Monday, January 21, 2008

Rainwater harvesting

I was listening to ABC Radio National yesterday when I happened to tune in to a beautiful program from New Dimensions Radio. The presenter of the program interviewed Brad Lancaster from Tucson, Arizona. Brad is a permaculture designer who has spent many years working out how to harvest rainwater to be able to live sustainably in a dryland environment.

He has had incredible success on his own property and has achieved a whole-of-community approach to water harvesting. In Brad's own words: “In an average year with 12 inches of rainfall, we harvest over 100,000 gallons of rain a year within the soils of our 1/8-acre site and the surrounding public right-of-way. Yet we (household of 3 people, plus many more using our neighborhood laundromat) use less than 20,000 gallons of municipal/well water a year. This way we give back or infiltrate more water into the community watershed than we take/pump out. That’s key to water sustainability. Give back more than you take.”

Brad has also written three books on rainwater harvesting, detailing the reasons for rainwater harvesting and how to go about it. During his interview with New Dimensions Radio, Brad told the story of Mr. Phiri, a water farmer from Zimbabwe, who, after losing his job and having no access to food or money for his family, turned his run-down, desolate and dried-out piece of land into his very own Garden of Eden, producing food for his family and rebuilding his community. It was such an inspirational tale, told with so much affection and beauty, that I found myself in tears in front of the radio, something that doesn't happen all that often. I guess I could really relate to the man and his story of how he slowly, over several decades transformed his land into a lush oasis, all just by harvesting rainwater, re-hydrating the soil and never giving up. I felt very inspired by this story of somebody who managed to turn a desert into a garden without having access to expensive equipment and technological fixes. Brad said in the interview that one thing that struck him about Mr Phiri was that the man was always laughing. He was clearly a very happy man. I am not sure we can say that about too many people in our wealthy Western communities.

But one sentence in particular stuck in my mind: "We have to make our home where we are." Mr Phiri told Brad how several people from his village had decided to move on because the place was so run down that they felt they couldn't stay. They eventually came back and told him that they had taken their problem with them. They had moved to a lush oasis, made the same mistakes all over and reduced the green landscape to another desert. Now they were back. They copied Mr Phiri's methods and rebuilt their own lands, and together with the land, they rebuilt their communities.

I sometimes feel like I want to move to a place where it rains more. I get frustrated and desperate with the lack of water and the endless frustrations of trying to keep plants alive. But I can see that thinking that "the fence is greener on the other side" will not solve the problems of our planet.

The program I mentioned can be listened to at the New Dimensions Radio website. Unfortunately, you do have to register with them and the programs are not entirely free, either. Brad's own website has a few links to other radio interviews and video clips which are all worthwhile. The following YouTube video shows Brad's neighbourhood project which gives you an idea of the man and his work.


  1. This is the right way how old methods are rediscovered!
    We know from Palestine a 2000 years ago how people fought against the desert: They formed a hollow of 50 meters diameter at 100 mm rain per year. A tree was planted in the deepest part of the hollow. So the few rain was running always towards the tree. Around the tree there was mulch. If they had no mulch made out of plants, they assorted there pieces of rock instead. When there was unusual rain sometimes, they collected the water in underground cistern.
    A similar system existed around Bengasi, a town in northern Africa West of Egypt. There is a desert now. But 2000 years ago people practiced „rainwater harvesting“ as it is called now. This region produced most of the wheat for the Imperium Romanum.
    Where I'm living, the public sewer for rainwater is closed. Local law forces us to keep all the rainwater that is falling on our ground has to remain where it comes down. The water from our roofs is running into a cistern. So we can use it for watering our garden.

  2. I love this story, I agree that we do get enough rain, it has always amazed me that most of the rain that falls in built up areas runs into storm water drains and is pretty much wasted. There seems to be a 'fear' in Australia of using this water and to recycling water. I remember growing up drinking rain water and friends being horrified that it was not filtered, treated and full of chemicals. My dad still only has rain water, I think the local authorities have forgotten that there are people 5 minutes from the main business centre still without access to mains water. The only time he wishes he had access though is when there is a threat of bushfire and he would like the reasurance of mains water. Other wise, it is cheaper and healthier and he is happy to reamin 'forgotten'. Thanks for another great artcicle.