After our workshop in Soweto, I headed to a course in Natuum, a Massai village in Northern Kenya. The course, Water Harvesting for Food Security was coordinated by the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya (PRI Kenya) and led by Warren Brush and Joseph Lentunyoi. http://pri-kenya.org/?p=2981
Natuum is a very dry, desertified area, with sloped land that has wide gulleys. The land is desertified for several reasons and I will highlight a couple of those reasons here.
Overgrazing. The Massai are traditionally shepards. This way of life is no longer working well for them because they have been moved to smaller lands, which do not have enough grazing space for the amount of animals that they have grazing. As a result, the grass is grazed to the point where it has no ability to recover and dies. Overgrazing is leaving the soil bare, exposing it to elements. Bare soil has no way to hold in the moisture so any precipitation does not sink into the ground.
Lack of ground cover. As there is no grass to capture the water, in heavy rains, water rolls down the slopes, taking any available soil and nutrients with it. This leads to the creation of wide gulleys and loss of sediment.
The great news is that there are solutions to help reverse these conditions. The purpose of the course was to help capture and plant rainwater by creating water catchment areas and also plant grass seeds that will grow and cover the soil. These catchment areas will hold the water and nutrients in the landscape, preventing further erosion and allow plants and trees to grow and provide food for the Massai and the animals.
HOW DO WE CAPTURE WATER IN THE LAND?
We began our work at the highest part of the landscape, studying and following the path of the water in the land to see how the water flowed. Next, we found the contours in the land using A-frames. Finding the contours allowed us to mark the outline for the swales we planned to dig. We then marked out the contour with stones. Next we dug out the swales by hand. Swales are either natural or man-made trenches or basins, made along a land’s contour. They are created to convey and promote water infiltration and also capture nutrients and sediment that would otherwise be carried down the slope.
We have recently gotten updates showing how the space has “greened up” and nutrients and water are being captured!
One final note: Swales are not the solution for every project but suited the needs for this land. Make sure to do your research before digging in to make sure swales are appropriate for your site.