The Future of Managing Water in our Landscapes – Go Local Scale

There are so many examples both past and present where taking a decentralised approach to managing water in dry landscapes provides multiple benefits.  Such examples tend to be low capital as well as suited to a particular people and place – often


Johad – a crescent-shaped bund placed across the contour of sloping ground

with high social engagement.  They are all in such contrast to the large-scale industrial approaches we favour in the technocratic West.  Perhaps it is the social engagement and the contingencies of place that scare off those who live in large city offices?

The local solutions often have a history going back thousands of years, from the paddy systems of Asia, the terracing of the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Americas, the systems of Petra and the Hopi, as well as the ‘Johad’ systems of parts of South Asia that collect monsoon excesses for groundwater recharge.  A Johad is a crescent-shaped bund placed across the contour of land to catch excess run off.  They seems similar to the old pre-Columbian Native American upland bunds, check dams and contour terrace systems Aldo Leopold writes about in his visits to Sonora in Northern Mexico.

The Johads’ function is far more related to allowing the water to recharge the groundwater than in water storage itself.  And the results in some areas are claimed to be phenomenal.  Well worth looking into.  Much of this water would have flooded on down stream.  They also trap valuable soil which locals clean out prior to the next monsoon and put back on the land.

You read about these examples of ancient thinking not just in articles such as this about Rajendra Singh


Singh has brought water back to some 1,000 villages. (Tarun Bharat Sangh)

and his promotion of johads in Rajasthan, but also in the swath of books that have come out in critique of the Western mechanical paradigm of industrial scale.  I especially like Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry, and the recently published A River Runs Again by Meera Subramanian.

Many of these systems have applicability in New Zealand, but the dominant narrative in not just the West but amongst the technocrats of Asia, is to look for the big input solutions.  The 1950s Aswan dam paradigm that result in win:lose outcomes. Decentralised systems so often end with win:win outcomes.

Paddy hoang-su-phi-vietnam.jpg

Hoang Su Phi Paddy System, Vietnam

So much of the resistance to taking up such decentralised Appropriate Technology (Schumacher) ideas relates to the way we are taught to think – not within a wide and complex socio-ecological system, but within a mechanical view of the world.

So often the construction of Johads were not supported by central and local government, so the initiatives had to be led by a small group working within a particular local community, whose results finally spread to others.  I have no idea why this is so.  I know many within at least our own government departments that would understand the principles – but perhaps the hierarchies above are incapable of the conceptual thought, and/or disconnected from those who live within these landscapes and their potential.  Perhaps – if I were to be cynical – it is the mere fact that there is far more kudos for the CEO, councillor or minister to cut the ribbon on some single great monument to ego and largess than on all these little things that actually achieve a better world.

That is the history of so many  authorities; ego gets involved, and they simply do not get the importance of working within local communities toward a common goal which requires a level of humility and question asking.  You go in as a guest, and you do not know this land in all its intimate moods.  Authorities may know centralised technologies, but they have far less feel for the sociologies and psychologies of place, not to mention local contingencies and conditions that make the central grand plan less than workable, potentially disastrous.

But then, central bureaucrats do not particularly like it when it is the locals who know more than they do.  Hierarchies are not used to listening to their own staff, let alone actual humble people of the lands and hamlets beyond the gates.

We could have started on local initiatives involving water in drought, flood and erosion prone catchments in Hawke’s Bay like the Huatokitoki, and let the ideas and practices extend from there.  Still could with the political will.

An important point is that these solutionsFarmland-near-Wharton-Fel-006.jpg that hold water are integral to so much else, so many other environmental, economic and social issues.  Water holding is one of those classic ‘sites of action’ that ripple out in positive waves from that pebble we throw in the pond of conventional, still and immutable ideas.

When you look to holding water in soils, you build soil quality with organic matter.  You sequester carbon.  You increase its water infiltration rates as well as its fertility and biodiversity.  There is more food for beneficial birds as well as stock.  When you grow more woody vegetation and keep higher herbaceous covers to reduce evapotranspiration you also improve soil infiltration rates and provide shelter and shade, more carbon, fodder and the potential for yet more biodiversity and economic value, not to mention aesthetics.

When you build pond systems to hold excess water you create water cleansing wetlands, keep any organic matter, sediment and nutrients that run off the land, biodiversity, more permanently flowing streams, reduced impacts of floods, less drought effects, more groundwater recharge in many geographies, and the chance to sit and watch a heron or hear a bittern.  Whatever the land produces is premium by any of the mega-trends of discerning buyers – food quality and safety, healthy environment, healthy community.

Never let anyone try and suggest that economic return and environmental and social

Neil Cullen Sth Otago.jpg

Neil Cullen, South Otago

performances are mutually exclusive.  I do not wish to be unkind, but if our ‘education’ system is in any way part of reinforcing that mechanical myth, then it seriously has to look at what ideas it is educating.  There is no wisdom to the cliché, “You cannot be green if you’re in the red.”  It’s actually the opposite over time, “You won’t be in the black for long if you don’t think Green.”

I think this is the great challenge to our incredibly obtuse conventions relating to the primary land-based sectors.  When will policy, research and education – as well as the dominant corporate agribusiness models of industrialism that those three bewilderingly look to as some relevant font of knowing – realise that their current systems are both morally and intellectually bankrupt?  Mechanical constructs of our landscapes, filled in their minds with ‘units’ (people included) rather than with functions whose very integrity is increasingly at risk because they degrade what they cannot see.

Look to our water as an indicator of economic, social and environmental health.  The quality of our streams, the extent of those lengths that permanently flow, the cleanliness of our groundwater, our floods and our droughts.

The stream rules the aquifer, and the land rules the stream.  If our streams are not healthy, then you can guarantee you will have problems with the land, our people, and our economy.  And the solutions lie with the way we think, engage and act within and throughout our landscapes – not on some large behemoth of concrete and capital sitting large and arrogant, like the statue of Ozymandias, in one place.

Chris Perley


Indian water Crisis.jpg

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4 Responses to The Future of Managing Water in our Landscapes – Go Local Scale

  1. seekaweb says:

    Good on your Chris. I agree that at the National level, the polly’s are just not listening. Are you saying that at regional level it might be better?; or at district level? Or have you given up on the whole current political system? Ian

    • cjkperley says:

      Hi Ian, I think that throughout both central and local govt, there are people who get it. But those who make the call in the Executives are not always able to think conceptually – there are exceptions, even in Hawke’s Bay, but the majority. They will kill anything conceptual coming from conceptual thinking staff ‘below’ them – too new, too risky, not mainstream, etc. I have zero hope for large corporations in thinking in a decentralised way. That is like asking the Pope not to be a catholic.

  2. Clive Anstey says:

    Well up to your usual (provocative) standard!
    We’ve had the RMA for 25 years now. One doesn’t have to be too clever to understand the implications for a sustainable future as defined (or implied) by the Act. All places have to be sustained in terms of the values the Act identifies and this demands a very local evaluation of what matters and what is or is not workable.
    Yes, you are cynical and why not? I agree with you Chris, lots of people see the need for a far more local and nuanced approach to development but we are all stuck with an unsustainable system of governance. Money is power and the more money you control the more power you have and the more you benefit personally. Bigger is better. And the local is fraught with conflict and endless mediation. It’s called democracy. And scale is critical. I once met a farmer in North Otago who would never travel beyond the point where a particular hill remained in sight; beyond the point of ‘knowing’. We are increasingly controlled by disoriented people.


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

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