Water retention landscapes - a sustainable path towards regional sovereignty

A résumé of the third international Water Symposium in Tamera, by Leila Dregger

From 6 - 9 June, experts, activists and those with global knowledge about water met in Tamera and discussed ways to protect and - where destroyed - regenerate the big water cycles of the earth. They worked together on the different aspects of a global strategy: to build regional model projects in various locations on earth, which would combine ecological healing, food production, economic and social sustainability. In addition to the key factor of Water to stop the climate crisis, new related concepts for animal husbandry, agriculture and settlements were also discussed. There are several training courses planned for 2013 set up for applying this overall strategy at a regional level. (Photo: Elizabeth Peredo and Joss Brooks)

Some facts and figures about Water, showing the urgency of the issue:
Approximately 1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water.
About 1.8 million children die each year from diseases that are caused by not enough clean water.
In 71% of cases in sub-Saharan areas, it is the female family members who are responsible for obtaining water, which, if locally contaminated, may entail girls walking huge distances.
28,000 worldwide rivers were dammed to form big dams.
Countless people have become water refugees, because they have no water rights or dams have been built in their area.

These figures show that the blue planet has become a thirsty planet. The powerful cycles that originally carried the water all by itself at any place, to every living being has been severely disrupted. Desertification, forest fires, and floods are not only natural phenomena but often can be consequences of false human intervention - through monocultures, improper grazing, intensive irrigated agriculture, dams and deforestation – often by centralized and profit oriented organizations.

Water has become a commodity. Modern capitalism has realized that where there is water, and control of water, there will be investors willing to speculate for profits. With the world increasingly divided into water-rich and water-poor countries, wars over water seem inevitable. Around the world there is increasingly popular support in opposition to the destruction and ignorance around water. Frequently this has involved opposition to the construction of dams and against water privatization.

The Ecology Team of Tamera organizes a yearly Water Symposium focusing on positive actions and solutions naturally regenerating areas which are prone to water shortages or are threatened by causes associated with poor land or water management.

The example of Tamera shows how a landscape, which is threatened by desertification can be regenerated by: a combination of rainwater retention and reforestation using mixed fruit trees, maintained and supported by a community that is not motivated by profit, but from a sense of responsibility for the resources and the common good, using techniques which mirror nature.

Bernd Müller: "It is important to also look into a dry landscape and see that it is not necessarily intended to be a desert. It is important to realize the dream of the landscape again - and learn how it can be manifested."

The Portuguese climate receives rainfall for three months each year typically. With poor management the majority of this rainfall runs off the land taking much needed topsoil with it into the river systems leaving the land with inadequate levels of subterranean ground water and an increased probability of desertification.

The water retention landscape of Tamera was established in 2007 with the advice of the ecological visionary Sepp Holzer.

A complete water retention landscape is a landscape that receives all rainwater and stores it - in the soils, in ponds, lakes, ditches and in vegetation - and slowly, evenly releases it throughout the year as matured, clean spring water again. Water retained in such a manner may evaporate to fall again multiplying the effect of this technique in other areas. In this way, the complete water cycle starts up again and the landscape can regenerate and produce sufficient food for humans and animals. The gardens and mixed forests on the banks of the lakes and ponds, maintained by the community bring so many sustainable benefits that residents have a huge economic interest in protecting them

More and more areas of the world face dropping ground-water table or groundwater salinization. It becomes clear that the healing of the water cycles is not primarily about technical upgrading and centralized mega-projects. It needs in fact a rethinking in all areas, a real system change.

Bernd Müller: "If we want to heal the water circuits, it is not enough to just look at our own property. We also have to cooperate in a region, resolve conflicts, share resources and build communities."

The comprehensive model solution, that of combining water, food, energy, economics, and community - already convinced many participants at the first two water symposia, especially from underdeveloped countries.

Some topics

The contributors of the water symposium discussed various topics that need to be considered when one is dealing with the water issue: climate change, global food security, animal husbandry, regional development, agriculture and the social question. In the following we summarize some of the posts together.

Sally Silverstone, participant of "Biosphere 2", shared about the great eco-social experiment, that took place from 1991-93 in the desert of Arizona: 8 people had been locked up in a materially closed ecosystem in large greenhouses with oceans, savannas, rainforests. With this artificial biosphere on a small scale, they showed how to cooperate with the big lasting cycles. They showed how many alleged necessities of our civilization are not only unnecessary, but also harmful.

"We were incredibly healthy because we lived protected from the effects of globalization" said Sally. As the person responsible for food production and water supply she was familiar with the material cycles. As a preparation she was locked up for several days in a closed greenhouse. The first day she looked in the water tank and found it empty. She was alarmed and thought that the system must have a leak. Calling her predecessor, she was reassured, "The water is still there, but it is distributed everywhere - in the air, in plants, in yourself."

And right: the next morning, the tank was filled again. It is such experiences that show us firsthand how water systems work and that it is never a solution to try to control and lock up water.

Sally Silverstone has pledged her support and guidance for the development of the socio-ecological project Tamera wants to start in the next years.

Elizabeth Peredo from Bolivia is publisher and was an activist during the Cochabamba Water War. She talked about the social importance of the water issue, particularly for women. Triggered by the water war , Bolivia is the first country to actually trying to force out the water companies and multinational corporations from the country and give back to the people sovereignty over their resources. However, for the indigenous government that provided the Rights of Mother Earth in the first place its constitution, it is almost impossible to extract from the interdependence of the capitalist system. Elizabeth Peredo experienced firsthand how even the most well-meaning politicians gradually lost their possibility to act. For Bolivia she looks for decentralized solutions and model projects to demonstrate how an alternative system as a whole might look like.

Climate Change
Dr. Millán from Spain, meteorologist, proved in decades of measurements that climate change is not solely dependent on the concentration of CO2 - but that the rain water patterns in Europe are influenced to a large extent by the land use of the coastal regions of the Mediterranean. The drying up of wetlands, and deforestation in particular, triggers the emergence of regional hot air streams, which prevents the rain from the clouds coming from the Mediterranean, and turns them back. Thus, the whole rain cycle in Central Europe, which starts off here, cannot develop - instead, the water level in the Mediterranean rises, the sea heats up, causing a detectable ocean current in the Atlantic up to France and England. Millán pointed the chain of events to the current floods in Germany and the heat waves in France.

The solution he suggests to implement with the help of the European Union, consists of reforestation projects in trigger regions. So far, he still could not solve the problem of irrigation - where would the water come from in such dry areas? With the water retention landscape of Tamera, he has recognized the possibility of combining reforestation, water retention and sustainable economic use and will include it in his proposed solution.

Grazing Management

Nicholas Sharpe introduced the concept of holistic planned grazing. The topic of animals, overgrazing and soil depletion has been a central concern of this year's Water Symposium. Overgrazing had been considered an essential factor in the destruction of the water cycle. However, this assumption might not be accurate, as the inventor of Holistic Planned Grazing, Alan Savory, shows. He could observe natural grazing herds from early age in his home country Zimbabwe, and discovered: Grassland is sustainable and self-renewing, even when a huge herd passes intensively - and then moves on. Then the grasses are bent over or trodden in, the animals leave their droppings, the grass rots, and thereby regenerates itself when the animals have left the area. Wild animals do not stay in the same area but continually move looking for better pastures.

Where that does not happen - because the grazing livestock stay on the same pasture throughout the year under farming management - classic overgrazing happens: impoverished vegetation, loss of biodiversity, grass becomes sparser, the soils become hot and loose their water-holding power, erosion. Over time deserts will form. Grassland need great herds of wild animals - or a proper grazing management which allows sporadic grazing.

This knowledge can be crucial for averting climate catastrophe. 40% of the land mass of the earth consist of grasslands. If they turn into desert, we would have a global disaster. By correct grazing this can be averted.

Together with Nicholas Sharpe, who introduced this method in Spain and teaches farmers and unemployed youth in it, and with fellow farmers and landowners in Portugal, Tamera wants to examine ways how and whether it is possible to combine and complete water retention landscape with the holistic grazing management in regional cooperation. Again, a promising cooperation has begun.

Regional model

André Vizinho, founder of the project Centro de Convergencia in a neighboring village of Tamera, presented projects of the Transition Town movement in Portugal - as a path to implement joint projects for social and environmental sustainability.

Joss Brooks from Auroville / India showed convincingly the challenges a community faces and its effects - having the example of Auroville growing for forty years and embedding itself socially and environmentally in the region. There are many issues that cannot be solved when you act as an island, but in regional cooperation. Auroville has started to re-install the traditional decentralized water systems - but still in the area the pressure of globalization is high and farmers use the low energy costs to dig ever deeper wells - causing salinization of wells. Meanwhile, the Indian government has asked Auroville to develop solutions to social and environmental sustainability for the entire region with over 30 villages.

In the nearby city of Chennai Joss Brooks and his team transformed the estuary - an eyesore, where waste was dumped for decades - into a conservation area with high biodiversity and recreational character.

Natural wastewater treatment

Paulo Mellett, permaculture teacher and representative of the company Lush natural cosmetics that support very efficiently worldwide projects for sustainability, presented decentralized solutions for the purification of waste water. Especially in poor regions of the world, in uncontrolled settlements and slums, improper sanitation leads to masses of untreated domestic sewage flowing into rivers and groundwater. The risk of contaminated drinking water affects a billion people. Worldwide, 1.8 million children die each year from diseases that are caused by unsafe water. The solutions that Permaculture teaches - Compost toilets for water-free disposal of human excreta and artificial wetlands for water purification - are decentralized and inexpensive and can be built by the people themselves without any major investment.

Community and Peace Building

Sabine Lichtenfels, founder of the Global Love School and co-founder of Tamera, spoke on the topic of community building and love: "When we see the hope that the water retention landscape of Tamera raises in people, we realize that the same intensity which worked out the ecological and technological problems must also be used to find solutions for love and community building - avoiding the risk that the precious projects would break due to interpersonal conflicts."

She also pointed out how much about love can be learned from the water itself. "Just as water wants to move freely, so the love must not be blocked and concentrated in too narrow vessels - and how the water retention as well as the love needs spaces where they can relax and go deep."

Aida Shibli, Palestinian peace activist, presented her dream of a region of abundance, wealth and peace in the Holy Land. "Water scarcity is still a trigger for wars and bitter conflicts. It appears that the wall built by Israel on the west Bank was deliberately built so that the aquifers previously used by Palestinian farmers and cities now have restricted access. Yet water can be an element of reconciliation, when we work together selflessly to be aware of and maintain it this treasure. Women especially can play a central role in this effort."

Rami Harubi, environmental consultant from Israel, presented the ancient water management system of the early civilization of the Nabataea in the Negev desert. Even today you can find underground water basins, which once made it possible to maintain agriculture in a desert. Together with the group of the Peace Research Village Middle East, Rami wants to ensure that in the Negev community pilot projects for conservation, decentralized water management and re-vegetation arise - also as reconciliation projects between Bedouins and Jews.

Tamera gives thanks to all the contributors who were willing to share their knowledge, their courage to unconventional action and their willingness to cooperate. As a conclusion of the third water symposium, the vision and the plan to build holistic model settlements in some selected regions that connect the social, environmental and economic aspects has become ever more clear. To implement this, we need cooperation at every level - and knowledge. Since last year, Tamera offers professional training courses for the construction of water retention landscapes. The knowledge that is collected in the water symposia, enriches and expands the training and make it more comprehensive. This year for the first time a significant number of people from underdeveloped countries took part.

Bernd Müller: "So many places on earth suffer from false water management So many could benefit from the strategy of the water retention landscape. We cannot go to all the places and help. Tamera´s offer is the training. Participating in one of the two courses this year is a possibility to find out which solution would be the first step for ecological healing in their own regions. This way a global alliance around the water will gradually arise."


Please note: The next Water Symposium will take place from 6 - 9 of June, 2014.