Hardly a week can pass now without at least one dire warning about water. Much that would have been apocalyptic science fiction a few decades ago is now too boring to be considered news. We hear from NASA, for example, that what we call drought around the world may be the the new normal, and that California has only one year of water left in its reservoirs. The latest is the complete and unprecedented absence of snowpack in the Sierras, which had been imagined as a worst-case scenario… until it happened. In the place of California, one could substitute many other regions in crisis which are not as well mediatized.
Climate change is associated almost exclusively with global warming and the greenhouse effect of carbon emissions. But many changes in weather patterns, floods, droughts, famine, landslides, and desertification, have a completely different cause. And that cause is bad water management.
The good news is that when it comes to water management, local and regional changes can have a local and regional impact. No one needs to wait for the great powers to act; we can act now, where we are.
By “bad water management,” I also mean bad soil management, or rather the whole combination of deforestation, overgrazing, erosion and loss of topsoil, paving and over-development, depletion of aquifers, industrial agriculture, engineering of rivers and other waterways, and other human activities that disrupt natural hydrological cycles. The result is that when rain falls, it finds little opportunity to enter into the earth; nor can it enter into the biomass of topsoil, plants, trees, and other living things. Rainwater now runs directly into rivers and back to the sea, causing destruction along the way. These “floods” are not typically the result of harder rain than occurred historically, but rather are due to the lack of topsoil, vegetation, and natural waterways that can hold and slowly re-release the water over days, months, or even (in the case of underground aquifers) years.
Because all the rainwater rushes away, there is less fresh water available in the environment: Water tables drop; springs, rivers, and other surface waters dry up; meanwhile, evaporation from topsoil and plant respiration declines, lowering atmospheric humidity and reducing the likelihood of further precipitation. Millán Millán of the Mediterranean Center for Environmental Studies (CEAM) has extensively studied how deforestation and overdevelopment on the Mediterranean coast leads to both sustained drought and—ironically—catastrophically intense storms far into Europe.
Desertification in most parts of the world, for example here in Iberia, is blamed on global warming. But nearly everywhere on earth, there is enough water for agriculture, reforestation, and regeneration of the natural environment. It just needs to be allowed to enter into the earth and into a living biomass. Truly, most human-made deserts are not marked by a lack of water, but by a lack of forests and soil to hold the water.
On World Water Day this spring, Rajendra Singh of India received the Stockholm Water Prize for working on just that: making it possible for rainwater to be retained within a region, restoring the aquifers, rivers, and the environment. We do similar work here in Tamera, developing a water retention landscape that has radically transformed our local environment, benefiting us and our neighbors. Water retention basins are built; along with swales, check dams, and other earthworks to slow and hold water. Trees are planted, soil is built up again. The biomass is increased.
Life returns, the water table rises, dried creeks and springs begin to flow. Agriculture becomes possible again. Wild birds and other animals quickly reestablish themselves.
This knowledge and these techniques are well-grounded in science, but are still perceived as “alternative,” mostly applied by fairly small scale, radical ecological projects. These undertakings are too often seen as the organic food co-ops of ecological restoration: No one would disapprove, but they’re not widely understood as relevant, much less of critical and revolutionary importance. Most journalists prefer to focus on climate summits, disasters, failed treaties, alarming numbers, and forebodings of the end-times. But no one needs to wait for international organizations, transnational corporations, or governments to act. Desertification, and much else that is called “global climate change” and its consequences, can be stopped and reversed on any scale, from the backyard to the local watershed, depending on the will of the people who want to change it.
Understanding water, and dealing with water differently, is an achievable goal, and one of the keys to a sustainable future.