The Gift of Water: How Communities Are Sharing Traditional Techniques to Combat Drought
In drought-prone areas, communities are incorporating green infrastructure to harvest and reuse scarce water, often drawing on the ancient knowledge and wisdom of indigenous practices.
“Water is the most life-sustaining gift on Mother Earth and is the interconnection among all living beings. Water sustains us, flows between us, within us, and replenishes us.” Those words from the Assembly of First Nations are a reminder that water is essential to our wellbeing, fundamental to the physical, mental, and spiritual health of all individuals and communities.
Yet access to water is threatened. In many parts of the United States, drought has reached historic proportions, driven by a toxic mix of climate change, irresponsible water policies, and the failure to invest in adequate infrastructure. Last fall, the Drought Monitor said that more than 80 percent of the country was either experiencing drought or was “abnormally dry” and the Southwest continues to face a “megadrought” on a scale unseen for more than a millennium. The rudimentary amenity of running water in the home is unavailable to two million Americans, mostly in communities of color, tribal communities and poor rural areas.
While national and regional decisions contribute significantly to the problem, many of the solutions are local. Water harvesting techniques to collect, store, and recycle this precious commodity have long been used by indigenous people. Communities around the world—from Zimbabwe to El Salvador, New Mexico to Nepal—are drawing on that knowledge and adapting it to install water-collecting gutters and barrels, rooftop and underground storage tanks, earthen dams, and solar-powered wells, all to capture and channel water for drinking, household use, parks, farm fishing, and crops.
Tucson, Arizona, is one of the places taking inspiration from ancient methods of stretching this scarce resource. The story of its own innovative practices, captured in a Retro Report video, can be traced back to India in the 1980s, when a physician and environmentalist named Rajendra Singh helped a poor farming community dig a johad, a pit that stores monsoon rains to replenish aquifers. Singh had actually traveled to the village to offer medical care, but took to heart the words of an elder who said, “no need your medicine. We no need education. We need water.” Singh pivoted to build his first johad and ultimately incorporated a combination of strategies that have helped more than 1,300 Indian villages gain access to water while also reviving a number of dying rivers.
In fast-growing Tucson, Brad Lancaster heard what this “waterman of India” and other innovators were doing in limited-resource environments. He also knew that Tucson’s groundwater table was dropping and its feeder springs drying up, but in college he had been exposed mostly to costly solutions that required significant government investments. Johads, he realized, could be created by anyone capable of using basic tools.
So could many other measures to incorporate green infrastructure into the landscape. From rain gardens and green roofs to tree canopy, runoff-capturing bioswales, and permeable pavement that allows rainwater to penetrate into the soil, a host of affordable practices make it possible to use water more efficiently. Lancaster began promoting many of these techniques in homes and neighborhoods across Tucson.
In his own residence, he raised walkways and redirected outflow from household fixtures so that water drained into cultivated areas outside. Water collected on his roof flowed into a storage tank so that it could be pumped into the kitchen sink to wash dishes. A bucket and ladle were all he needed to take a refreshing outdoor shower during Tucson’s scorching summers.
Lancaster’s neighbors took note and wanted to get involved. Together they learned to make curb cuts, adapting a traditional way of redirecting rainwater from the roadside to nearby plantings. The first curb cut was what Lancaster termed “pre-legal,” but city officials eventually legitimized the practice and provided other incentives to enhance conservation and the reuse of rainwater. Now, water harvesting is taking place in almost every neighborhood in Tucson and an annual tree planting project has helped to transform barren walkways into forested paths edged by diverse native plants.
These collaborative efforts have paid off: over the past 30 years, water consumption in Tucson has fallen by more than 30 percent, despite a soaring population.
The work has done something else equally important—helped build a sense of community. Neighbors have gotten to know one another because the lush foliage that blooms on irrigated land has encouraged them to take walks. A “cultural seed” has been planted, says Lancaster, as one person and then another start harvesting water and exchanging learnings. Silvia Valdillez, who was first in her neighborhood to install a water storage tank, appreciates what she calls the “ripple effect of this knowledge being shared out.”
Local resident Jesus Romero offers an even broader message. “You start looking at the world a little bit differently once you start being a part of these projects,” he says. “A lot of these lessons, a lot of these strategies are like common sense, you know, but you’re not exposed to them. So it’s up to us to make it equitable and to share that with everybody else.” To Lancaster, what matters most is getting started. “The biggest challenge is being able to see what change is possible. But once you make a little change, it’s like climbing a rung of a ladder. You can now see the next rung.”
Rung by rung, Tucson is earning a reputation as a leader in sensible water use. By reintroducing strategies long practiced by native people and developing models for other communities struggling with drought, local residents are demonstrating that affordable and accessible solutions are within reach.