Book Review: Helping Water Find Its Own Level

In a mountainous village in the Peruvian Andes, community members tend an ancient system that helps water avocado trees, hops, potatoes and bean plants. Diverted water from alpine streams flows into canals and seeps into infiltration basins that flow into springs. The water then cascades downhill in a stream and to a pond marked with a totem to honor its presence.

Honoring these resources and caring for them by cleaning the canals every year are traditions that go back centuries. Locals know which channels feed which springs, an awareness researchers are now recording through interviews with villagers. A better understanding of how these intricate water systems work — and how communities maintain them — could help hydrologists and water managers ensure that downstream cities like Lima have water in the future, according to science journalist Erica Gies in Water always wins: Thriving in a time of drought and flood.

“In the industrial age, people got used to looking at water and behaving in a certain way, neatly within its concrete limitations,” she writes. “But water is not a waste product to be quickly whisked away; nor is it a commodity that sits inert in a reservoir until needed in fields or in apartments. Water has agency.”

The Peruvian example is one of many that Gies uses to demonstrate how hydrologists, conservationists and ecologists are becoming what she calls water detectives, searching for ways to slow water’s journey, an effort that can help mitigate the ravages of climate change like drought and sea level. increase and at the same time provide a wide range of other benefits.

Taking readers on a global journey, Gies highlights scientists and engineers who “share an openness to moving from a mindset of control to one of respect,” seeking to support what she calls a “Slow Water” -movement. “While Slow Water projects reduce the risk of flooding and water scarcity and the subsequent anxiety these situations bring,” she writes, “they also create more dynamic, diverse, enticing habitats for us.”

Not only that, she argues in the introduction: “When the water stagnates on earth, the magic happens, cycling the water underground and providing habitat and food for many forms of life, including us. The key to greater resilience, the water detectives say, is to find ways to let water be water, to reclaim space for water to interact with the earth.”

In Chennai, India, for example, residents experience both seasonal flooding and water scarcity. A 2015 flood that killed at least 470 people spurred biologists and conservationists to fight harder to protect wetlands to prevent future disasters by allowing water to seep into the ground and reduce water extremes. City officials, working with Dutch advisors, local communities, water experts and non-governmental organizations, made plans to reclaim floodplains and protect marshes to slow down water and absorb rainfall instead of carrying water into canals and out to sea. A biologist mapped how wetlands allowed water to flow leisurely through the watershed and showed how development interrupted that process. As a result, the local Supreme Court decided to prohibit further wetland development.

In Kenya, far-sighted government policies allow residents to share responsibility for their water resources, bringing associations together to decide how best to manage them. In a given year, water allocations depend on how much is available, rather than who makes the earliest claims on the resource. Such policies are important to “ensure the holistic management of natural resources,” which is, Geis argues, “a remarkable departure from the classic Western development model that plunders natural resources for capital.”

At the same time, The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, has partnered with the Kenyan government and private entities to raise millions of dollars for projects focused on planting native trees and promoting agricultural practices that conserve water and soil. As a result, at least in part, researchers estimate that nearly 5 million liters more water flowed into the central Nairobi reservoir per day in 2020 compared to 2016. The hope is that by keeping water in the reservoir, residents will be in able to better tolerate drought over a longer period of time.

Gies also discusses the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve along San Francisco Bay, where scientists, governments and non-governmental organizations are restoring 75,000 acres of marshland, or about 40 percent of what was there before development. The project is especially important given that the California Ocean Protection Project estimates that sea levels will rise as much as 7 feet in the next eight decades due to climate change. The additional wetlands could help absorb some of the water, store carbon, break down pollutants, provide wildlife habitat and help buffer the shoreline from flooding. Already, the area provides more habitat for native birds.

The stories Gies tells are not exclusively focused on people. She shows how beaver populations in England help shape and slow the movement of water through the landscape. She also describes how microbes metabolize inorganic compounds, feed larger organisms, and contribute to the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, which affect the water we are trying to manage. When we lose these microbes, she writes, we also sacrifice ecosystem health and biodiversity.

Gies vividly recounts his experiences visiting these locations and the environments around them. Describing a wetland in England, for example, she writes: “The sandbars and rocks scattered across the mudflats offer patches of land to birds that live here, including dunlin, curlew, gray and ringed hen, oystercatchers, robins. They prey on 13 species of marine molluscs , who have moved in. Just a short distance inland, a salt water plant has already been established. Even further from the sea, reedbeds give way to grassland and low bushes.”

Along the way, she provides insight into political protections of water; personal, local and national attitudes to water; and the economics of water and how we calculate its importance, in an effort to illuminate “a practical and proven way to create a better world where people are happier and societies more adaptable.”

She also shows how not all infrastructure projects may be worth the investment. Dams, levees, and other flood barriers, for example, are expensive and can take a long time to build, and after they are completed, they can sink or become ineffective due to changing conditions. “Boston weighed a 3.8-kilometer seawall that would have cost nearly $12 billion, taken 30 years to build and caused major environmental damage,” she writes. “Instead, it chose to add 67 acres of green space along the water, restore 122 acres of tidal marsh and raise some flood-prone areas.”

As Gies points out in example after example, from Asia to Africa to North America, changing our relationship with water can help reduce pollution, restore reserves and adapt to a changing climate. “We will have to learn to accept a dynamic environment, seeing riverbanks and coastlines as flexible living spaces that are periodically flooded, filled with plants or muddied,” concludes Gies. “Widespread acceptance of Slow Water will require an attitudinal adjustment in the way we think about this vital connection, from commodity or industrial input to partner, friend, relative, life.”

Top photo: Jack Anstey/Unsplash. This article was originally published on Darkness. Read original article.

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