No cost water-harvesting when you stop raking

From Brad Lancaster’s Rain-water Harvesting blog comes the welcome advice that less is more. Raking removes ground cover, encourages water evaporation, dries out soil. The result is poor soil quality, lower aquifers and dry, unhealthy vegetation. Leave the leaves alone!

Fortunately, there is a way to harvest water, even during droughts.  It costs nothing, and requires no expenditure of energy.  Can this be true?  Grab yourself a cool drink, take a seat, and let the litter fall.  Leaf and stem litter, that is.

A handful of mesquite leaf litter, delivered free of charge by the canopy overhead, can help retain water on your landscape. Photo credit: Julia Fonseca

You’ve been spending too much time raking and bagging those leaves, seed pods and twigs.  They could be working for you, if you don’t throw them out.  No, I’m not talking about composting.  Composting is work too! But if you just left the litter where it fell, it would in time form a nice natural mulch that would slow erosion, build up the water-holding ability of the soil, and help make the soil easier to dig, if you do decide to dig a swale someday.  Be a litter harvester!

Plant litter is so important that it is one of the three key measurements that the Natural Resources Conservation Service uses as a measure of watershed condition. Plant cover, litter, and rock all help stem erosion of sloping land.  If it’s not raining, only litter and rock can retard runoff, and shade the soil, AND retain moisture.  (But see my rant against crushed rock landscaping.)

A layer of litter will work for you every time it rains well enough to penetrate the litter layer, making it more difficult for the sun to evaporate moisture from the soil below. So, if you do need to rake up litter, then consider moving it to areas where it can mulch a plant.

Even when it isn’t raining, a layer of leaf litter recruits workers to improve your soil. Unlike rock, leaf and twig litter is readily colonized by tiny organisms, and those attract others and pretty soon you have unpaid laborers tunneling into your soil, creating “macropores” for better, deeper infiltration.  In urban Tucson you can also get thrashers, cactus wrens and towhees tilling the ground and scratching for goodies!

All work together to decompose your litter into smaller pieces, and that helps pump extra carbon into the soil.  Extra carbon in your soils is part of the magic.  Soil carbon boosts the ability of the soil to hold water for later use by plants, resulting in a healthier and more drought-resistant landscape.”


My interest in rain-water harvesting is not theoretical.  Apart from the rising cost of water in the US itself, which means higher bills during a time of recession, water has become a serious crisis in many countries, including India.

The southern state of Karnataka has a critical shortage of water and even in Tamil Nadu, which traditionally has torrential rains from two monsoons, water has become an election issue.

In part, this is because of a massive demand from increasing numbers of corporations, foreign and domestic, that flock to the state and receive preferential access at every level.

In part, it is because of  the government subsidy of agricultural water-use that leads to waste and mis-allocation.

There’s also the government-subsidized real estate boom, which created in India exactly what it created in the US – a huge misdirection of  funds into home-building . That’s led to shortages in building materials like concrete and sand.

It’s also put a big dent in the water table in many areas.

These days, bottled water is a necessity in many urban areas, but it’s expensive and makes for dependence on the water-supplier.

Water self-sufficiency is the answer,  both at the level of the house-hold and of the nation.

Rain-water harvesting: Green living on a Bangalore roof

From Rainwaterharvesting blog, run by a Bangalore couple who are active in the water-conservation and rain-harvesting movement in India:

“Almost all the rain on the building site falls on the roof. In Bangalore it can rain 970 mm in an average year. This meant that our house roof with an area of 100 square metres had 97,000 litres of pure rainwater falling on it. With the idea why allow it to go waste, we started to harvest it? This harvesting was done at many levels.

From the staircase rooftop which had an area of 10 square metres, we placed a Rain barrel and collected the water on the roof itself. A small platform was designed and the 500 litre Rain Barrel placed on it. On the staircase roof we placed a gutter to collect the rain. This came down into a vertical pipe with an end cap called the first rain separator. During the first rain and subsequently when we want to clean the roof or the rain gutter we open the cap and the dusty water flows out through the first rain separator. Then after a ‘Y trap’ rainwater flows in through a ‘dhoti filter’ into our rain barrel. We checked the rainwater quality using a H2S strip test and found the water potable. Sometimes when there is slight contamination we use a method called SODIS (Solar Disinfection) to treat the collected rainwater for drinking purpose. Here you fill a PET bottle with the rainwater and leave it in the sun for 5 hours. The water is now sterilized and can be brought into the house cooled and is ready for drinking. This is not a low cost solution for water treatment but a no-cost solution.  Our annual requirement of drinking cooking water comes from this rain barrel alone.

Rain Barrel

We also have an Ecosan toilet on the terrace. This pan in the toilet separates solids and liquids at source. We collect the urine in a barrel, dilute it and use it as a fertilizer for our terrace garden. The solids are covered with ash every time we use it. This is then transferred to some Blue drums we have kept on the terrace and again covered with earth or straw. We then plant trees in these drums. Trees such as Papaya, lemon, curry leaves, sapota are planted and they grow well. No waste from our toilet on the terrace leaves the roof.

The rainwater falling on the Ecosan toilet too is collected in a 200 litre rain barrel and used for ablution purpose.

We have a box type solar cooker to cook our lunch on the terrace. A solar water heater heats water for bath and for the kitchen. During cloudy days we use a ‘Gujarat boiler’ which uses bio-mass for the water heating. The Gujarat Boiler also generates ash for us to use in the Eco-san toilet. We have planted many trees in front of the house and the twigs and branches from the trees are used for the Gujarat Boiler.

Next we have placed a bathroom on the terrace itself. This also has a front loading washing machine which is one of the most water efficient ones in the market. We collect the water from the bath we have on the terrace bathroom as well as from the washing machine in a small ferro-cement tank placed just below the roof slab. We then pump it up to a planted reed filter to clean up the grey-water using a small pump. The reed filter is Cattails – reeds found in lakes- placed in 4 blue drums. In a fifth drum we have sand and gravel filter to clean up the grey-water further. This treated grey-water is then used for the terrace garden where we sometimes grow rice paddy.  Some extra grey-water is also used for flushing the toilet in the ground floor. No greywater is allowed to go waste.

The rice on the rooftop grows well on even a small area. We place 2 sheets of a pond lining material called Silpaulin with a brick edging. The sheet is then filled with a mix of compost, vermi-compost and red earth up-to a depth of 2 to 3 inches. Rice paddy is then planted in it. The water required for the paddy comes from grey-water alone. For the fertilizer the urine from the Eco-san toilet is used. Kitchen waste which is composted is also added to the soil. We have had productions of paddy to the tune of 1 kg per square meter. We have also found that we can grow 4 crops of rice in a year. Millets can also be grown instead of rice. Vegetables such as tomatoes, brinjals, lady-fingers, chilies all grow on the terrace though the monkeys who frequent this place can also be a nuisance at times.

A small wetland has also been created in a ferro-cement tank where different plants and fishes occupy and clean water.

Solar photo-voltaic panels on the roof provide enough power for us to store in batteries and use to light 11 bulbs in the house. The house incidentally has no fans let alone AC’s thanks to the cool terrace as well as thanks to the trees planted on the sides which enfold it in shade.

A well designed rooftop can provide all the water required for a house-hold, provide energy for cooking , lighting and water heating, provide food-grains and vegetables , enhance bio-diversity as well as absorb all the waste-stream from the house from the kitchen and bathroom / toilets and convert it to reuse .

Barrick Gold Threatens Vancouver Publisher

CBC News in Canada reports that bankster-associated gold miner Barrick Gold is shutting down critical writing on the Canadian mining industry.  (Thanks to Chris Cook).

An excerpt:

“The threat of legal action from mining giant Barrick Gold has forced Vancouver-based Talonbooks to postpone publication of a book about the Canadian mining industry.

Publisher Karl Siegler calls it a clear case of “libel chill” by one of Canada’s largest mining companies.

The book, Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries, was to be published in spring 2010, but in February, the publisher and everyone else involved with the book got a threatening letter from Barrick lawyers. Continue reading

Argentina and Uruguay Fight Over Polluted Water at the Hague

The Pentagon, among others, has made the point that riparian disputes are going to be at the top of the agenda in global politics in the coming years. Water is essential to survival and central to border disputes between China and India, Pakistan and India, and even in Latin America, where water is abundant.

In this case, Uruguay’s construction of two paper mills on the River Uruguay has set off a dispute with Argentina, which claims the construction is in violation of a long-standing treaty and is polluting the river as well as the Argentina tourist town on the other side of the border. The two countries have taken the dispute to the  Hague, which is now hearing the case.

What’s my interest in this?

Uruguay remains comparatively unpolluted next to its neighbors, but the paper mills, which will boost Uruguay’s exports by 15% are symptomatic of increased development that could very well change that picture shortly. Uruguay’s attraction as a farming country is the relatively cheap cost of good quality soil, abundant water, and a history of organic use . But with multinationals and governments gobbling up land all over the world, you wonder how long that will continue.

The area around the middle of the border with Argentina, especially at the lower end, near Colonia (the Soriano area), has the highest quality soil and is intensively cultivated. Argentines often buy there because of the proximity to Buenos Aires, via the ferry at Colonia. The farming tends to horticulture, with potato farming and dairy well represented. I haven’t looked in that region because of the high prices – a hectare can run to over $8000, and I’ve seen prices as high as $20,000 and more, depending on the improvements and the location of the land.

In the middle of the border area, in the department of Paysandu, land usage runs to cattle farms and wheat.

Further north, in Salto, a pretty university town, citrus farming takes precedence, as the soil isn’t as high in fertility.

All these areas are well watered by rivers, like the Uruguay and the Rio Negro, which cut through the relatively flat, unspectacular land. But these are also the areas where land prices have shot up the most recently because of the influx of Argentines, looking for a safer place for their money and freedom from increasingly onerous agricultural laws….

Argentina Farmland Troubles

Here’s a clip from early in the year that might interest libertarians who’ve been looking outside the US for farmland, in anticipation of any further worsening of the economy.
The video depicts the effects of drought in Santa Fe province….and makes a rather vague (and likely, insubstantial) reference to global warming.

But there are many other problems in Argentina besides drought – bad government policies, problems with squatters, the depletion of the soil from soy monoculture, the influx of genetically modified foods, and the relatively high prices of land in recent years.

And now there’s also increasing social unrest.

I was talking to some American friends who live in one of the north-eastern provinces, Misiones. They liked where they were, but there were certainly problems. Foreigners couldn’t own the land outright, since it was on the border. And the little enclave of immigrants didn’t always get on with other foreigners. On the good side, they thought the land itself was a natural paradise….