentives to burn and clear:
    [we’re making New England: that’s the idea]
    Use your strengths: Force is best
    What you can’t kill: Burn the rest
    Remember your military training soldier?
    Your trenching skills? It’s the same here:
    Take the position: Dig in:
    Build a fort somewhere shaded and sheltered
    Raise a family: Get some company
    Enlist civilians: Outpost a few good men: Shearers cottage [whatever]
    Know your neighbors: No-mans land in between
    But first: Agro the green rolling hills
    New England here and here: It’s going to be super:
    Any fool can see: Trench in: Use explosives:
    Napalm and nuke the trees: Your maxim: Think like a sheep:
    A sheep in the shade won’t eat
    Logic dictates: The trees have to go
    Being the enemy: They just have to go
    Splendid! Best of New English luck! Good oh: Next”

    AmacArts 2013

  5. Angus Macdonald says:

    Here amongst these trees
    The lungs of the Earth are breathing:
    Over there: Just there
    Meters away
    The ground is bare
    Hard as stone
    Dry as old bone
    A dust bowl of our making
    360 degrees surround
    Reaching to and beyond every horizon
    Sunburned dry Sahara hills
    Hawke’s Bay today: A desert of our making
    That’s right: It wasn’t always this way
    Not quite null arbor
    One or two trees remain silhouetted on the skyline:
    Defiantly beside another dry tank
    No shade for stock
    Not now
    [not for the last 40 years][at the least]
    No feed: Enough to make a man weep
    But tears are not enough
    Not enough:
    Might be if there was seed
    In the ground…Waiting for Spring
    Ready to sprout…Waiting for water
    Ready for the Old World Order
    To take over: Re-take stolen ground
    Ready to re-forest
    To live and let live
    Let the ground breath
    Break this cycle of death
    The iron grip of Mordor
    Despoiling The Shire
    With it’s savage null arbor

    April 2013

  6. Angus Macdonald says:

    Beneath the surface
    [such is the soldiers conditioning]
    A no-mans land has grown
    [going green was never the intent]
    New England? Hah!
    Sahara hills…Barbed wire…Wind blown…Eroded
    Rabbit warrened…Stripped….Scoured…Natives cleared
    Home and away: Agri-Care was always war
    Best chemical management there is:
    Going through the system
    Each soldiers/farmers/landfill/cistern
    Generally and specifically
    [a convenient ravine filled to the brim]
    [they always have one]
    There’s our history:
    Stark residues of a militant model
    Neatly layered
    Aged Agri-Couldn’t-Care-Less
    Nest of toxic time-bombs
    Rusting 44 gallon drums
    Munition dump
    Ten litre pails
    Token fridges
    Washing machines
    Leaching into soil
    Giving no solace
    For manic suicides
    Hopeless quest
    ‘Coz frackings next
    Ooh yes
    It was always the plan
    Hold on to what’s left:
    We’re readying the rigs
    To go in deep
    Out here
    In no mans land
    [whatever’s left]

    AMacArts April 2013

  7. Angus Macdonald says:

    It hurts:
    Drought in the Hawkes Bay
    Doubt that it will ever change
    I’ve seen the top’s:
    Flew over massive erosion in ’86
    Already bare as bolshevism…Already scarred
    Scared then: it’s our desert in the making
    Restorative intervention needed:
    Re-plant these dry Sahara hills
    Stripped of vegetation: Bind the soil: Trees are needed
    Yesterday I cut wood: Chained my way through fallen gum
    Some macrocarpa: A cord or two for a friend in need
    Her cottage nestled in a copse of trees
    Readying for winter…I chained in shade
    Under a canopy
    Beside trunks and branches levitas reach
    An oasis: No sun-hat needed
    I chained
    Dead limbs trimmed chiseled barrowed stacked
    Rock-hard wood testing every chisel’s metal edge
    Massive gum reaching up
    Wide spread above: Arms
    Hands reaching down … Fingers almost touching the ground
    Boundaried by macrocarpa: Equal in stature
    Their hedge-belt shelter full of broken bits
    Sheared by wet-weight in southern winds
    All in all a bunch of generous trees:
    Giving Giving Giving
    Shamanic place for chanting
    Old limbs worn from equine scratching
    Grounds for camping
    Picnics…Parties…Cool in Summer
    Dry in Winter…Rustling leaves
    Birds nesting…Chirruping…Bug life abundant
    Dogs and horses resting
    The soil: Full of roots and leaves
    Mulch…Manure: Seeds sown for the hopeful Spring
    A place where the lungs of the Earth are breathing:
    The lungs of the Earth are breathing
    [Not even native]
    Out there: A desert: Null arbor
    Our desert in the making: Enough to make you weep

    AmacArts April 2013

  8. Angus Macdonald says:

    If I were a sheep
    Out in the heat
    I’d look for a tree
    To shelter beneath:
    Wouldn’t eat
    Probably just chat
    And bleat
    Amongst ourselves
    Stand still in shade
    Most of the day
    I wouldn’t get fat
    Stay pretty fit
    Worth less to sell
    Less meat to kill
    But hey
    Life would be BAA-AAl-MY
    Like that

    Bloody baa-aal-my beasts:
    Think Like A Man
    Logic dictates:
    The trees have to go
    So the sheep will eat
    Stand in the sun
    Get fat
    Heads down
    Good to sell
    Same with the cows
    The last wife
    [hmmm….before she left]
    In fact the more I think:
    [like a sheep…like a soldier]
    [same thing really]
    Trees are actually ‘anti-economique’
    Better off cleared
    Better off burned
    Sheep don’t need shade:
    They need to EAT!
    That’s that: Get going
    Burn … Clear… Sow
    And feel free:
    Supplant within your housing hollows
    Oaks…Poplar…Birch ‘n’ Willow
    [anything but natives for the kids to climb]
    The fields: Keep them bare
    Bare as a sunburned blistered baby’s bum
    Shade for stock?

    AMacArts April 2013

  9. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    Reblogging because we are in the grip of another drought in Hawke’s Bay, and nothing much has changed. Yet there are all the examples in the world from which to learn, and beautifully written books by some of the minds I admire the most, and the logic of first principles. But the mechanical and reductionist paradigm continues, and you are considered a crackpot if you suggest another way of thinking about a complex issue.

    Interesting that Jon Morgan dug up some of the presentation work we did back in 2009 during the last major 07-09 drought in Hawke’s Bay. He remembered the higher covers work – significantly reduces evapotranspiration as does integrated woodlands for shelter, along exactly the same principles of reducing the Osmotic Gradient from wet leaf/soil to dry hot air that you see in plants with sunken stomata or tomentose (hairy) leaves.

    It is not information that is lacking, it is the paradigms of thought that are limiting us.

  10. Pingback: Instead of Dam Thinking from the 50s, Look to the Landscape | Chris Perley's Blog

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