Rethinking Water

September 7, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Journalist Judith D. Schwartz turns her attention to one of the biggest socio-economic-ecological issues of the 21st century – water management – in her new book, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World. The title is a companion to her first book, Cows Save the Planetawarded a Nautilaus Book Award Silver Prize for Sustainability – which put soil centre stage in the battle to mitigate climate change. In Water in Plain Sight Schwartz explores in greater depth, water’s relationship to soil and our wider climatic systems.

There has been much talk about ‘water wars’ sparking conflict across the world in the coming century, as climate change intensifies weather and increases water stress. But Schwartz takes a step back from this dysfunction, taking a more holistic approach to understanding global water cycles and how they lead to scarcity or abundance. The global focus on strife caused by water scarcity is a symptom of a planetary water system that has been altered by humanity. Schwartz wants to remind us that “approaching the situation as a whole allows us to see how our challenges connect in ways that present possibilities for restoration, new ways to respin that wheel so that we stop the vicious cycle and start a virtuous one.” We can do this by paying careful attention to our land and how we nurture its relationship to the water that circulates above, under, through and around it.

Schwartz’s interest in water is driven, as she says “Not merely from the perspective that a changing climate will put stress on available water sources worldwide – a link that is generally known – but also [by] the influence of water on climate change…the water cycle is a powerful ally.” The challenge for humanity, which has largely treated water with little thought, is to learn how to work with water cycles instead of against them. How do we support water’s natural movement and flow in ways that help us, rather than hurt us?

Water in Plain Sight is a book built around stories of landscapes regenerating with the care and maintenance of two things: soil and water. Together they make the world go round, supporting a diverse array of flora and fauna across the world. Schwartz describes a deeply symbiotic relationship between water and the plants and animals that inhabit particular landscapes, writing that “It’s a two-way path: the water cycle affects which plants and animals are suited to the environment, and the ecological impact of plants and animals helps determine the hydrology of a landscape.”

Human intervention into this integral relationship has been responsible for widespread soil degradation and diversity loss across the globe. How land is used directly impacts upon its ability to absorb water and, vice verse, how water is used directly impacts the health of soil. This movement of water through earth and air, Schwartz argues, is something we can impact in both good and bad ways. We need to start thinking carefully about how we can maximise the beneficial impacts and diminish the negative ones. Deforestation and land degradation have had a massive impact on hydrology that is increasingly being recognised – especially as devastating flooding is becoming more common around the globe.

Schwartz makes a strong argument that solutions for water management must be localised, repairing small water cycles. In doing so, she cites the work of hydrologist Michal Kravčίk, who asserts that a range of human impacts including intensive agriculture, poor grazing management and urbanisation, have disrupted these localised water cycles. Cumulatively, the small, specific disruptions to water’s movement and flow over a large area drives a wider drying of the continents, which leads ultimately to desertification.

The narratives in the book map the innovative ways that a small handful of people around the globe are regenerating their land to preserve and restore this precious resource, bringing seemingly ‘new’ water to these places. Schwartz’s writing is vividly descriptive, capturing the wonder of this transformation, and the landscapes she visits are diverse. Starting in Zimbabwe with Allan Savory is a neat link with her earlier book, reminding us of Savory’s seminal work on the role of grazing animals in the health of soil. Healthy soil is important to water management because carbon held in the soil, where it should be, allows water to be stored more effectively. There is less run-off from healthy soil and water remains in place, so to speak.

Schwartz points to the work of soil scientist Christine Jones who considers what happens to a drop of rain: it can move upwards into the atmosphere as evaporation; it can move down into drainage and aquifers; it can move sideways as run-off; or it can be held in soil until eventually it moves again. The more water kept in the soil, the more viable a watershed is. At the moment there is too much water going up into the atmosphere, where it acts on our weather, or sideways, pulling vital topsoil, organic matter, nutrients and agricultural chemicals into waterways.

Ensuring water is held in soil isn’t just a problem of agriculture – but the sheer extent of it means the way we manage agricultural land is hugely important. Urban development has done much to hamper water’s return to soil; urban infrastructure has long been designed to shunt water sideways, sending it off somewhere else in concrete tunnels. In the words of another soil scientist, Elaine Ingham, “We forget about the connection with the soil when we think of water as a resource.” For Schwartz, this is the root of our water problems.

Through Schwartz’s travels, she visits people who are thinking differently about water and seeing how radically transformative fresh ideas can be in terms of its management. In Chihuahua, Mexico, one of the driest parts of the country, she sees how a programme of holistic planned grazing is restoring the local water cycle and creating habitat and winter food for migratory birds. In Brazil and Australia, it’s the critical capacity of forests to generate moisture and rain that feeds both small and large water cycles, through “a constant exchange between the tree and the cloud,” as permaculture specialist Bill Mollison says. West Texas, Big Bend country, shows how permaculture can be used to harvest condensation – a vast source of water that is largely ignored.

These projects, and others detailed in the book, show a new way forward in water management, in which the restoration of soil health and localised water cycles work together to mitigate water scarcity. Schwartz concludes that “It has become a truism that future wars will be fought over water rather than oil. But we don’t need to let that happen. We can acknowledge that the freshwater we want and need derives from natural processes in healthy ecosystems…And in bringing balance back to the water cycle, these can have a moderating effect on climate.”

Photograph: Shinichi Higashi

Alicia Miller

Alicia Miller runs Troed y Rhiw Organics, an organic horticulture farm in West Wales, with her partner Nathan Richards. Born in the United States, she’s a long way from home but loves her life in the wild west of Wales. She works as a freelance writer and editor and understands sustainable food from the hands on perspective of growing food on a small family-run farm. She graduated with distinction from Stanford University and is currently pursuing a phd at Birkbeck College, University of London, writing on issues of artists practice and gentrification.

Tags: climate change mitigation strategies, rebuilding resilient food and water systems, water cycle