The New Water Alchemists
Issue: Winter 2017, Winter 2020
Author: Judith D. Schwartz
Topics: Climate Change, Ecology, and Sustainability, Farming, Food, and Alcohol, Science, Engineering, and Invention
Locations: California, USA, Worldwide, Africa, Australia
Materials: Soil, Carbon, Water, Cattle, Trees
Animals, plants, soil, and air have long collaborated to regulate our climate by stimulating “the water cycle.” They have also helped control natural disasters like the wildfires now raging in Australia — until we disrupted their partnership. The good news is that there is a clear pathway to reconciliation.
By JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ
Chris Henggeler and his family manage a 300-square-mile ranch in a desolate corner of Australia called the Kimberley. Through a variety of low-tech management practices, they have single-handedly turned much of the dusty landscape green, with rivers and creeks once again flowing generously. Photo courtesy of Kachana Pastoral Company
Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent, and a nation cursed by headline-grabbing weather extremes. In 2013, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology famously added dark purple to its weather maps to denote over-the-top heat waves, the no-longer-rare days when air temperatures breach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). Australia’s history since European settlement has been riddled with droughts and floods so dire they’re etched in the books as significant natural disasters. The millennium drought, known colloquially as the “Big Dry,” persisted for 15 years until finally doused by epic rains and floods that lasted from late 2010 into early 2011. This season, of course, has been particularly severe, with hundreds of brushfires that have left large scars in the landscape and smoky fumes in the cities. Just the last few days have brought sky-blackening dust storms and a hailstorm in Canberra, the capital.
The most devastating wildfires since 1851 have names, including Black Christmas and Black Tuesday. Most recently and most deadly were the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people. The current fires have caused enormous losses of wildlife, with heartbreaking images in the news of burnt and thirsty koalas. The extent of Australia that goes up in smoke is mind-boggling. An estimated 60,000 bushfires, many of them extensive, flame through Australia each year. (Between one-third and one-half of these are attributed to arson.) According to several tallies, between 130 and 220 million hectares (or 321 to 543 million acres) are burnt each year by either wildfires or intentional controlled burns. That’s a patch of earth somewhat bigger than the nation of Liberia. The carbon emitted from these conflagrations dwarfs the amount spewed by fossil fuels — and this year will likely double it.
“I think of this as solar real estate. And I look at myself as a capitalist,” says Chris Henggeler, referring to his land in a hot, desolate corner of Australia. And his cattle? That’s “middle management,” he says. “They’re our plumbers and electricians.”
In the Kimberley, a remote area in the Northwestern quadrant of this continent, Chris Henggeler manages Kachana Station, a chunk of rugged terrain that spans nearly 300 square miles. With a long, craggy coastline, the Kimberley is about as thinly populated a region as you can find. Try to imagine the outback of the outback: dramatic canyons and gorges awash in hues of ochre; 18-foot-long crocodiles lazing on the river banks; eye-catching birds like the red-tailed black cockatoo; sparkling waterfalls like “the Horries” (for horizontal), which flow sideways (only in Oz). It is hot here year-round.
When Henggeler first visited the property in 1985 with his brother and a business partner, he found a worn-out landscape that hadn’t been managed for decades. Land surfaces were riven by gully erosion, waterways so full of silt they scarcely flowed. Wide areas were swept clear by recent fires, leaving brown and dusty soil. It didn’t take long for Henggeler to decide: let’s invest.
Though Henggeler now raises plenty of cattle on his enterprise, called Kachana Pastoral Company, he doesn’t sell livestock. His “product,” rather, is restored land or, as Henggeler puts it, “enhanced natural capital.” He considers his approach “environmental capitalism,” which entails recognizing and making use of the income opportunity inherent in 12 hours of free solar energy. “All this is beamed at us. We just need to harness it,” he says. “I think of this as solar real estate. And I look at myself as a capitalist.” The central element to creating wealth at Kachana, he says, is better management of the water that falls from the sky.
And the cattle? That’s “middle management,” Henggeler says. “These cattle had never seen humans before we arrived. Now they’re working — they’re more like oxen. They’re our plumbers and electricians on the landscape.”
If all this strikes you as unrealistic, look again. In the few areas that Henggeler has thus far been able to target — given the limitations of his “upper management” (that would be humans) — he reports they are growing grasses faster than they can expand their herd. Bare ground has drastically diminished. The cattle are healthier and there are 10 times as many of them. A creek that was a desiccated channel in the early 1990s now has clean, flowing water throughout the year. More springs are surfacing and locally endangered animals and plant species are thriving. Creeks now flow longer into the dry season, and the land rebounds more rapidly from bushfires.
COWS, TOMORROW’S HEROES
The reasons that Henggeler’s land bounced back so dramatically have to do with some very basic but often ignored principles of biology. This includes the cycling of carbon, the building block of life. When cattle eat, they make use of the organic carbon that is in all plant matter. As they graze — defecating, urinating, and stomping down the foliage under their feet — the cows return organic material to the earth. Meanwhile, a grass plant’s response to being nibbled is to release carbon compounds (sugars) in the root zone. As the soil grows richer, it attracts worms and dung beetles, which create paths for air and water and provide ongoing feasts for microorganisms. These are the “little beasties” above and below the ground that, in Henggeler’s lexicon, are “the workers” — the labor force that upper management strives to keep productive.
The new levels of soil nutrients and moisture stimulate additional plant growth, thereby setting up a beneficial feedback loop. With new moisture throughout the environment, the system itself begins to deter fire. Furthermore, the accumulated carbon helps prepare the land for rain. Enhancing ground cover or “armor,” says Henggeler, “changes raindrops from bombshells into mist-irrigators that help to grow grass. Reinvest your carbon and you can become productive.”
Henggeler’s philosophy and methodology draw directly from a Zimbabwean wildlife biologist named Allan Savory, who has, since the 1970s, been developing a system of land stewardship called Holistic Management. Many people, upward of 3 million to be precise, are aware of Savory primarily through his 2013 TED Talk, “How to Green the Deserts and Reverse Climate Change.” The 22-minute presentation sparked a lot of attention and immediately entered that dubious media category of “controversial.”
To many viewers, the idea that grassland ecosystems require periodic animal impact stood in flagrant opposition to what they’d been taught. But years of observation convinced Savory that grazing animals and grasslands are interdependent: time and again he saw land deteriorate when animals were removed. In nature, plants are to a large extent managed by herbivores, and those plant-eating animals are managed by predators. The alteration of the landscape and the absence of natural predators have left a management void. With what we now understand about rangeland systems, this void can be filled in a way that at once bolsters ecological function and economic viability. This is especially crucial in areas with seasonal rainfall, where ruminants play a pivotal role in maintaining moisture from one rainy season to the next.
A number of vegan activists and a few range-science researchers have sought to discredit Savory’s theories. From what I have been able to tell — based on my own reading and conversations with other ecology experts — their arguments are based on just a few academic articles, which are about experiments that don’t actually test the Holistic Management model. Some assess grazing systems that appear similar — like “mob grazing” or “short-term rotational grazing” — but are actually quite different. Savory says there are at least 13 grazing systems with names that have been used interchangeably with Holistic Management.
To be fair, Holistic Management is difficult to measure. Standard research protocol calls for carefully monitoring a set of clear, controlled variables. Under Holistic Management, landscapes are seen as constantly evolving, with a host of constantly changing variables. In that sense, they are very much like the natural ecosystems that Savory strives to mimic.
“São Paulo is following on California’s footsteps,” said Antonio Nobre, a scientist in Brazil. “This area has been green forever. But for most of 2014, people were looking to the horizon and seeing the same atmosphere as you’d see in the Sahara: the same layer of dust and blue sky and heat. People are scared, shaking in their boots.”
When I wrote “Water in Plain Sight” (published in 2016 by St. Martin’s Press, and from which this article is adapted), I was motivated by my conviction that water should be integral to discussions of climate change. I don’t mean merely from the perspective that a changing climate will put stress on available water sources worldwide — an important link, but one that is generally known. I also mean the influence of water on climate. While researching my previous book, “Cows Save the Planet” (published in 2013), I learned a lot about the carbon cycle in our soil, and how that cycle intersects with others — the nutrient cycle, the energy cycle, and the water cycle. Water, I have come to understand, can be a particularly powerful ally as we grapple with climate change.
To learn more about the ways of water I spent two years visiting or talking to people in California, Mexico, Brazil, West Texas, Australia, and Africa. At each stop I found what might be called new water — water held in the soil, cycled through plants, captured as dew. This provided insight into how water flows across the land and through the atmosphere — insight that can help us replenish our water resources and make the best use of what we have.
ARBOREAL AIR CONDITIONERS
In early 2015, São Paulo, Brazil — a megacity in a country known for its legendary rainforests — was suffering from a severe drought. The network of reservoirs that provides water to nearly half of the city’s 20 million residents languished at a mere 5 percent of capacity. Experts predicted that, without strict rationing, the water supply wouldn’t last 10 weeks. Some apartment dwellers saw their water shut off without warning, for up to five days. Commentators noted the irony that Brazil, which has been called “the Saudi Arabia of water” — was confronting such a dire shortfall.
If cattle were managed well on native grasslands, we could stop cutting down the rainforests to make room for them. These trees would then be around to maintain the water cycle, through functions that have generally been overlooked in rainforest discussions.
“São Paulo is following on California’s footsteps,” said Antonio Nobre, a senior scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research. “This area has been green forever. But for most of 2014, people were looking to the horizon and seeing the same atmosphere as you’d see in the Sahara: the same layer of dust and blue sky and heat. People are scared, shaking in their boots.” In response, he said, Brazil’s government ignored the problem “as if the next wet season would save us.”
Judging from the latest scientific evidence, if Brazil fails to maintain its forests there won’t be many more wet seasons.
Granted, much of the rainforest is being decimated to make room for cattle. But if livestock were raised in native grasslands that require animal impact — and managed in the adaptive manner that Henggeler and Savory have found effective — we could start leaving the rainforests alone. These trees would then be around to maintain the water cycle, through functions that have generally been overlooked in rainforest discussions.
The idea that there’s a connection between forests and water sufficiency is far from new. Plato and Aristotle wrote about how deforestation leads to the loss of water resources. In his 1864 book “Man and Nature” (original title: “Man the Disturber of Nature’s Harmonies”), George Perkins Marsh catalogs numerous troubles observed during his diplomatic and literary travels. “When the forest is gone,” Marsh wrote, “the great reservoir of moisture stored up in its vegetable mould [soil or humus] is evaporated, and returns only in deluges of rain to wash away the parched dust into which that mould has been converted. The well-wooded and humid hills are turned to ridges of dry rock.” More recently, popular histories such as Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” and David Montgomery’s “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” are full of cautionary tales about societies — the Maya, Pacific Islanders, communities in the French Alps — that squandered their tree cover, only to face catastrophic flooding and drought.
On a superficial level, most people understand the value of trees beyond supplying wood. Their roots stabilize the soil, allowing it to hold rainfall rather than letting water stream away, carrying off the topsoil’s nutritious stores of organic matter. Tree canopies also intercept downpours, so the water doesn’t pummel the ground, leaving craters and overwhelming the land’s ability to absorb it.
During the daily “transpiration” process of a single tree, the heat consumed represents three times the cooling power of an air-conditioning system in a five-star hotel room.
On a deeper level, however, trees do a lot more heavy lifting for the environment — and for climate regulation — than most of us realize. Just for starters, the shade of a tree canopy cools the ground so that moisture is less prone to evaporate, thus keeping water in the system. Trees also recycle oxygen and water vapor, which improves the quality of the air and lends it a soft humidity. Everyone knows how soothing it is to be near trees. (There’s even a healing practice in Japan called Shinrin Yoku, translated as “forest bathing,” which research has found lowers stress and boosts immunity.) Bill Mollison, the late biologist and teacher considered the “father of permaculture,” has found that the rainwater that filters through the canopy is distinct from ordinary rain. “It’s a much richer substance,” Mollison says — a kind of arboreal elixir with a different ionic makeup. This “throughwater” contains trace elements that rainwater doesn’t necessarily have, he says, and it’s less acidic. “The most nutritious pasture,” Mollison says, “is near trees.”
And trees cool the air — significantly. Jan Pokorný, a Czech botanist, argues that trees are the world’s most perfect air conditioners, largely because of a process they go through called “transpiration.” Every day, trees and other plants emit water vapor through small openings on the underside of their leaves (in grasses, on the blades). Think of this as the plant “breathing,” or, more precisely, “sweating.” Consider an ordinary tree, whose leaf crown spans about 16-1/2 feet (or 5 meters). On a sunny day, Pokorný says, this tree would have at least 150 kilowatt hours of solar energy shining upon it. Given sufficient water, over the course of the day the tree would transpire upward of 26 gallons of water (more than 100 liters). The heat consumed during that process represents three times the cooling power of an air-conditioning system in a five-star hotel room, Pokorný says. And he isn’t the only scientist thinking this way. Research from Australia found that tree canopy cover of a mere 40 percent cooled an area by 9 degrees.
In a verdant tropical forest like the Amazon, the soil-plant-sky circuit is running very quickly. This makes the carbon, nutrient, and water cycles all accelerate. The rate of transpiration in the Amazon Basin is such that each tree is a veritable fountain. On a given day, Nobre writes, a large tree in the rainforest “can pump from the soil and transpire over a thousand liters of water.” That’s more than 260 gallons — from one tree, in a single day.
With the growing mounds of data like this, why are discussions on climate change so narrowly focused? Says Pokorný: “Our understanding of the role of water and plants in landscape functioning is the equivalent of medicine before Pasteur.”
And the water at Kachana Station now goes on and on. Photo courtesy of Kachana Pastoral Company
DEAD TREES, DEAD RAINCLOUDS
In 2014, Nobre published a massive review of 200 scientific articles on the Amazon, drawn from authors around the world, called “The Future Climate of Amazonia.” As might be expected, it made a strong case for protecting and even replanting the rainforests — not just for Brazil’s sake but also for climate stability across the globe. One of Nobre’s conclusions gave new meaning to the term “rainforests.” These forests don’t merely exist because of the rain; to a large extent, the rain — in Brazil and elsewhere — exists because of the forests.
Nobre’s argument rests on yet another foundation of the water cycle: how our atmosphere creates rain. To form rain droplets, water vapor molecules need some kind of particle to coalesce around: typically, minute flecks of dust, pollen, salts, or soot. This microscopic debris serves as condensation nuclei and promotes the formation of clouds.
In recent years, a range of biologists have learned there is a difference between condensation particles that produce rain and those that don’t. (Among other factors, the first are large enough to become heavy after condensing with water, and thus fall as rain; the second are smaller, and thus linger in the atmosphere.) The latter, unfortunately, are the form that humans are generating in rising amounts. These include fumes from the burning of fossil fuels, chemical pollutants, and — according to Walter Jehne, an Australian soil microbiologist — “3 to 5 billion metric tons of dust from bare, eroding soil surfaces.”
This might explain some of the forces behind the historic drought in the Western U.S., especially in its primary fruit and vegetable producer: California. In some regions recently, whenever weather predictions have called for rain, the skies have indeed filled with dark clouds. Yet the clouds now often continue on their merry way, without releasing a drop.
Amazonia seems different, however. Here, the air is nearly empty of the standard heavy particles that produce typical rainfalls. (This also is true of the air above the ocean, which helps explain why many maritime stretches receive little rain.) But the Amazon gets lots of rain — in some places, upward of 9 feet a year. How does it manage this feat?
Again, thank the trees. It turns out their leaves emit carbon-based gases, called biogenic volatile organic compounds — what Nobre calls “scents of the forest” (or, inspired by the animated films his two daughters watch, “pixie dust”). When the sun shines on these tiny iotas of matter, they oxidize and precipitate into fine dust particles with an affinity for water. There’s only one problem: some 300,000 square miles of Amazonia has been deforested; that’s an area the size of two Germanys or two Japans. Nobre likes to convert this expanse to units that Brazilian readers understand: 184 million soccer fields.
The argument that forests spread rain beyond their own borders has been most audaciously explained by a theory called the “biotic pump.” This idea, first described in a 2007 paper by Russian physicists Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, drew lots of attention, quickly becoming controversial. (One biotic pump paper was published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an esteemed scientific journal, only after an unprecedented two-and-a-half-year-long discussion period.) The science, expressed in the rarified language of physics, basically reflects the dynamics driven by transpiration. In a mature, robust forest, the Russian physicists argue, the concentration of trees creates a lot of transpiration. The moist air rises and the water vapor condenses, producing a partial vacuum. This creates what’s called an air pressure gradient, enabling the forest canopy to draw in moist air from the ocean.
Conversely, without sufficient forest cover, the ocean creates the stronger vacuum, dumping rain on sailors instead of on farmers. Should such a fate befall the Amazon, the Russians say, it could mean a rainfall decrease of up to 90 percent.
Scientists who have looked into the Russians’ theory have found alarming evidence that it might be on target, with wider consequences than we’ve realized. As but one example, climatologist Roni Avissar, now dean of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, and colleagues at Duke University found that deforestation in the Amazon Basin correlates with lower rainfall in regions as far away as the American Midwest. Apparently, when it comes to the water cycle, we all live in the same neighborhood.
As the sun comes up, herders at the Dimbangombe Ranch, in Zimbabwe, lead the cattle from the lion-proof kraal where they’d spent the night to where they will graze for the day. Dickson Ncube, the herding supervisor, describes how he has seen the land change: “There was plenty of bare land. There were gullies and sinkholes. Then we started bringing in the cattle. The gully is still there, but now there is grass so there is no erosion.” Photo by Tony Eprile
That is a scary prospect if Brazil’s rainforests continue to decline. Amazonia could then lose its pumping power; in Gorshkov and Makarieva’s language, the forest could lose the moisture “tug-of-war” to the ocean. In a worst-case scenario, Antonio Nobre writes, Brazil’s humid tropical biome, with all its biodiversity, “would resemble present-day Australia: a vast desert interior fringed on one side by strips of wetter areas near the sea.” With deforestation’s dramatic increase under Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, desertification becomes more than theoretical possibility. It is hardly the kind of experiment one wants to watch in real time.
THE HIDDEN CAUSE OF GLOBAL STRIFE
Consider these quick facts: 663 million people, or one in 10 across the world, lack access to clean water. Every 90 seconds a child dies of a water-related disease, usually diarrhea from inadequate drinking water, sanitation, or hygiene — death and suffering that is preventable. [For a tour of some innovators who are beginning to solve this problem, see the Craftsmanship story, “Precious Drops.”] Women and children collectively devote an astounding 125 million hours a day to water-gathering, which can mean carrying across long distances heavy vessels of water of dubious quality on their heads or backs. This is time that could be spent on schooling, caring for children or other relatives, and income-yielding work.
In Nigeria, Lake Chad, once among the world’s largest inland lakes and a center for fishing and agriculture, has shrunk to one-twentieth of its size since the 1960s. The lake’s dwindling, combined with land degradation and shifting monsoon patterns, have greatly aggravated the area’s food shortages; as the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard puts it, “the sun eats our land.” This makes for prime recruiting conditions for a radical group, particularly among young people who see no viable future. According to Africa News, many Boko Haram “foot-soldiers” are refugees from neighboring Niger and Chad who have been displaced by food shortage and drought. The result is a revolving door of poverty, terror, and environmental collapse.
In the dry heart of Texas, in the midst of the state’s multiyear drought, one rancher decided to see how much water he could gather by designing a barn roof that collected the night’s dew. At 4:30 a.m. one morning, he found water streaming into his tank at a rate of approximately 60 gallons a day, enough to cover nearly all of the family’s water needs.
To zero in on a hotspot in the news, let’s look at Syria. While the circumstances that led to Syria’s civil strife are obviously complex, the lack of water has clearly played a role. From 2006 to 2010, the years immediately preceding the country’s ongoing unrest, much of the country faced severe, persistent drought marked by water-related violence. In 2010, the United Nations reported that 80 percent of Syria was susceptible to desertification, and since then conditions have only deteriorated.
Gianluca Serra, an Italian conservation biologist who spent more than a decade in Syria, points to a factor you’re unlikely to hear about in geopolitical debates: unrestricted grazing across the Syrian steppe, dry grasslands that cover more than half of the country. He says that for centuries, Bedouin pastoralists grazed their herds sustainably — in a fashion that allowed for plant regrowth before reintroducing animals. The advent of the modern Syrian state, however, changed that. In 1958, the central government nationalized the steppe. The result was something of a terrestrial free-for-all in which urban investors bought high-value livestock, such as cattle, and put them out on the land. Serra writes: “The customary link between the natural resource and its user was interrupted — abruptly disowning the traditional ecological knowledge of this ancient people.”
Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Institute, has observed and written about international water dynamics for three decades. “Twenty years ago,” she says, “I raised the issue of possible wars over water. I’ve come to be less worried about water wars per se than of a constellation of threats that stem from droughts and water shortages.” Primary among them, of course, are food shortages, and the rising grocery prices that follow. It’s not surprising, then, that many political analysts have attributed the Arab Spring to the rise of food prices. “The relationships between water, food, and political volatility have the potential to be more destabilizing than in the past,” says Postel.
THE DESERT’S SECRET WATERFALLS
Katherine and Markus Ottmers live and work in the dry steppes of far West Texas. Their ranch sits at the bottom of Big Bend Valley, a place so remote, Katherine says, it’s “like living on the moon.” Since rains can be few and far between, they’ve designed the main building at Casa de Mañana — their 50-by-50-foot “rain barn,” the off-grid headquarters for Ottmers Agricultural Technologies — to collect both rainwater and condensation. But they had no idea of just how much water they harvested solely from dew until one morning in winter 2012, when the valve burst on one of the water tanks.
Markus was outside doing some ironwork when he noticed water gushing from the tank. “Hey, Brad!” he called to his coworker. “Go see how much water is in there. It can’t be full. We haven’t had any rain in four months.” Not only were they rainless; they’d been providing for a herd of some 50 goats, and between six and eight people were regularly taking light showers at their place.
Brad checked, and the tank was indeed completely full. Markus rose the next day at 4:30 to monitor the tank. Here, at the edge of the Big Bend, in the midst of Texas’s multiyear drought, a bleary-eyed Markus discovered that water was streaming into his tank at a rate of approximately 60 gallons a day, enough to cover nearly all of their water needs.
“I was wondering who the water fairy was,” Markus recalls, as he walks toward the tank to show us the gauge. A tall, restless Texan, he possesses an impatient turn of mind that flits toward puzzles and plans that most would dismiss as quixotic if not impossible. Among his other areas of expertise — which include precision earthworks, glass blowing, welding, straw bale and geodome home construction, mycology, and beehive removal and rescue — Markus is a certified permaculture trainer. Katherine, too, is a master of many trades. She’s long worked as a landscape designer and has since become a certified Holistic Management educator.
The source of the collected water — the water fairy that proved more generous than anyone had guessed — was condensation, Markus tells us. “That water going into the tank is from the roof, because you can see I’m not standing out here with a squeegee,” he says. “This is because there’s heat on the roof, and breezes coming through. The roof cools off, and then the warm air flows create the condensation.”
The barn was structured for solar gain in the winter and shade in the summer. While maximizing comfort (obviously precious in this harsh environment), the design also accentuates temperature differentials. Its volume of water is made possible by a 4-foot difference between an upper and lower roof. As the afternoon progresses, the galvanized tin upper roof is “superheating.” The tin extends out over a lower roof (also made of tin), thereby casting a shadow and breaking the sun. “The more we can bump up the difference between hot and cold, the more we can create moisture.”
To put the Ottmers’ achievement in perspective, consider the attitude toward water held by some of their neighbors. When I checked into the Wild Horse Station, a group of rentable cabins tucked into hills along the route to a nearby ghost town, the proprietor respectfully encouraged us to be sparing with the water. “That’s what’s going to get us down here,” she said. Although the community had recently been graced with higher-than-usual rainfall, complete with greened-up hills and banner wildflower displays, “all that rain isn’t helping us.” Apparently, the area’s water table had been steadily falling.
In the 1990s, the Slovakian government was preparing to construct a dam at a cost of $350 million. The project threatened both the environment and several 700-year-old villages. Thanks to prodding from an innovative hydrologist, Slovakia instead built a series of swales, slopes, and other small structures made of wood or stone. In 2011, when torrential floods afflicted much of Slovakia, these towns escaped relatively unharmed, saving the government an estimated 500,000 euros.
Markus drew inspiration for his rain barn from a lowly insect. In the Namib Desert, an ultra-arid area on the western coast of southern Africa, enterprising little crawlies called the Namib Desert Beetle gather water this way: they climb to a crest of sand dune and, as fog rolls in from the sea, they lift their legs as if doing a handstand. Tiny droplets of water roll down their bellies and into their mouths so they can drink. “The beetle puts its ass to the wind,” Markus says. “We built the building copying the beetle.” To explain, Markus drops down on bent knees and wiggles his backside.
My introduction to the Ottmers began when I met Markus’s wife, Katherine, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the 2014 Quivira Conference, an annual event focused on enhancing Western landscapes. I was immediately intrigued by the way she talked about water, how she seemed to have a different relationship to it than anyone I’d met. “We’re so sensitive to water that we can tell the little shifts in the moisture in the air,” she said. “We’re like the desert plants that way.” Katherine said that in the desert, “we don’t have a lot of rain, but we have ‘moisture events.’” She told me about “nutrient dense fogs” with morning mists so thick “you can’t see the truck in the driveway.” She described how such events, which may materialize only five to eight times a year, kindle something different in the vegetation: “The plants are a lot happier with that little bit of moisture. Everything shifts right after that, as if there’s been some nutrient exchange.”
SOLUTIONS IN PLAIN SIGHT
Finding new water from dew is just the beginning of the innovations being devised in almost every corner of the globe. In the 1990s, the Slovakian government was all set to construct a dam to supply water to some of its cities, at a cost of $350 million. This alarmed Michal Kravčík, a hydrologist who was concerned not only about the dam’s impact on the environment, but also about the survival of several 700-year-old villages near Slovakia’s Torysa River sure to be destroyed by the project. So Kravčík proposed a “Blue Alternative.” Why not build a series of swales, slopes, and small dams or steps made of wood or stone, in order to slow and retain water? Kravčík’s alternative was adopted, and rainwater started moving into aquifers. Springs appeared and the Torysa River Valley now has dependable streams. This effort, implemented primarily by volunteers with the Slovakian organization People and Water, cost almost nothing and earned Kravčík the 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Based on this project’s success, the Slovak Republic government instituted a rainwater retention program on a large scale under Kravčík’s management. Over the next 18 months, 488 communities built some 100,000 water-holding structures across degraded land areas. In 2011, torrential floods afflicted much of Slovakia, but these towns escaped relatively unharmed, saving the government an estimated 500,000 euros. The low-tech project also offered jobs to 7,700 people, most of whom had been chronically unemployed.
Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Institute notes the irony that throughout the world, so many hungry people live on farms. “In Bangladesh and all over South Asia,” she says, “during the long dry period there is water right there — beneath the farmers’ feet — but fallow fields.” The problem is starting to be addressed, however, by the advent of a simple device: low-cost water pumps, which can usually be operated manually, without the technological bells and whistles that add cost. When Postel was in Bangladesh, she says, a simple treadle pump could be found for as little as $35.
The advantage of a community-based water system is not just its low cost. Postel has found that the typical alternative — ambitious, large-scale water delivery systems of some kind — can be counterproductive. “If you’re distributing water on a large scale with big dams, reservoirs, et cetera, this can contribute to land degradation, and water can be lost along the way.”
Rajendra Singh, who has been called the “waterman of India,” certainly understands this principle. Singh initially came to the country’s hot, dry Rajasthan area as a young doctor, but quickly saw that the community’s greatest need was not the medical services he had planned to provide, but access to clean water. His approach was building johads, small crescent-shaped stone or earthen dams that were traditionally used to collect rainwater. This simple technique gradually replenished the area’s wells, and parched land started to turn green. Before long, villagers had joined in to make their own johads. Over a period of nearly 30 years, tens of thousands of johads have returned water and land fertility to more than 1,200 villages. In 2015, Singh was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize.
I once had the chance to hear Singh speak, at the Restoring Water Cycles to Reverse Global Warming conference at Tufts University. He reported that seven previously dry rivers in his region are now flowing with water — quite an accomplishment in a place that receives 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) of rain a year. “We’ve been converting ‘red heat’ to ‘green heat’,” he said. “Now the clouds come and bring the rain.”
At Casa de Mañana, the Ottmers raise poultry, produce honey, and take on other jobs such as bee removals. “One of the biggest tricks out here on the moon is to get a gig and make a living,” says Katherine. There is active bartering, she adds, so “you don’t need much currency.” Photo by Tony Eprile
“EVERY PLANT IS A PUMP”
The innovators I encountered while researching this book — and their insights about potential devastation or revival — raise an inescapable question: If water has such an impact on climate change, why isn’t water discussed in these terms? Walter Jehne, the Australian soil microbiologist, offers a simple explanation. He believes we’ve tended to emphasize CO2 (carbon dioxide) over H2O (water) largely because it is easier to measure in the atmosphere. Hydrological processes, he says, are also highly variable. This makes them difficult to model, and then link to other data on climate change.
To Peter Andrews, an Australian farmer and horse breeder, moisture in our atmosphere — or the lack of it — has been easy enough to gauge, at least ecologically. As a child taking refuge from a dust storm in an underground room, he saw the vegetation around his home near Broken Hill, South Wales, go whoosh! with the gritty winds. In his book “Beyond the Brink,” Andrews says, “Every plant is a solar-powered factory producing the organic material on which all life depends. Every plant is also a pump, which is constantly raising water from the ground to keep the factory operating.”
Looking over the long term of humanity’s role on this earth, Andrews tallies our plumbing bill this way: “Each day, the planet takes in a certain number of units of heat, which it somehow has to manage. In the past, billions of plants helped to manage the heat in situ… Around a quarter of the planet has now been stripped almost entirely of vegetation. In other words, one-quarter of the planet has been stripped of its ability to moderate temperature.”
In the 200 years since European settlement, he says, Australia’s green cover has been reduced by 70 percent. “The fact that all the major problems of our landscape have a common cause, a lack of vegetation, means that they also have a common solution,” he writes. And that, he says, is to grow more plants — trees, grass, and weeds alike.
According to Jehne, the way to do this is by building what he calls the “soil carbon sponge” — well-tended soil that holds moisture, which promotes cooling and supports plant growth. Those plants then stay green further into the dry season, thus helping to control wildfires. Fortunately, as we see from Chris Henggeler’s work in the Kimberley, this is something we can do — even in the most challenging landscapes.
Judith D. Schwartz is the author of “Cows Save the Planet” (2013). This article was excerpted and adapted from her latest book, “Water in Plain Sight,” by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. A new paperback edition of the book was published by Chelsea Green in 2019.
Topics: Climate Change, Ecology, and Sustainability, Farming, Food, and Alcohol, Science, Engineering, and Invention
Locations: California, USA, Worldwide, Africa, Australia
Materials: Soil, Carbon, Water, Cattle, Trees