This article takes a look at water management using Permaculture principles. It seems that a lot of today’s ‘natural’ disasters have been made worse by our ‘un-natural’ care of the environment.  Areas that experience massive flooding are the same places which often experience extreme drought, sometimes in the same year.  The checks and balances that nature has provided for us are becoming more and more scarce as we deplete our natural resources.  This article discusses some of the ways that Permaculture can assist with protecting and harvesting our water resources.

A Permaculture Look at Flooding

In Malawi in 2001, we heard about massive destruction, displacement, and hardship that was caused by the floods in the Nsanje district in the south of the country.  This was indeed a tragedy not only in terms of the suffering that it has caused the people there, but also in terms of the damage that has been done: the destruction of property, the loss of crops, environmental devastation, the damage to infrastructure, and the costs that will be needed for rescue operations, relocation, food aid, and sanitation concerns.

This situation, as bad as it was, provides us with a very important opportunity to think about whether this was just an “act of nature” or rather something that can be prevented in the future.  Water management is a very important concept in Permaculture.  Without water our crops won’t grow, we can’t bathe, wash clothes or dishes, and without clean water to drink we would die very quickly.  During the dry season, we are often in need of water as many of our rivers and boreholes run dry.

The four “S’s”: STOP, SPREAD, SINK, and SHADE.

Every drop of water that falls on our land should remain on our land.  Therefore, the four S’s can be easily accomplished with the help of trees, plants, groundcover, root systems, contour ridging, and swales.  All of these things help to STOP the flow of runoff, SPREAD it out, allow it to SINK into the soil, and then SHADE it so that it remains there for a long time into the dry season helping to keep our rivers running and our boreholes full.

Swale Systems in Catching Water

When we eliminate many of these things through poor land management practices, we begin to see that the water from our land flows away very quickly causing soil erosion and gullies.  As the water from our land meets the water flowing off of other people’s land, it will eventually form small streams that flow into larger streams, and then into rivers that flow towards the lakes and oceans.  When these rivers fill up so quickly, the increasing amount of flooding that we are seeing along the lakeshore, and in low-lying areas like Nsanje, becomes inevitable.  This runoff water also carries with it much of the valuable and nutritious topsoil that we need to grow healthy crops.

The short video from MADE Farms in the Philippines does a nice job of explaining swale systems and how to make them:

Are we practicing the four S’s in Malawi or not?  Widespread deforestation has become a very common sight, massive burning during the dry season destroys the organic matter that can help to hold back the rains, and even the plants from each year’s harvest are gathered up and burned rather than being left to return to the soil that they came from.  The flooding that we have seen in Nsanje this year can be blamed on all of us, for there is a saying in Permaculture that says, “We all live downstream.” This means that no matter what we do, it will eventually come around to effect us all.

The effects of runoff water can easily be demonstrated by building three small slopes in the dirt.  The first slope you can pack tightly and make smooth to represent a hillside that has been burnt during the dry season.  The next slope you can still pack tightly but make small contour ridges along it to represent a maize field after the harvest has been finished and all the organic matter has been collected and burned.  The third slope you can make into a “Permaculture” slope.

Don’t pack it down quite as tightly to show that healthy soil is soft and able to “breathe”, put small rows of plants and grass into it to represent the trees, groundcover, and root systems that a good Permaculture plot will have all year round.  You can even build small swales along this slope and cover them with mulch or compost.  Now, take three same-sized containers of water and pour them down the slope from the top of each and see what happens.  Notice the amount of runoff and soil erosion on the first two slopes compared to that of the last.  This is an activity that can be used to teach people of all ages and it can help to show that we all have a small part to play in preventing situations like we saw in Nsanje this year. 

Remember, “Pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo” (little by little makes a bundle). The short video below demonstrates how this experiment can be done using old bottles:

We also need to remember that the result of our actions will have a direct impact on our living conditions.  Each year in Malawi, we seem to be hearing about flooding in areas that had never been flooded before.  Instead of making the connection between poor land management practices and the flooding, we often hear people blaming nature, climate change, the government, and even witchcraft. 

We all have a role to play in teaching people about the importance of the four S’s of Permaculture—STOP, SPREAD, SINK, and SHADE.  Even more importantly, we need to begin to apply it ourselves no matter where we live and work.  As we near the end of this year’s rains, it gives us a great opportunity to get ready for next year!

The following is a brochure that was assembled using information from the Sustainable Nutrition Manual to help people learn more about preventing and mitigating the effects of floods. It may be downloaded for free at the bottom of the page.