Healing the Water Cycle Through the Creation of Water Retention Landscapes

Free speech by Bernd Mueller, 2011 (3rd edition, November 2017)

Translated from the German by Rabea Herzog and Jeff Anderson

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“Water, energy and food are freely available for all humankind when we no longer follow the laws of capital, but rather the logic of nature.”
Dieter Duhm, from the “Tamera Manifesto”

I put this quote at the beginning of my speech because I want to ask you to see this vision of a healed world as often and as vividly as you can. We must not get accustomed to a state where something that is actually self-evident appears to us as an unrealistic utopia. A world in which all people have free access to sufficient water, energy and food is completely feasible. More than eighty years ago similar ideas were described by the Austrian Viktor Schauberger, a brilliant water researcher, a pioneer and visionary of the highest level. Even then, he could foresee the global problems that we face today and he showed how they can be solved. One key point in the solution is the right treatment of water. Therefore, I would like to address the issue of water in this lecture.

Water is life – and where there is life there is also nutrition and energy.

The years 2010 to 2020 were declared by the United Nations as the “Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification.” Progressive desertification is currently one of the biggest global problems. More than 40% of the global landmass today is classified as dryland. Also in Europe, for example here on the Iberian Peninsula, the desertification process is dramatic. One third of the land area of Spain has already transformed into dryland. But most of these dry areas are located in the poorest countries of planet Earth. Billions of people today have no access to good, fresh water. Even though we still try to push it aside, we know that this is partly connected with our lifestyle in the industrialized countries, which daily, hourly and minute by minute leads to a situation in other regions of the Earth where children fall sick and die because of bad water, where humans fight over the last remaining water and animals die of thirst. Water, which is essentially the source of life, is today the cause of war, power struggles, disease and an incredible amount of suffering.

Therefore, the Bolivian President Evo Morales demanded in 2008 in his “Ten Commandments to Save the Planet, Life and Humanity” that we deal with this global water crisis and declare access to water a human right. I fully go along with this demand. I am holding this speech so that all people and all animals regain free access to good drinking water. For this, the idea of Water Retention Landscapes and the Terra Nova School has been developed.

Desertification Resulting from Incorrect Water Management

We humans have the knowledge of how to transform deserts and semi-deserts back into living landscapes traversed by fresh spring water streams. In most cases desertification is not a natural phenomenon but the result of incorrect water management on a global scale. Deserts do not arise because of a lack of rain, but because humans treat water in the wrong way.

Our landscape in the Alentejo for example, is considered an arid region and yet in the last week there has been very heavy rain. The amount of rain that fell over a few days would have been enough to supply the population of the whole region with water for drinking and household use for one year. But instead it ran off unused and caused damage. The fertile soil washed away, the earth under the foundations of bridges was washed away, and many roads, villages and towns were flooded. People are now busy repairing the inflicted damage. This is laborious and costly, and with the next rain the same happens again, so they have no time to think about investing in new systems that would ensure clean water all year round and at the same time prevent floods.

In Portugal we have a lot of rain in winter and in summer it is dry. Only a few decades ago Southern Portugal was a region where the streams flowed with water all year round, even in summer. Today the streams swell only during the rainy season and afterward they become dry again. The system has fallen completely out of balance. A similar situation can be found in all climate zones worldwide. Almost everywhere we can see widespread flooding and landslides with catastrophic consequences for humans, infrastructure, animals and nature. People then speak of natural disasters, but in reality these are man-made disasters.

The Half Water Cycle

How can we change this situation locally and globally? What does system change mean in the case of water management and how can we initiate it? To find answers for this we have to look again at the actual state we nowadays find everywhere. It corresponds to the half water cycle as described by Viktor Schauberger. Water evaporates, forms clouds and precipitates – the rain strikes the ground which can no longer absorb the water. Previously, the globe was protected by a dense and diverse vegetation. Thus valuable humus could form, which absorbed the water like a sponge.

Today, however, this diverse vegetation has been largely destroyed, forests cut, grasslands misused via over- or under-grazing and huge areas “sealed” through urban development or unilateral use. The now unprotected ground warms up, but if the earth has a higher temperature than the rainwater, it cannot absorb the rain, it closes itself, becomes hard and the water runs off. It accumulates in large streams which flow away quickly. Where there is still a layer of topsoil or loose fertile earth, it strips it away, thus leading to the fatal problem of erosion. The fast-flowing water quickly fills streams and rivers. In heavy rain they swell up and carry a lot of soil and other material with them, but they cannot deposit this at the next bend in the river because the water is no longer allowed to meander, as the rivers have been straightened and their banks additionally reinforced. The precious soil that is so urgently needed on the land now causes the rivers to silt up downstream. They become shallow and breach their banks, leading to great damage, especially in the cities lying at the river mouths. In the half water cycle we have rivers that no longer flow with clear spring water but with muddy polluted rainwater. There are no places where the water has time to gather itself, to rest, to mature and to enrich itself with minerals and information. Hardly any young people on this Earth still know streams that carry clear spring water.

The Falling Water Table

If the water cannot sink into the Earth body, then it is lacking there. Through the resulting aridness, the soil life suffers, the microorganisms retreat, the fertility of the land decreases significantly and fewer and fewer plant and animal species can survive. Soil dryness and the loss of biodiversity are the most important indicators of desertification.

The water table is falling – worldwide and dramatically so. The global supply of drinking water is diminishing. Here we face the facts which directly lead us to apocalyptic scenarios if we do not manage to halt the process. Through the sinking of the water table, the balance between the fresh groundwater and the salt water of the sea can no longer be maintained. The salt water invades inland unhindered, soils and deeper freshwater reservoirs become salinated. The ecosystem collapses – an almost irreversible situation. In many coastal areas worldwide this process is already happening. Also here on the Iberian Peninsula, the groundwater begins to be salinated near the coastline.

But what kind of times does humanity approach if there is no more natural drinking water? Here we may not turn away and allow something to happen that could be prevented. The knowledge for preventing this catastrophe is available – now it is about applying it.

We know this is not how planet Earth is meant to be. This is not how the coexistence of humans, animals and Earth is meant to be. This is not how life is meant to be.

The Full Water Cycle

Let us look again at the healthy picture – it is the picture of the full water cycle. The rain which falls on the earth will then be absorbed by a layer of humus. Not long ago on the land of Tamera there was a living fertile soil layer of up to half a meter in depth. It was more or less like this over the whole of Portugal and in principle across the whole of Europe. This humus soil layer, which was shaded and rooted by plants, soaked up the rainwater and thus gave the water time to seep into the deeper ground layers and fill up the Earth body. In this way a saturated Earth body acted as a storage organ. There, underground, the water rests at different depths, sometimes over long periods of time. We still know little about what really happens to the water down there in the darkness. I feel this as the “female” or “soul” part of the water cycle. What we can say is that the water matures there by mineralizing itself and taking on information. This ability to take on and store information is one of the essential and most mysterious qualities of water.

In the saturated soil, the water cools down on its way through the deeper layers of the earth. Where the full water cycle is intact, the water returns to the surface as matured spring water with a temperature of +4°C. Such spring water has an immense healing power for the Earth and all its creatures. Streams and rivers flowing with spring water have healing power for the land when they are allowed to meander in accordance with their true nature. The water vitalizes itself increasingly over the course of its flow. On the banks of such streams and rivers, diverse habitats develop where life unfolds.

The water in the full water cycle is flowing continuously and steadily. The earth acts as a buffer, as it can absorb a large amount of water at once but releases it only slowly. In this way floods are prevented, and at the same time the streams carry clear, clean water all year long. The balance is reached between the rainy months and the dry seasons. In principle, this applies throughout all climate zones. A full water cycle in which the Earth body completely fulfills its function once again creates stability and equilibrium everywhere.

Healing Nature through Water Retention Landscapes

Today, the humus topsoil of the Earth body has disappeared from a large percentage of the surface of the planet. The erosion process, especially over the last decade, has progressed so rapidly and extensively that one can speak of it as a global disaster. This is why we must not delay ourselves by developing ecosystems which create a thin layer of humus only after thirty, forty or even more years. We need this balancing sponge-effect sooner. In order to complete the water cycle again we needed to find a way in which the water could be absorbed by the earth despite the missing topsoil layer. This is how the idea of Water Retention Landscapes developed.

Water Retention Landscapes are systems for the restoration of the full water cycle by retaining the water in the areas where it falls as rain. There are plenty of ways to hold the rainwater on the land that can be used in various combinations. For example, the creation of retention areas, from “check dams,” “swales,” terraces, deep plowing along the “keylines” or by land stewardship such as reforestation, organic farming and special pasture management (e.g. Holistic Planned Grazing).

The aim of this work is that no rain or waste water will run off the area anymore. Then we have transformed a landscape into a “retention landscape.” All outflowing water should be spring water. In Tamera, we have created a series of interconnected retention areas (from pond-sized to lake-sized), in which the rainwater can collect behind a dam constructed from natural material. The retention spaces themselves are not sealed with concrete or any artificial membrane, so that the water can slowly but steadily diffuse into the Earth body.

The term “Water Retention Landscape” is always connected with the concept of healing and restoring nature. The construction of Water Retention Landscapes is an active and effective answer to the destruction of nature.

This answer was developed in Tamera in intense cooperation with the permaculture specialist Sepp Holzer of Austria and various visionaries and ecologists from around the world. There are no regions of human habitation unsuitable for the construction of Water Retention Landscapes. Wherever ecosystems have been destroyed or degraded, Water Retention Landscapes can and should be created, on every type of land, in every climate zone, on every hillside and especially in areas with low precipitation as here they are particularly important. The less precipitation that falls in an area, and the greater the length of time between rainy periods, the more urgent the development of a Water Retention Landscape becomes. But also in tropical high-rainfall regions Water Retention Landscapes will be a great step towards healing. The retention areas act in place of the fragile humus layer, which is sometimes washed away completely during only one rainy season after the clearance of rainforest. And through their high water absorbing capacity they also help to prevent fatal landslides, which nowadays are caused more and more often by heavy rainfall. Thus they also directly save human lives.

Perhaps there are still a few forested areas on Earth where it is not yet necessary to intervene because there is still enough humus. But, unfortunately, today these are rare cases. Water Retention Landscapes are the healing impulse urgently required by the Earth and all her creatures. They can and must arise in every place where people regain the courage, strength and also of course, the knowledge needed to create them.

For this we now need a common and determined power and direction. In order to create Water Retention Landscapes worldwide, special educational centers are required.

We have launched the Terra Nova School to disseminate the information via the internet and support groups and initiatives to apply this knowledge in their own countries. In our vision, so-called model universities could develop anywhere through self-organization, where the theory and practice of retention landscape building can be learned.

In this way a process of change is initiated that evidently includes all other aspects of human life. A Water Retention Landscape is sustainable only if the individual and social life is re-embedded into nature and the higher orders of creation.

How such an embedding functions in modern times, and which technological and social knowledge is needed for it, should be researched and taught in the models and be available for all people who seek this knowledge.

The change-in-thinking process will ultimately only be completed when there is no longer a single living being on Earth lacking in water, nutrition and human compassion.

Getting to Know the Being of Water

The first step in the change of thinking begins with a new perception of water itself. A water retention space is not only to be understood technically, but also exists in order to give an understanding of the being of water to a new kind of engineer. A water retention space has to be shaped in such a way that the water does not stagnate, but on the contrary is able to move according to its being.

Water is not just a physical or chemical substance that the human may deal with at their convenience or merely according to industrial norms. Water is a living being. We modern people have to learn to understand this all over again. The shaping of the water retention spaces is therefore not arbitrary.

We observe water: how does it want to move? Which shapes of banks does it like? Which temperature and which differences in temperature does it like? Does it like to form waves or not?

All of these aspects are incorporated into our work.

As with every living being, water also needs to be allowed the freedom to move in accordance with its being. Water wants to roll, swirl, curve and meander – then it remains vital and fresh. By such movement it purifies itself, at the same time it also calms down and has time to seep into the Earth body.

There are three important principles for the shaping of such water retention spaces:

  • The longer side of the retention space is, if possible, laid out in the same direction as that of the prevailing wind. The wind then blows over a long surface, thereby forming waves which oxygenate the water – oxygen is an important element for the purification of water. Wind and waves carry particles of debris to the shores where they are trapped by aquatic plants and eventually absorbed by them.
  • Banks are never artificially straightened or reinforced, but created in meandering forms with both steep and gently sloping parts so that the water can roll and swirl. At least one part of the shore is planted with aquatic and waterside plants.
  • Deep and shallow zones are created. In this way, different temperature zones emerge providing healthy thermodynamics in the water. Shaded shore areas support this process. Thus the diversity of aquatic organisms finds its suitable habitats.

The dam of a water retention space consists entirely of natural material – no artificial film or concrete is used. The vertical sealing layer of the dam consists of as fine a material as available – ideally clay – for which optimally the material excavated from the deep zones is used. It is connected to a watertight layer of subsoil that sometimes lies a few meters below the surface. The sealing layer is compacted and built up layer by layer with fine, earth-moist material. Then it is piled up from both sides with mixed earth material, covered with humus or topsoil and can then be landscaped and planted on.

Through this natural construction method the water retention spaces fit in with the landscape and do not become incongruous with their surroundings. After only a short time, life reappears on the shores. Finally the plants, especially the trees, are once again provided with water from below as is appropriate to their nature. We can reduce artificial irrigation and eventually completely abstain from it.

The Helping Forces

In the construction of Water Retention Landscapes there is an abundance of helping forces from the kingdom of nature that stand by our side. Knowing this, the new engineers get in contact with these forces and ask them for their cooperation. There are millions upon millions of micro-organisms that immediately start their work the moment they notice that there is water, even after the rainy season. They are our best co-workers.

Most of them live invisibly in the earth. These beings sense that a sustainable healing process has been initiated here from which everything benefits. For a long time we might not see their effectiveness but we know that they exist and quickly start their work. Eike Braunroth, an expert in the area of cooperation with nature, impressively describes in his book “Harmonie mit den Naturwesen” (“Harmony with Nature Beings”), what happens when animals, previously considered pests or vermin and fought against correspondingly, are finally recognized as cooperation partners. He writes about the example of slugs, aphids, voles, potato beetles and ticks:

“Their plentiful occurrence, their rampant reproduction, their unstoppable eating orgies in my garden, their resistance against my tricks, opened my senses to a different consciousness of life… Today they all live an unimpeded existence. They showed me what nature is capable of: unconditional friendship.”

In our ecological work in Tamera this aspect of cooperation is strongly incorporated. Birds, for example, are necessary co-workers for afforestation because some seeds need to pass through a bird’s stomach in order to germinate. Here lies a fascinating area of work and research.

There are also helping forces still quite unfamiliar to us. Through Dhyani Ywahoo, a Cherokee spiritual teacher, we learned that lightning is an important factor in the revitalization of weakened soil if it is moist enough. In her book “Voices of Our Ancestors: Cherokee Teachings from the Wisdom Fire” she writes:

“As those aquifers are depleted, the electrical energy of lightning has no place to be called to. The lightning activity is the pulse, just as the nervous system is the pulse that animates your body. So, as these aquifers are further depleted, there is less and less energy for growth, for life. There are also more subtle effects of the lightning.”

Sepp Holzer has discovered that thunder is also a helping force for the growth of various species of edible mushrooms.

We see with these examples how much exciting research work still lies in front of us.

With the establishment of Water Retention Landscapes, humankind re-enters the cooperation with the spirit of the Earth, and with the spirit of plants, animals and human beings that live, or are meant to live, in this space. In creating these systems it is not only about engineering but about the art of contact with the living and about the recognition that we humans are not the only beings living on this planet. Creation has been entrusted to us in order for us to perceive and care for it. This is the original role of humankind on Earth. Here the knowledge, which in former times all indigenous people possessed, is reawakened and transferred into modern life.

The Water Retention Landscape of Tamera

In Tamera, we began constructing the first water retention space in 2007. The proposal for it came from Sepp Holzer, who has supported us for a long time in the renaturalization and healing of Tamera’s land. Until then we thought we lived in a dry country. When he showed us the dimensions of the first planned water retention space the question arose of how long it would take for such a large basin to fill up with water. “Lake 1,” as it is known today, is located in the center of our site. The idea of having to watch over a dusty, half-empty pool for years did not motivate us to take this first step towards the planned Water Retention Landscape. Then, to make things clear to ourselves, we had the idea of calculating the average annual amount of precipitation falling upon the catchment area of the retention space. In our minds we filled containers with this water, each with a capacity of one cubic meter, and placed them one after the other in a row that reached a length spanning the almost 1000km from Tamera to Barcelona. That was enough to launch us out of the system of scarcity thinking.

In the very same year we began construction. In the first winter, the lake and the adjoining Earth body filled up a good two-thirds with water. After the second rainy season, which had below average precipitation, only a few centimeters to the high-water level remained to be filled. In the third winter, so much rain fell that we could have filled several more retention spaces. Today, only four years after construction began, it is as if there has never been anything other than a water retention space. Many people who visit Tamera for the first time cannot believe at first that it is anything other than a natural lake. On the terraces by the shore we have created an edible landscape and planted thousands of fruit trees and shrubs. Wild animals, such as the otter, have settled here. And the birds have returned. We have observed 93 different species of birds in Tamera, some of which are very rare species found only in water-rich areas. Already within the first year a new seepage spring arose which since then has flowed continuously throughout the year. The construction of Lake 1 was only the beginning. Since then we have created a number of further water retention spaces.

In 2011, we built a retention area which has about three times the capacity of “Lake 1.” With this construction we made a breakthrough in the first valley from a landscape with plenty of water, to a retention landscape. This area is now prepared to fully absorb even strong continuous rainfall. This large retention area is located at the highest point of the valley. The water pressure will be high enough to irrigate all of the land (as long as this is still necessary), without having to supply additional energy for pumping. With the water from this highest situated retention space the water level of the following retention spaces will remain almost stable all year round.

Here in Tamera we want to demonstrate a model of how it could look everywhere in the Alentejo and basically everywhere in the world. Without water there is no life. Positively said: with water there is life. We are becoming ever more able to see and maintain the picture that is emerging in front of our eyes if we ask ourselves, “how does it look if we live with water and not without water?” How quickly we come to visions of paradise and how quickly we can step out of scarcity thinking on all levels! I would like to conclude with a quote from Viktor Schauberger. It comes from an essay he wrote in 1934, from the book “Das Wesen des Wassers”: (“The Being of Water”):

“From water everything originates. Therefore, water is the universal natural resource of every culture or the foundation of every physical or mental development. The unveiling of the secret of water will put an end to all manner of speculation or calculation and their excesses, to which belong war, hatred, envy, intolerance and discord of every kind. The thorough investigation of water therefore truly signifies the end of all monopolies, the end of all domination and the beginning of a socialism arising from the development of individualism in its most perfect form. If we succeed in unveiling the secret of water, in understanding how water can emerge, then it will become possible to produce all qualities of water at any location, and then one will be able to make vast areas of desert fertile; then the sale value of food and also that of machine power will fall so low that it will no longer be worthwhile to speculate with it.”

I ask everyone to perceive this vision. I ask everyone to see how the human being is meant to be, to see the true standing of the human and the role the creation of models plays in this. A person who takes their human rights back into their own hands also takes a stand once again for the rights of water, as demanded by Evo Morales, and will enter into cooperation with nature and its beings. When we have again found the inner picture of reconnection with nature then we begin to understand the sentence:

“Water, energy and food are freely available for all humankind when we no longer follow the laws of capital, but rather the logic of nature.”

This is how life is meant to be.

Further Literature about Ecology and Water

We especially recommend the following books for all those who wish to gain a deeper insight into the study issue:

Barlow, Maude; Clarke, Tony: Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water

Braunroth, Eike: In Harmonie mit den Naturwesen in Garten, Feld und Flur. Kooperation mit der Natur (Harmony with Nature Beings)

Coats, Callum: Living Energies: An Exposition of Concepts Related to the Theories of Viktor Schauberger

Fukuoka, Masanobu: Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration and Ultimate Food Security

Holzer, Sepp: Desert or Paradise: Restoring Endangered Landscapes Using Water Management, Including Lake and Pond Construction

Holzer, Sepp: Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening

Kravčík, Michal: Water for the Recovery of the Climate: A New Water Paradigm

Lancaster, Brad: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape

Lovelock, James: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

Savory, Allan: Holistic Management Handbook: Healthy Land, Healthy Profits

Schauberger, Viktor: Nature as Teacher: New Principles in the Working of Nature

Schwenk, Theodor: Sensitive Chaos – The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air

Yeomans, P. A. and Ken B.: Water For Every Farm: Yeomans Keyline Plan