Ancestral practices of raising water, as a strategy to adapt to climate change

Ancestral practices of raising water, as a strategy to adapt to climate change

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By Kashyapa A. S. Yapa

In this changing climate, we must prepare for water shortages in many regions of the world, because the gradual warming of the air forces all living things (humans, animals and plants) to consume more water. There will also be more evaporation from the land and water. On the other hand, accelerated deforestation in recent decades has stripped and compacted the soil, reducing runoff infiltration, and therefore, the recharge of aquifers. The serious contamination of the water, by industrial, mining, agricultural and urban activities, worsens the situation and we have less and less water for consumption.

Why do we talk about water breeding? There is no life without water. If so, in times of scarcity, why not try raising the water?

Our ancestors respected and revered nature, more than we do today, because they depended directly on it for their water supply. They integrated the raising of water into their community life, without expecting external support. They carried out these activities using local materials and their own individual and collective physical and mental forces. Likewise, today, we must face this climate crisis alone, because the whole world will be affected and no rescuers will appear.

That is why we propose the ancestral practices of water breeding as the best tool to adapt to the water shortages that lie ahead. We cannot say that every ancestral technology worked wherever and whenever: however, we have inherited the best practices for each region. These include techniques for: forecasting the weather; provide water in droughts; harvest rainwater; capture groundwater; consume the collected water carefully; and living with excess water.

How do farmers forecast the weather?

Scientists face many difficulties in forecasting the climate for rural areas due to the lack of historical and continuous data. However, many older farmers are able to correctly predict when and how much rain will fall in their area. They developed these skills through detailed observations, on specific dates, of the world around them: celestial bodies, meteorological events, animals and plants. Based on their experiences, they weigh the consistent versus the ambiguous indications to form initial forecasts, and confirm them only after observing similar events on other corresponding dates.

Such forecasts, such as what the colors of rocks say in the Walawe River of Sri Lanka (Uragoda 2000), or the meteorological events on San Juan's day around Lake Titicaca-Peru (Chuyma Aru 2007), always depend on the climate of the past, and they can go wrong during changing weather. So our task is to learn how and why these indicators are related to the climate, and to develop a new knowledge base connecting those indicators to the current climate.

How do we get water in a drought?

Our ancestors communicated with nature through rituals: to thank you for a well done; ask you for help; or to complain about not collaborating. In rituals that request rain, they regularly use: the loud voices of children (Cachiguango and Pontón 2010) or of animals (frogs, sheep); symbolic objects (feathers to represent the wind, turquoise for water, etc.); sacrifices; or payments. Even today, in India, they call to the rain by performing marriages between frogs, while in Indonesia, for the same purpose, volunteers endure painful rattan reed flagellae. Such rituals, if performed in good faith seeking to harmonize society with nature, will achieve results. But if you remember nature only when you need a one-time benefit, you shouldn't be surprised by your deaf ears.

The ancient Andean settlers of the arid Pacific coast managed to capture the water vapor brought by their dense fog, through curtains of trees on the coastal hills, and some of these systems still work today. Where there is no longer any, we must first reestablish vegetation, perhaps by capturing water through artificial meshes, raised against the wind. We can also capture pure water from a polluted pool, condensing its vapor in a closed environment. Using solar energy for its evaporation, as in the old salt mines, an emergency can be survived with that little water it captures. Before, people manipulated the clouds to turn hail into rain: in Europe cannons were fired; in the Andean highlands, until now, chains of black smoke bonfires are used. Now the wealthy try to force rain by placing chemicals on the clouds via rockets or planes. Its doubtful effectiveness, high cost, and serious socio-environmental consequences (Morrison 2009) have slowed the advance of this practice.

Capture rainwater and runoff

Capturing and storing rainwater does not require sophisticated technologies, but good planning. Ancient cities collected rainwater in individual houses (Evanari et al. 1982) and in public squares (Matheny 1982) because they avoided dependence on external water supplies, which were expensive and prone to enemy attack. Modern city dwellers can also use rainwater to reduce consumption of municipal water supplies, at least for washing and watering gardens. Some cities, like Portland-USA., Offer incentives to their clients to reduce the runoff that enters their sewer from each property, because that lowers the cost of sewage treatment.

Runoff from the field can be intercepted with channels and stored in reservoirs. However, infiltrating it in the same field is better because it prevents erosion as well. Hopi and Zuni farmers in the US do it simply with rows of stones or branches set in contour lines. On steep slopes, these traps can be reinforced with terraces, ditches or small dikes.

Capturing runoff from a river and storing it behind a high dike does require advanced technological knowledge because the discharge of that water, under a few meters of pressure, can undermine the dike itself, if you do not have good control. Sri Lankan engineers, for 2000 years, used a robust well ( Bisokotuwa)

built of stone blocks (as seen in the Bhu Wewa-Polonnaruwa above; Left: front view, Right: flat) to vent water from these reservoirs, and perhaps they occupied a cork-type gate to control their flow.

However, in rural areas, they used a mechanism that farmers could easily manage: they built many small ladder reservoirs over each creek, instead of installing a large one over the main river.


Ancient farmers of the Santa Elena peninsula-Ecuador also trapped runoff in thousands of small reservoirs ( albarradas) in the headwaters of micro-basins. However, their idea was not to superficially store that water in this semi-arid area; Almost all the albarradas were located on a porous rock formation, in order to recharge the springs downstream, to survive prolonged droughts (Marcos 2004).

Where springs do not discharge enough flow, our ancestors bore holes deep into mountains to draw more water from aquifers, bringing it to light under gravity. These filtration galleries are known as qanat in the Middle East or puquios in Nazca-Peru. The famous 'Nazca Lines', according to one hypothesis, follow the numerous geological faults in the area and thus point to possible sources of groundwater in this extreme desert (Proulx 2008?).

The Inca engineers of Cuzco-Peru captured the underground water and stored it there, by means of bank terrace-type walls, built between two edges of impermeable rocks that delineate an intermittent ravine. Thus they delivered clean waters, with firm and sufficient flows, for human consumption or for irrigation (Fairley 2003). Today, a similar technique is used in the semi-arid northeast of Brazil, constructing submerged curtain-type walls in the beds of intermittent streams (UNEP 1997). If we incorporate a filtration gallery upstream of one of these walls, it will be easy to extract that water and perform maintenance.

Instead of bringing the groundwater to the irrigation surface, as they normally do, some ancient farmers decided to lower the cultivation floor! Some of these sunken fields on the Peruvian coast were continuously cultivated (Schjellerup 2009) at least since the Chimú kingdom (1300 AD), when they reached their peak, by purposefully irrigating the fields upstream.

How to make better use of the captured water

First, we must reduce consumption and eliminate leaks in the supply system. To reduce human consumption, without sacrificing modern conveniences, we can use low-volume toilets, men's urinals, or dry latrines. In the field, one can opt for crops that consume little water, without losing profitability, as demonstrated by farmers in southeastern Turkey, who switched from cotton to saffron (Drynet 2008?). Water leaks in pipeline and storage can be reduced by using pipe and / or liners. But to eliminate the waste of water in distribution, especially in irrigation, a detailed analysis of: type of seed, agricultural calendar, soil, climate and mode of irrigation is required. The need for frequent watering can also be reduced by minimizing the loss of soil moisture, through the use of windbreaks, ground covers, compost, etc.

Second, let's not unnecessarily pollute the water in order to recycle it. With the recycling of gray water in an urban house, the owner would win and also the municipality. In urban-marginal and rural areas, it will be more economical in the long run, if we can recycle the liquid component of the septic tank as well. On farms, biogas can be produced with the discharge from the stables (Pedraza et al. 2002), which accelerates the process of composting the solids and also allows recycling of the liquid.

What do we do if it rains too much?

When we are concerned with capturing every drop of water to survive a drought, a flash flood can destroy everything. The submission of modern societies to land access, even in flooded areas, makes us very vulnerable. Instead, in those areas, our ancestors developed ‘aquatic civilizations’. The huge low plains of Colombia (Momposina Depression), Ecuador (under Guayas) and Bolivia (Mojos), were more prosperous and more populated centuries ago than today.

Modern ‘flood control’ projects, by contrast, displace entire towns, decimate aquatic life, spread disease, and strip nutrients from farm fields. The worst thing is that, when their structures can no longer support the floods, they flood the same 'protected lands' more than before! These projects fail because for many rivers there are no reliable data on rainfall, flow or sediment, but technicians invent values ​​to justify political promises. Not having a monitoring of the upper basin and a rigorous maintenance of the control structures worsen this situation. This is how the modern attitude of "conquering nature" through dams is watered down.

Heavy rains erode arable land, but it can be stopped by terraces, ditches, dikes and rows of trees. Landslides occur many times due to the internal accumulation of groundwater. Flexible passages must be prepared within the moving mass for its vent (Rivera and Sinisterra 2006). Next, planting fast-growing, deep-rooted trees helps stabilize a landslide. The risk to crops from waterlogging always requires more attention (remedy: raise beds) than from a drought (remedy: deepen beds to capture more moisture), because floods occur faster and cause more damage.

Adapt to the changing climate

The current climate requires us to be field researchers: self-reliant, inquisitive, and practical. Academic qualifications are not going to be of much use to us, but any type of previous training in the field can. Living with a shortage (or excess) of water is the most important challenge in this scenario. When faced with a problem, we shouldn't dismiss any crazy ideas that come our way (hopefully this article will germinate more of them) until we test it in the field. It will be the best way to honor those excellent engineers in the field - our ancestors.

(The article is an aperitif on this subject. With the support of UNDP / SNGR - Ecuador, we have prepared for free dissemination the complete document as A FIELD GUIDE and a complementary document MEMORIES OF THE WORKSHOP OF THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN PEASANTS. Thanks to the support of a dear Colombian friend, Germán Bustos, you can download these books from his website: .)

Riobamba, Ecuador.
March 2013.

Video: Dr. Lyn Carter - Indigenous Pacific Knowledge and climate change: Aotearoa New Zealand (May 2022).