Slowing down water and the art of survival

Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1

Managing rainwater within a landscape so that neither heavy storms nor long dry spells devastate human endeavors and constructions is referred by Yu Kongjian as the “art of survival” [Yu 2012]. This Chinese landscape architect with an ecological mindset learned the art of survival by studying the ways of ancient peasant farmers. He contrasts the wisdom embodied in their simple structures, such as terraced crop fields on sloping land designed to capture and hold storm water for later use with the modern “art of pleasure making and ornament.”

Modern urban design tends to favor non-functional decorative features – “monumental architecture” like a grand stadium, manicured lawns, or fruit trees grown for their blossoms rather than their fruit, for example. Such investments are pretty, but expensive and “easily superseded,” according to Yu. Equally beautiful urban designs such as green rooftops and boardwalk-accessible urban wetland parks, on the other hand, can be affordable, high-performing features designed to withstand environmental extremes.

World cities, and especially those in China, face deepening environmental problems: flood, drought, pollution, aquifer drop, loss of natural habitat and cultural heritage. A low-culture approach using what I term ‘adaptive design’ provides a technique for solving problems in an economical and ecological way [Yu 2012: 72].

For Yu, design is adaptive “when it responds elegantly and efficiently to its environmental setting so that new uses can endure” [Yu 2012: 72], meaning a design for urban resilience in the face of ever more severe weather.

It’s not only Chinese peasants who understood water cycles and how to manage them. Ancient peoples of the Middle East actually depended on seasonal flooding. Like we do today, these ancient farmers grew crops on river floodplains. Yet unlike today’s practices of diking off the river to keep croplands dry, they allowed annual flood pulses onto their fields.

Annual flood pulses are so predictable and long-lasting that plants, animals, and even human societies have adapted to take advantage of them. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the fertility of the soils was renewed each year by the annual overflow of the rivers, thereby sustaining large populations in one place for millennia and permitting the development of great civilizations [Sparks 1995: 168].

In India’s Rajasthan region, where the monsoon cycle brings torrents of rain all at once, after which begins a long dry season, rural farming communities built johads. These are small earthen dams on sloping land that create ponds or wetlands by harvesting stormwater during the rainy season. This water reserve then becomes a vital resource during the dry season. However, johads were abandoned in favor of more modern borehole wells, which are deep, not wide like a basin, and therefore not able to catch rainwater, which instead simply ran off the landscape. By the 1980s the johads were gone, wells were dry, people walked 9km in search of drinking water, and farmers left town in search of other employment. But then communities throughout the region started to rebuild johads, which raised the water table enough to refill wells, support agriculture and wildlife, and for streams to flow again [Singh 2015, SIWI 2015].

Similarly, severe drought in Burkina Faso in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara Desert presented farmers with a simple choice: find a way to restore the land and farm again, or migrate. As in Rajasthan, these farmers were prompted in desperation to rediscover their region’s own traditional techniques for water conservation. They dug rows of small pits in their fields to capture rainfall, which they filled with compost and manure, and into which they planted crops. Other farmers built stone terraces along the contours in their fields to capture rainfall and prevent runoff; some farmers did both. Over time, at least 140,000 farming households over 200,000 hectares or more were practicing these techniques, resulting in the revival of crop production, reestablishment of trees, shrubs and grasses, and the recharging of the area’s water table by a depth of five meters [Reij 2009].  

Reij, Chris, Gray Tappan & Melinda Smale, 2009, Agroenvironmental transformation in the Sahel: another kind of green revolution, International Food Policy Research Institute Discussion Paper 00914,  

SIWI (Stockholm International Water Institute), 2015, Rajendra Singh - the water man of India wins 2015 Stockholm Water Prize,

Singh, Rajendra, 2015, River regeneration in Rajasthan, Restoring Water Cycles to Reverse Global Warming Conference October 16th-18th, 2015 at Tufts University, Biodiversity for a Livable Climate,

Sparks, Richard E., 1995, Need for ecosystem management of large rivers and their floodplains: these phenomenally productive ecosystems produce fish and wildlife and preserve species, BioScience 45:3,

Yu, Kongjian, 2012, The big feet aesthetic and the art of survival, Architectural Design 82(6),

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1