Breeding water to adapt to climate change

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 beings (humans, animals and plants) to consume more water. There will also be greater evaporation from 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 water, due to industrial, mining, agricultural and urban activities, worsens the situation and we have less and less water left for consumption.

Why do we talk about water breeding? There is no life without water. We must be able to survive a long time without food, but without water, we cannot. This vital fluid makes up more than half of the human body. We can say, then, that the yaku mama (water mother) raises us. If so, in times of scarcity, why don't we try to farm water?

Our ancestors respected and revered nature, more than we do today, because they depended directly on it for their water supply. They integrated water raising into their community life, without expecting external support. They carried out these activities using local materials, and their own physical and mental forces, individual and collective. 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 ancestral water breeding practices as the best tool to adapt to the coming water shortages. We cannot say that each ancient technology worked wherever and whenever: however, we have inherited the most appropriate practices for each region. These include techniques for: forecasting the weather; procure water in droughts; harvest rainwater; capture groundwater; carefully consume the collected water; and live with excess water.

How do farmers predict 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 manage to correctly predict when and how much rain will fall in their area. They developed these skills through careful observations, on specific dates, of the world around them: celestial bodies, meteorological events, animals and plants. Based on their experiences, they weigh consistent indications against ambiguous ones 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 in the Walawe River of Sri Lanka say (Uragoda 2000), or the meteorological events on San Juan day around Lake Titicaca-Peru (Chuyma Aru 2007), always depend on the climate of the country. past, and they can be wrong during a changing climate. Therefore, our task is to learn how and why these indicators relate 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 her for a good done; ask for help; or to complain to you for not collaborating. In rituals that request rain, they regularly use: the loud voice of children (Cachiguango and Pontón 2010) or animals (frogs, sheep); symbolic objects (feathers to represent the wind, turquoise for water, etc.); sacrifices; or payments. Even today, in India, they call for rain by performing marriages between frogs, while in Indonesia, for the same purpose, volunteers endure painful flagellas of rattan cane. Such rituals, if carried out in good faith seeking to harmonize society with nature, will achieve results. But if you remember nature only when you need a specific benefit, you should not be surprised by your deaf ears.

The ancient Andean settlers of the arid Pacific coast managed to capture the steam that brings its dense fog, through curtains of trees on the coastal hills, and some of these systems still operate today. Where there is none, we must first reestablish vegetation, perhaps capturing water through artificial meshes, raised against the wind. We can also capture pure water from a contaminated pond, condensing its vapor in a closed environment. Using solar energy for evaporation, as in the old salt mines, you can survive an emergency with the little water you capture. Before, people manipulated clouds to turn hail into rain: in Europe they fired cannons; 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 using rockets or airplanes. Its dubious 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 rather 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 attacks. Modern city dwellers can also use rainwater to reduce consumption of municipal supplies, at least for washing and watering gardens. Some cities, such as Portland, USA, offer incentives to their customers for reducing the runoff that enters their sewers from each property, because this lowers the cost of sewage treatment.

Field runoff can be intercepted with canals and stored in reservoirs. However, infiltrating it into the same crop field is better because it also prevents erosion. Hopi and Zuni farmers in the US do it simply with rows of stones or branches placed on contour lines. On steep slopes, we can reinforce these traps with terraces, ditches or small dikes.

Capturing runoff from a river and storing it behind a high dam does require advanced technological knowledge because the discharge of that water, under a few meters of pressure, can undermine the dam itself, if it is not well controlled. Sri Lankan engineers, starting 2000 years ago, used a robust well ( Bisokotuwa)

built of stone blocks (as seen in the Bhu Wewa-Polonnaruwa one above; Left: front view, Right: plan) to drain 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 stepped reservoirs over each stream, instead of installing one 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, his 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 sufficient flows, our ancestors drilled holes deep into the mountains to capture more water from the aquifers, and brought 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 underground water in this extreme desert (Proulx 2008?).

The Inca engineers of Cuzco-Peru captured the underground water and stored it right there, using bank terrace-type walls, built between two ridges of impermeable rocks that outline an intermittent ravine. Thus they delivered clean water, 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 curtain walls submerged in the bed 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 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 purposely irrigating the upstream fields.

How to make better use of 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 countryside, you can opt for crops that consume little water, without losing profitability, as demonstrated by farmers in southeastern Turkey, who changed cotton for saffron (Drynet 2008?). Water pipeline and storage leaks can be reduced by using piping and/or liners. But to eliminate water waste in distribution, especially in irrigation, a detailed analysis of: type of seed, agricultural calendar, soil, climate and irrigation mode is required. The need for frequent watering can also be reduced by minimizing soil moisture loss, through the use of windbreaks, ground covers, organic fertilizer, etc.

Second, let's not unnecessarily contaminate the water in order to recycle it. With the recycling of gray water in an urban house, the owner and also the municipality would win. In urban-marginal and rural areas, it will be more economical in the long term 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 composting process of the solids and also allows the liquid to be recycled.

What do we do if it rains too much?

When we are worried about 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 flood-prone areas, makes us very vulnerable. Instead, in those areas, our ancestors developed 'aquatic civilizations'. Enormous low plains of Colombia (Momposina Depression), Ecuador (lower 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 crop 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 is no reliable data on rainfall, flows or sediments, but technicians invent values ​​to justify political promises. Not having monitoring of the upper basin and rigorous maintenance of control structures worsens this situation. This is how the modern attitude of 'conquering nature' through dams becomes watered down.

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

Let's adapt to the changing climate

The current climate requires us to be field researchers: self-sufficient, inquisitive and practical. Academic degrees are not going to be of much use to us, but any type of prior training in the field is. Living with the scarcity (or excess) of water is the most important challenge in this scenario. When confronted with a problem, we should not dismiss any crazy idea that occurs to us (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 field engineers – our ancestors.

(The article is an appetizer on this topic. 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 EXCHANGE AMONG PEASANTS. Thanks to the support of a dear Colombian friend, Germán Bustos, you can download these books from his website: .)


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UNEP -United Nations Environmental Program (1997) “Source Book of Alternative Technologies for Freshwater Augmentation in Latin America and the Caribbean”, International Environmental Technology Center, Osaka, Japan.

Riobamba, Ecuador.
 March 2013.