Capturing Rainfall to Mitigate Drought

LM water Uganda 1  LM water Uganda 3Drought………
Severe droughts throughout Africa….., threatens communities, causing numerous problems, loss of trees threatens habitat, and loss of lakes and arable land threatens food crops and more………….

Sometimes years of rainless seasons follow each other.
Then when it does rain there could be torrential downpours, enormous amounts of water causing devastating flooding, and then drought……. more drought.

Part of my work has given me access to the worlds driest lands and to the people who live there in the villages and the surrounding countryside.  Rain in some cases hasn’t fallen in years.  What does one do in this case?  Can one continue to live, or create any type of thriving community on lands so dry?  Can their parched soil, or should I LM water Uganda 2say dirt, regain its fertility?  And if so how is this possible?

For me as a Westerner, droughts this severe and the problems they cause seem insurmountable, which is why I was so surprised when I visited communities in Kilgale County, Uganda, East Africa who had found ways to face their droughts and make the most of rains when they did arrive.

Why is this so important?
Because I always assumed that rain was beneficial when it hit land, the drier the better, however, not only does rain falling on parched land not benefit its soil, it passes right over them.

Dry land behaves like concrete, it just runs off and the chance to regain desperately needed moisture is lost.  Once the water is gone, it’s out of reach forever, rather than being captured and used again and again.

Flooded villages often result as water rushes down the hillside picking up mass and speed until this huge volume lands thunderously in the village below, often without enough time for families to flee, creating devastation in its wake.

Out of desperation a few simple but brilliant techniques have been developed to collect rains as they pass, no matter how hard and fast the waters flow.
And rural farmers have developed tricks to keep rain soak lands moistened for extremely long amounts of time.  In this way they can get water for livestock, household use, agriculture and of equal importance they can lessen the chance of flooding villages below.

What does this look like?

First there is the Cisterns; A way to collect and store clean rainwater off of a raised sloped surfaces, usually the roof.

One way to make a cistern is to dig a deep hole in the ground, close to the house, cover it with a plastic tarp and then erect an enclosed structure over this.  A hay and dung roof supported with tree saplings is one popular choice.  When the rains flow a pipe connected to the drain will direct the water from the roof into the cistern with the resulting well able to hold several hundred gallons of clean water.

Next one can build a ground collection system in any number of shapes.

A small pit will fill with water in heavy rains, creating a water storage pond, several linked together can catch 100’s of 1,000’s of gallons of water.  If planted with vegetation, one can reestablish a series of small water holes and regenerate a degraded eco-system.

Another technique, one that requires less space, but which will have exponential benefits is by installing a series of swales.
Dug into any degree of sloping hillsides, swales are intentional shallows in the ground, indentations in a slight uphill shape.  A swale will capture water and hold it allowing a slow release into the ground.
These can be interspersed above orchards, as the tree roots will each absorb additional  water to feed the trees and then be transpired from the leaves slowly into the air.  If warranted, ones entire property can be swaled for huge water gains.

One of the most effective water retainment systems I have seen was created by a primary teacher I met in Uganda last summer.  A village leader this woman was determined to stay in her home and retain her community even though rains hadn’t come for over two year.  Huge fear of the enduring drought had gripped her community and several families were leaving.  She was determined to figure out how to combat this drought and then to teach others.

On our visit she explained her method. Several dozen children lined the fence of her property, watching intently in the hot blistering sun, as she gave us a tour.  First we observed the cistern, above ground, made of waterproofed concrete and 8’x5’x5’ and attached to her gutter with an open pipe.

Next we viewed her staggeringly imaginative ground capturing system; 10’ long trenches lined up in a row, each about 4’ deep and 2 ½’ wide with 3’ of space between them.  These were beautifully dug rectangles in the ground, making a bead shape around her property.  She explained how these would fill in the next rain and be useful for her crops.

Finally she explained how she was envisioning a canopy of shade trees, out of the mangoes and breadfruit.  She was actually planting that day and invited us to help and so we all knelt to place small 4” plants into her land, imagining the shady, rich soiled forest of her future.

LM Trees Uganda 1

That afternoon we all felt her hope and the hope of her village that however strange these ideas might seem in Western Africa, one woman was taking the chance that together these rainwater catchment systems; cisterns, swales and reforestation would work together synergistically and help her community stay on their lands.

It is one of the series of solutions people are implementing with optimism and good cheer, while trying to figure out how to live on this new planet with changing weather patterns and less rain.

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