Stories of Water and Watersheds

In-depth (based on site visits with extensive interviews)

  1. India – New Delhi – Urban Rainwater Harvesting – Rainwater harvesting at Shri Ram School makes it a key player in a widespread movement to address Delhi’s water shortages.
  2. India – Rajasthan – Water Warriors: Restoring Traditional Earthen Dams for Rainwater Harvesting and Groundwater Replenishment – Revival of traditional rainwater harvesting dams recharges the aquifer, transforming a drought-ridden landscape.
  3. Israel/Palestine/JordanEcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East and the Good Water Neighbors Project – EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East restores the environment and improves international relations at the same time.
  4. USA – California (Arcata) – Constructed Wetland: A Cost-Effective Alternative for Wastewater Treatment – Shunning a costly regional sewage treatment plant, a town converts derelict industrial land into a marsh that purifies its municipal wastewater.
  5. USA – California/Oregon – Decline and Restoration in the Klamath River Basin: The Klamath Settlement Agreements
  6. USA – Hawaii (Oahu) – Waiahole Ditch Water Restoration – Twenty years after their land struggle, the Waiahole-Waikane community achieves stream restoration as well.

Capsule (shorter pieces which appear below)

  1. AustraliaA Sustainable House in the City – A small urban family remodels its 100-year-old house to achieve water and energy self-sufficiency.
  2. Canada – British Columbia – Tsleil-Waututh Nation – A native tribe helps to restore a degraded watershed, with far-reaching ecological and economic benefits.
  3. China – Gansu – Rainwater Harvesting – Rainwater harvesting in a dry region has multiple benefits for a drought-prone region.
  4. China – Fuzhou – Ocean Arks Wastewater Restorers – An innovative wastewater treatment system restores the quality of polluted urban waterways.
  5. EcuadorThe Battle Against Chevron Texaco – An unprecedented community-driven legal battle fights for justice after what has been called one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history.
  6. IraqMesopotamian Marshlands – Formerly desiccated marshlands are brought back to life.
  7. Mexico – Jalisco – Ayuquila River Restoration – Communities in the Ayuquila River Basin confronted deforestation and river pollution to set the watershed on a course of ecological health.
  8. Russia – Lake Baikal – Staving off Uranium Pollution – Protecting the world’s oldest and deepest lake from a planned petroleum pipeline and uranium enrichment facility.
  9. South AfricaWorking for Water – Removing exotic trees from watersheds brings streams back to life, increases the nation’s water supply, and creates jobs for the unemployed.
  10. SudanHydrocarbon Removal from Oilfield Produced Water – Reed beds decontaminate wastewater from oilfields.
  11. Thailand – Pak Mun Dam – Experimental Dam Opening – Experimental reopening of the Pak Mun Dam gates reveals the social and ecological costs of megadams, and the benefits of rivers to the multiple communities who depend on them.
  12. UgandaRyan’s Well – A six-year-old Canadian boy starts a movement for safe drinking water in Africa.
  13. USA – California – Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District – Napa County works with the “living rivers” principle for its flood management plan.
  14. USA – Louisiana – Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program – A cooperative regional management program turns the tide of environmental degradation in the nation’s largest estuary.
  15. USA – New York (New York City) – Watershed Protection – Watershed protection is a cost-effective alternative to a costly treatment plant to improve the region’s deteriorating water quality.
  16. USA – Various locations – Phytoremediation – Plants and microbes use natural processes to purify contaminated wastewater.
  17. ZimbabweWater Farming – Through “water farming” Phiri Maseko’s farm is a paradise that resists droughts for several years.

Australia – A Sustainable House in the City

  • Author: Eric Schneider
  • Posted: March 2009

In 1996, Mike Mobbs, a Sydney environmental lawyer, and his lawyer wife Heather Armstrong set out to renovate their 100-year-old terrace house in the inner-city suburb of Chippendale – to expand their kitchen and make a bit more living space for the two kids. But when they sat down to plan the job they decided to build a house that would be less of a drain on the planet’s resources. With a bit of vision, some common sense, and a lot of tenacity, they built what most of us would think impossible… a house in the middle of Australia’s biggest city that:

  • Collects all its drinking water from the roof
  • Generates all of its electricity from the sun
  • Processes all of its wastewater, including sewage, on site

Impossible? Outrageously expensive? Here’s how they did it…

Mike wanted to collect all of the water the family needed off their roof. They had never been big water users. Even before they renovated, they used just 350 liters of water a day, or about half that of the average Sydney household. But over a year, this still adds up to around 100,000 liters of water.

The house is less than 2 kilometers from Sydney’s central business district, sandwiched between two congested inner-city roads (Broadway and Cleveland St.), choked frequently with buses and cars. So with two young kids, Mike and Heather were initially concerned about the quality of the water they’d collect off their roof. They were pleasantly surprised. Today, their drinking water is cleaner than that of most households. The water exiting the other end of the tank is clean enough to be reused in the house as grey water to flush toilets, wash clothes and water the garden, and any excess overflows into a dry reed bed.

The water recycling and sewerage disposal systems in the Chippendale house process around 100,000 liters of sewage each year, preventing it from entering the Pacific Ocean. The organic composting also cuts the local council’s waste by several tons. The water recycling and sewage treatment system cost about $11,000, including all of the excavations and the tank, which has the capacity to process waste for nine people.

Annual savings on water and energy bills are around $1,600/yr. Taking into account extra maintenance and gas bills, that works out to an annual saving of about $1,200. The cost-benefit would be greater if neighbors started to use the house’s organic waste disposal system, which still has extra capacity.

Michael also estimates the sustainable building costs would be halved if built from scratch.

For more details, click on the links at:

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Canada – British Columbia – Tsleil-Waututh Nation

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation occupies some 190,000 hectares of the Indian River valley just north of Vancouver, Canada, living off the richly forested land with salmon and chum-filled rivers. Their way of life depended on salmon, deer, elk, bear, mountain goats, cedar, berries, and medicines; today although dramatically altered, some of these traditions still continue.

During the 1950s-1980s, industrial logging and other industry caused salmon runs to decline, affected other sea life, and degraded the water quality of the Indian River which drains into the Burrard Inlet. Concern over the ecosystem’s state and health of the community inspired the Nation leaders to find new ways to conduct stewardship of the land.

Among other things, they signed an agreement with the British Columbia (BC) government to co-manage the region’s provincial park, held a conference on integrated stewardship, began a watershed and restoration study, began an ecotourism business with canoe and boat tours, and signed cooperative agreements with the BC forest ministry and forestry operations to create sustainable logging ventures. They joined forces with foundation Ecotrust Canada in 1998, which provided funds, support and training for various programs, including: use of GPS for restoration of salmon habitat, field work and data collection, and cleanup of industrial waste in the valley left behind by logging camps and sawmills. They also deactivated 100 km of logging roads, which has been key in restoring the watershed.

They are applying for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council, the eco-labelling system for wood) certification for their logging, and plans are advancing for more ecotourism development.

Services/benefits: Watershed quality improved, salmon runs recovering, sense of stewardship and pride among TW nation, economic benefits

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China – Gansu – Rainwater Harvesting

The Gansu province of China is one of the driest and poorest areas in the mountainous area of northwest China. River runoff is too saline for drinking or irrigation, and groundwater is scant and of bad quality. Agriculture is largely rain-fed. After conducting a study and pilot project in the early 1990s, the province’s water research institute suggested introducing rainwater harvesting on a broader scale. In the wake of a drought in 1995, the provincial government launched the program quickly, with a successful media campaign calling for donors and technical support. The province provided a $50 subsidy to each rural household to build a rainwater collection “field” on roofs or paved courtyards, and two underground tanks.

The results have been called “phenomenal” – -farmers are diversifying into cash crops, have built 23,500 greenhouses, planted 440 hectares of fruit trees and 22,500 hectares of cash crops. In addition:

  1. Annual household incomes went up from $100 in 1995 to $182 in 2002.
  2. The average number of days for water fetching has been reduced by 70, which has freed up mainly women and children.
  3. Soil erosion is better controlled.
  4. There is more biodiversity, not only of agriculture but greenery and trees.
  5. The success of the project has been linked to the logical step-by-step process of research, experimentation, demonstration, training and replication by the water research institute (GRIWAC), and the active motivation and participation of farmers at the planning, construction, labor, and donation of materials, which shouldered two-thirds of the costs.
  6. Gansu has set an example of the potential of rainwater harvesting in China and it has attracted interest from other parts of the country. It has also been an innovation on the traditional concept of water resources development in China (an important one in the context of the large-scale, high-cost projects like the Three Gorges Dam, from which scattered rural communities cannot benefit).

Services restored/benefits: poverty alleviation, water and food security, erosion control

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China – Fuzhou – Ocean Arks Wastewater Restorers

This pilot project was launched in Fuzhou, a crowded city of 2.5 million people in southwest China, on the Baima Canal, which pre-project was (and still is, except this section) 100 miles of what is basically open sewer which runs through the city and drains into the Ming River. Along this small section there are 40 influent points where wastewater from 12,000 people is released into the canal. Before the installation of the Restorer, the water in the canal was grey, laden with sewage and garbage, and emitted a powerful stench.

In the Autumn of 2003, Ocean Arks International installed a wastewater treatment system on a 600-meter stretch of this canal which flows along high-rise apartment buildings, a temple, shops, restaurants, and a school. The Restorer is basically a 600-meter-long floating pontoon, which houses two long racks with a walkway between for workers to access a central control barge, to trim the garden, and to pick up litter. The Restorer’s technologies, among other things, include oxygen emitted from blowers along the pontoon, botanical gardens which line the sides of the pontoons with root systems which house two strains of bacteria, one of which was introduced to convert ammonia into a more benign form, and the other, along with some introduced carp, to consume the sewage solids. Below the surface of the water a recycle pipe moves bacteria through the system to keep it biologically active.

After a year in operation, the water is clear, does not smell, and contains fish. The Restorer is meeting technical standards set by Fuzhou officials: ammonia levels are down, and biochemical oxygen demand is down to a tenth of original numbers. Residents report seeing butterflies and birds there for the first time in their lives.

The system is calculated to be one eighth of the price of a conventional sewage treatment system, which makes it ideal for places like rapidly urbanizing China where services like waste and sewage treatment can’t keep up with demand. While Ocean Arks has installed similar projects in over 80 locations, one staff member commented that he didn’t think they’d done a facility “which had such a drastic improvement on a day-to-day basis in people’s lives.” The project has attracted the attention of officials from other cities who have come to Fuzhou to learn more about it.

For more information visit Ocean Arks.

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Ecuador – The Battle Against Chevron Texaco

  • Author: Adapted from the Goldman website (with permission)
  • Posted: July 2008

Fighting for justice after what has been called one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history, Luis Yanza and Pablo Fajardo are leading an unprecedented community-driven legal battle against a global oil giant. According to the plaintiffs, beginning in 1964 and through 1990, Texaco dumped nearly 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling wastewater directly into the Ecuadorian Amazon. Allegedly suffering from the health effects of the pollution, the region’s inhabitants are demanding a complete cleanup in potentially the largest environmental lawsuit ever filed in the world. Yanza co-founded the Amazon Defense Front to organize 30,000 inhabitants of the northern Ecuadorian Amazon in a class-action lawsuit against Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001. The lead lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, a resident of one of the affected communities, has become the public voice of the plaintiffs.

Unprecedented Petroleum Pollution

The Ecuadorian Amazon contains five percent of all the world’s plant and animal species and is one of the most biodiverse places in the Amazon and on Earth. As the region’s primary oil investor in the 1970s and 1980s, Texaco built much of Ecuador’s oil infrastructure but chose not to re-inject back into the ground the wastewater and sludge brought up by the drilling process, called formation waters. Instead, according to the plaintiffs, billions of gallons were dumped into the region’s waterways, or left in more than 1,000 unlined, open pits scattered throughout the area. By the company’s own estimates, it spilled nearly 17 million gallons of oil into soils and waterways, and another 20 billion gallons of formation waters. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled just over 10 million gallons of oil. In 1992, Texaco left Ecuador, leaving behind what experts and inhabitants call a monumental environmental disaster.

To this day, the region’s 30,000 inhabitants primarily drink water that has been deemed contaminated by experts involved in the case. According to the plaintiffs, many of the waste pits continue to pollute the rivers, streams and groundwater. In some areas, all water sources are contaminated and few fish survive in the rivers. The plaintiffs claim that prolonged exposure to toxic substances has led to a serious health crisis, and caused people living in such proximity to pollution to suffer dramatically increased incidences of skin disease, respiratory ailments, reproductive disorders and a cancer rate seven times higher than the rest of the country’s population. They also claim that the regional devastation includes more than two million acres of deforestation. Chevron, however, claims the region’s environmental and health problems are not a result of the pollution left behind by Texaco, and that they are no longer responsible.

Leading the Community to Seek Justice

In 1993, Yanza, working with a team of US-based lawyers, filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco. Plaintiffs included a coalition of residents brought together by Yanza’s organization, including 80 villages and five different indigenous peoples. The initial case against Texaco (acquired by Chevron in 2001) was filed in 1993 in a New York district court, near Texaco’s headquarters. In 1996, a superior court judge dismissed the case, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal and won a reversal of the decision. In 2002, the US Court of Appeals agreed with Chevron’s request to send the case to Ecuador. However, the court warned Chevron that US courts would intervene if the company tried to avoid a judgment imposed by the Ecuadorian courts.

In May 2003, the 30,000 plaintiffs, led by Fajardo’s legal team, filed a lawsuit in Ecuador’s northern Amazon, demanding that Chevron pay for a complete cleanup, including removal of all formation waters, debris and equipment; remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands; recuperation of fauna, flora and aqueous life; and monitoring and improvement of the health of the inhabitants.

Chevron does not deny dumping formation waters or oil in the region, but says the resulting contamination has not harmed the inhabitants and it is not responsible for any cleanup. In March 2007, the plaintiffs, with the abundant evidence collected from 45 field inspections, had already proven the existence of extensive contamination, and that further delay was not necessary. The judge issued an order to begin an assessment of the damages, which was carried out by an independent expert, culminating in a report released in April 2008 citing $8.3 – $16 billion in damages. Fajardo and Yanza have been touring the country relentlessly, making the trial an issue of national dignity and sovereignty in anticipation of a final decision in 2008.

Long Term Impact

The impact of Yanza and Fajardo’s efforts on Ecuador’s oil industry is already far-reaching. They have publicized the long-term effects on the environment and people, leading the government of Ecuador to pass stronger environmental protection laws. Texaco and Chevron’s legacy in Ecuador is now part of the national collective consciousness. Fajardo and Yanza recently hosted the president of Ecuador on a tour of Texaco’s former operations, leading to a pledge by the government to relocate several contaminated communities.

Their work entails significant risk, as well. Yanza, Fajardo, their families and a number of their colleagues have become targets of death threats, harassment and intimidation. In December 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States issued precautionary measures for Yanza and Fajardo in an effort to protect their lives. Fajardo’s brother was killed just months after he joined the legal team; no investigation has taken place and no one has been arrested for the homicide. Fajardo has been forced to vary his daily routine, often sleeping in a different place each night.

Yanza and Fajardo are recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. For more information see the Goldman Prize website.

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Iraq – Mesopotamian Marshlands

Source: Nature Iraq

I never imagined the Garden of Eden as a marsh, but according to scholars, the biblical garden was located in the Mesopotamian Marshlands of what is now known as southern Iraq and Iran. This system of interconnected lakes, canals, mudflats, and wetlands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers once covered an area of nearly 9,000 km2 (3,475 mi2) year round and grew to 20,000 km2 (7,700 mi2) with each spring snowmelt.

For 5,000 to 7,000 years, the area has been inhabited by Ma’dan tribes (a.k.a. Marsh Arabs), who trace their roots back to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians. They construct floating islands of reeds on which to put their houses, which are also made of reeds (see photo). Reeds have many other uses as well: mats and baskets (a source of cash income), fodder for water buffalo, fuel for cooking. Crops grown by the Ma’dan include dates, millet, rice, and wheat. Local fish and wildlife provide protein.

Traditional Ma’dan house

Official statistics are lacking, but it is estimated that in the 1950s the Ma’dan marsh population was 400,000 to 500,000.


Draining of the Mesopotamian marshlands began with the British in the 1950s. They considered the marshes to be economically useless and a breeding ground for mosquitos, and started a project to direct water from the central Euphrates region into the desert. Later, numerous dams upstream—including those in Turkey, Syria, and Iran—reduced water flow to the marshes to such an extent that the spring snowmelts became barely noticeable. Things got worse under Saddam Hussein. In the 1990s he not only completed the main outfall drain project started by the British, but also constructed a system of canals and embankments which desiccated most of the marshlands. This was for agricultural schemes and oil exploration, but also to drive out the rebellious Marsh Arabs and fugitives who were hiding in the marshes. By 2002 the marshland area had shrunk to just 1,300 km2 (500 mi2)—a decline of more than 85% from its 1973 size (see Map 1). The rest of the area became a salt-crusted desert susceptible to dust storms.

The region’s famed biodiversity was devastated. Besides fish and amphibians, dozens of species of migratory and endemic birds lost their habitat. The smooth-coated otter, bandicoot rat, long-fingered bat, and African darter bird are thought to have become entirely extinct. Marsh desiccation also affected Persian Gulf fisheries: the marshes no longer served as a “sewage treatment plant” or “kidneys” for waters flowing into the Gulf, nor as a spawning ground for migratory fish and shrimp species.

Human population declined as well. The remaining Ma’dan numbered only around 20,000 in 2003. About one-fifth of those who fled went to refugee camps in Iran; some went overseas; the rest were displaced within Iraq.

Map 1. Mesopotamian Marshes, 1973 to 2002
Source: Middleton, Nick. Restoring Eden. Geodate 18(3), 2005.


A 2001 report by the United Nations Environment Program, The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem, brought the tragedy to worldwide attention. In response, a group of Iraqi expatriates—under the leadership of California civil engineer Azzam Alwash—founded the Eden Again Project. With support from the non-profit Iraq Foundation, they assembled a group of international experts in 2002 and began to make a plan for restoring the marshlands.  

When Saddam Hussein’s regime was deposed in 2003, things changed rapidly. The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources created the Center for Restoration of the Iraqi Marshlands, and also that year the New Eden Project, a cooperative project between the Italian and Iraqi governments, began to develop a master plan for sustainable development of the marshlands. In 2004 Alwash founded Nature Iraq, an organization which took over administration of the Eden Again Project and also provides consultation to the Iraqi government and local residents. Beginning in 2005, scientific conferences for the rehabilitation of the Iraqi marshes have been held regularly—covering everything from agriculture and economic enterprises to psychology and veterinary medicine.

In 2007 the Hawizeh Marsh—the only permanent marsh remaining after desiccation—was declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Iraq National Marshes and Wetlands Committee was created and a detailed management plan for Hawizeh was drafted in 2008.

But the people did not wait for the experts and planners. As soon as the regime fell in 2003, they began to break down the embankments Saddam had built, and reflooded large portions of the marshes. In just two years, 60% of the marshes had been reflooded. Long-dormant reeds sprang back to life. Fish, frogs, and birds—even the rare marbled teal, Iraq babbler, and Basra reed warbler—returned. The Marsh Arabs began to return as well; estimated population in 2005 was 60,000.

Map 2 shows the progress of marsh restoration between 2003 and 2005. The Central Marshes made a miraculous recovery, and planning is underway to establish a Mesopotamian Marshland National Park there with the purposes of ecosystem restoration, education and research, and ecotourism. The Abu Zirig marsh to the west, which was the focus of the Italian-sponsored New Eden Project, also did well. But not all the reflooded land fared so well. Some is progressing more slowly and some simply remains as “saltwater desert” because of high soil salinity or impermeable surface. Overall, it is estimated that about 30% of the marshlands have a realistic potential for complete restoration.

Map 2. Mesopotamian Marshes, 2003 to 2005
Source: UNEP

To see the PBS Nature show “Braving Iraq,” go to

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Mexico – Jalisco – Ayuquila River Restoration

The Ayuquila River in Western Central Mexico flows through a remarkably diverse landscape that includes mountain peaks and coastal plains, and more species than France, Canada or the British Isles. It is home to over 100 different mammals, and over 300 species of birds, with vegetation that includes mangrove, tropical jungle, and evergreen pine forests.

Modern times arrived in the Ayuquila River watershed in the 1950s with the construction of dams and irrigation channels to support the expansion of the water-intensive (and profitable) sugarcane crop around the upstream communities of Autlán and El Grullo which, fueled by the sugar industry, quickly developed as local centers of industry and commerce. Currently about 80% of the population of the watershed lives in this “upstream” region. The remaining 20% lives downstream from this concentration of agriculture and industry. As the upstream communities thrived, those downstream dwindled, threatened by a lower river flow, loss of fish and crustacean species and severe water pollution.

In the early 1980s the region received international attention from the scientific community when a perennial relative of maize was discovered in the region by University of Guadalajara researchers. This discovery prompted the State of Jalisco to purchase over 1,000 hectares in the mountainous area known as the Sierra de Manantlán in 1984, and donate the land to the University for the development of a research laboratory facility. From the beginning, the University’s strategy included strong social outreach and environmental education programs to complement the basic science research. It stepped in and implemented a variety of innovative strategies to begin to address watershed issues, including the establishment of an Advisory Council embracing municipal, state and federal authorities, academia and non-profit organizations, as well as disenfranchised ethnic and social groups.  

The University quickly achieved results by working with local communities. For example, a network of River Defense Committees from each community affected by pollution. Though a sugar mill was blamed for most of the pollution, regular water quality monitoring soon revealed sewage and improper solid waste disposal from the cities of Autlán and El Grullo to play a significant role as well. Successful waste separation, recycling and composting programs were implemented. Meanwhile, under pressure from the University and its many partners, the federal government began building regional sewage treatment plants.

However, the sugar mill refused to cooperate. Many species of fish and crustaceans would disappear from long stretches of river during the months when the mill was working, with damage was so severe that the river could not recover during the off-season.  After a disastrous molasses spill in 1998 which was exhaustively documented by the University’s water-monitoring team, the Sugarcane Workers Union switched sides and joined the conservationist forces in their long-standing dispute with the sugar mill. Soon after the University invited Cuban specialists to evaluate the mill’s pollution problem and offer their counsel, which included such basic measures as using some wastewater to irrigate nearby cane fields. Left without allies or excuses, the sugar mill was finally forced to comply and implement a comprehensive pollution control program that immediately improved the health of the river, to everyone’s benefit.

The same social participation strategy has been successful in other ways, such as establishment of the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve in 1987, which put a halt to illegal logging, addressed conflicts with mining interests, and halved the number of forest fires within the Reserve. Though many problems remain in the region, the restoration of the Ayuquila River has been so successful that it has become a case study for international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

For further information see Ayuquila River.

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Russia – Lake Baikal – Staving off Uranium Pollution

  • Author: Adapted from the Goldman website (with permission)
  • Posted: July 2008

Lake Baikal in Siberia is one of the most important bodies of fresh water in the world. However, Russia’s increasingly authoritarian government and rapidly growing oil and nuclear economy threaten the health of this cherished natural resource. Lake Baikal native Marina Rikhvanova, a long-time figure in Russia’s environmental movement, leads efforts to protect the region from potential environmental disaster brought on by industry. After successfully campaigning to reroute a destructive petroleum pipeline from the lake’s watershed, Rikhvanova is now working to prevent the construction of a uranium enrichment facility in the region.

Success in Spite of Tightening on Civil Society

Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, is known as the “Galapagos of Russia.” It holds 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater reserve. Its age and isolation have created one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections of freshwater flora and fauna, including 1,700 endemic plant and animal species. Located in southeast Siberia, Lake Baikal provides a way of life for the local communities and is cherished by wilderness lovers from around the world. In 1996, it was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 2002, the Russian government announced plans to build the longest petroleum pipeline in the world, extending 2,566 miles from eastern Siberia to an oil terminal on Russia’s Pacific coast through Lake Baikal basin. In 2005 Transneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, decide to build the pipeline within a half-mile of Lake Baikal, despite concerns about possible oil spills and leakage. Rikhvanova, co-chair and co-founder of Baikal Environmental Wave (the Wave) immediately opposed the plan, and embarked on a four-year struggle to protect the lake. Working within Russia’s increasingly repressive climate, she successfully led a national campaign that included rallying thousands in protest. Volunteers of the Wave and Baikal movement also obtained over 20,000 signatures and partnered with international organizations during the campaign. Due to these efforts, in April 2006, President Vladimir Putin ordered the pipeline to be rerouted away from the lake’s watershed. This marked a tremendous success for civil society and the environmental movement in Russia.

Nuclear Threats to the Lake

Despite the civic outcry to protect the region, threats continue to plague Lake Baikal. In late 2006, the Russian government announced plans to construct the International Uranium Enrichment Center near Angarsk on the grounds of an existing nuclear facility located just 50 miles from Lake Baikal. The purpose of the center is to enrich uranium transported from other countries and then return it to them for reuse. Once the uranium is enriched, only 10 percent of the radioactive material will be returned to the customer, leaving 90 percent behind for storage.

Russia is the only country in the world willing to take radioactive materials from other countries for processing, long-term storage, and burial. Countries that do not currently have nuclear infrastructure are willing to pay a premium to Russia to do this dangerous work. This budding industry poses significant environmental and health risks. Uranium tailings, leftover waste in the form of sand after enrichment, consist of extremely harmful radioactive and toxic uranium hexafluoride. These tailings are preserved outside in sealed containers. Should these containers be compromised as a result of a fire or otherwise, uranium hexafluoride would leak into the air and form fluoric acid. If the radioactive sand is left on the ground and allowed to dry, wind can deposit it on vegetation, allowing radioactive materials to enter the food chain. It can also wash into rivers and lakes, contaminating them.

Rikhvanova and the Wave now lead the effort to stop construction of this uranium enrichment center. They are demanding that the required independent environmental impact assessment and review be carried out. In early 2007, she traveled to Moscow to protest the building of 40 new nuclear power plants across Russia and in the spring of 2007, she organized several protests in Irkutsk, the latest on April 14 which was attended by more than 1,000 people. Rikhvanova has also met with officials from the Russian Atomic Energy Agency who agreed that if the local population was against the center, it would not be built. Despite the promise, plans for its construction continue. In late July, Rikhvanova hosted a No-Nukes Camp in Angarsk, one of many citizen training camps held during the summer in the region. Camp participants attended trainings about how radioactive waste is imported into Russia, the danger of transporting nuclear materials and the lack of information available to the public about plans for further nuclear development, with a focus on what civil society groups can do to help stop the project.

Personal Challenges

A recent challenge to Rikhvanova’s work is the controversy around her son, Pavel, and his alleged involvement in a murder that occurred at a protest camp run by radical political groups held in the summer of 2007. This camp was attacked by nationalist thugs (according to the government report), resulting in injuries and one death. Rikhvanova’s son, Pavel, was in the area when the murder happened, though he has denied involvement in the violence. Following his arrest, authorities seized Rikhvanova’s home computer. The local newsmedia reported on the arrest story, attempting to connect Pavel’s alleged role in the attacks to Rikhvanova’s efforts to protect Lake Baikal. Rikhvanova must now struggle both to clear her own name and support her son while he continues to be held without charge in police custody.

Marina Rikhvanova is a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. For more information, see the Goldman Prize website.

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South Africa – Working for Water

This innovative, multiagency program combines one of the most ambitious and expensive IAP (invading alien plants) eradication initiatives ever undertaken with a social welfare program aimed at poverty and other legacies of apartheid. It is a model for combating IAPs in other parts of the world, and the program’s director is also chair of the GISP (Global Invasive Species Project).

IAPs are a major threat to ecosystems not only in South Africa but internationally; for example it is estimated IAPs cost the US $7 billion a year. In South Africa, American pine, Australian blue gum tree and other species of trees and aquatic plants from the Americas, Asia, Europe and Australia were introduced intentionally for commercial forestry, or accidentally through agriculture and development. Originally covered in low-biomass fynbos (or native shrub) vegetation, some 8% of South Africa’s landscape is colonized by vast swaths of woody vegetation. While it may seem counterintuitive to restore a watershed by removing trees and aquatic plants, these IAPs consume 9% of the nation’s runoff, drying up watersheds, reducing biodiversity, triggering mass extinctions of native plants, and contributing to soil erosion.

With these issues in mind, the newly post-apartheid South African government launched the program “Working for Water” in 1995. It was deemed less expensive to clear hillsides and riverbanks of invasive species than to build new dams, and the government began a job creation scheme, employing 21,000 people, targeting those with reduced job opportunities, to do just that. These included the poor from the townships and settlements, the disabled, ex-prisoners, youth (under 23 years), and those with HIV/AIDS, more than half of whom were female.

Working with various government agencies, other programs were launched:

  1. Access to child-care facilities for each project, with donations of toys coming from local charities.
  2. Educational workshops on HIV/AIDS, family planning, health care for workers.
  3. Development of micro-enterprise to optimize use of cleared wood, including crafts, furniture, mulch, charcoal and smoke chips. Training was given to develop entrepreneurship opportunities at all levels from design to marketing of products.
  4. Biological control of invasive species.
  5. Wetland rehabilitation projects.
  6. Fire control programs, and rehabilitation of an area devastated by fire.

On the sites, work is challenging and sometimes dangerous, and pay is low, but the program has garnered public support, political will, and funding at a time when competition in the new political regime for social welfare funding is fierce. At the policy level, reforming water management is central to South Africa’s economic and political reconstruction, and policies like this one are being created to redress past injustices, inefficiencies and environmental abuses.

Services or benefits include: Poverty alleviation, water regulation, erosion control, social relations, economic opportunities, education/services for women, disease control.

For more information visit the World Resources Institute.

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Sudan – Hydrocarbon Removal from Oilfield Produced Water

  • Author: Submitted by Rebecca Jackson
  • Posted: March 2012

In 2003, British environmental engineering firm Oceans-ESU Ltd. was commissioned by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) to undertake the construction, management and maintenance of reed beds in Heglig, Sudan. The reed bed functions as a means to clean produced water by removing oil contamination.

Beginning in 2004 with a pilot system receiving 16,000m3 of water per day, treatment capabilities and toxicology were extensively studied for 18 months by the Sudanese Commission for The Environment and Safety. Despite the final capacity increasing to over 40,000 m3 of water per day during this time, the Commission judged that the system was approved as the best environmentally friendly acceptable techniques for removal of oil contamination from produced waters.

During the study, and continuing to the present day, treatment consistently achieved the required Sudanese Standard for Discharge to the Environment, with combined free and dissolved hydrocarbon contamination levels below detectable levels for almost all outlet samples.

In 2007 GNPOC, with technical consultancy from Oceans-ESU Ltd, began a roll out implementation of the technology across the 41,600 km2 concession areas, predominantly at nine locations, adjacent to the oil gathering processing facilities. Final commissioning of the systems was completed during 2010, after a two year construction programme with build costs in excess of $250M.

The treatment systems have not only ensured that GNPOC achieve compliance for discharge of vast quantities of treated water to surface waters, but also allowed local agencies to establish over 40 km2 of sustainable forestry, providing value crops and employment to the local community. In addition, the treatment systems have consistently proved to have no toxicological effect on the local environment, rather providing areas where biodiversity increases by 400% over areas that are greater than 2 km from the treatment sites. As well as re-establishing wetland habitats in Sub-Saharan Africa, the systems host resident and migratory populations of four species that are on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

In 2011 under the system management of Oceans-ESU Ltd, the systems successfully treated 41 million tonnes of contaminated water to a world class discharge standard, in reed bed treatment systems with a combined area of 6,400 ha. Bioremediation of produced water with reed bed technology has now been adopted in some form by all the oil operating companies in both republics of the former Sudan, with Oceans-ESU Ltd’s technical consultancy enabling continued sustainable produced water management.

For more information on Oceans-ESU reed bed projects and other environmental remediation, visit

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Thailand – Pak Mun Dam – Experimental Dam Opening

This case is a good illustration of a system crossing thresholds into new stability domains, both when a dam is built and when it is removed. While dams are being decommissioned increasingly in the US, experimentally reopening gates of a controversial dam in a developing country – -and studying what happens – – is less common.

The Pak Mun Dam (PMD) was completed in 1994 by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and funded by the World Bank, despite opposition by 6,000 families who were displaced by the project as well as efforts by local and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the International Rivers Network.

Yielding somewhat to 10 years of resistance by villagers, the government opened the gates for 1 year and commissioned Ubon Ratchathani University to study the effects of the opening of the dam. The study found numerous things, including:

  1. Some 152 species of fish returned to the Mun River, 134 of which are migratory (who travel from the Mekong to live, feed and spawn), including the appearance of the endangered Mekong Giant Catfish.
  2. Of the 74 types of fishing gear normally used, 22 types had been made obsolete by the dam; after the gates’ opening, fishers began using these obsolete types again (fishing gear is directly related to status, dignity and cultural pride for fisherfolk).
  3. Villagers reported being better fed.
  4. Vegetation along the Mun River began to recover, much of which was used for food, herbs, fish food, gear, rope, timber, household appliances and ceremonies.
  5. Land was being used for riverside gardens again.
  6. The number of inter-village conflicts decreased.
  7. Household incomes went up. In 1990, 32.7% of residents in the target area were below the poverty line; this figure went up to 62.5% in 2000, and fell to 57.6% in 2001.

However, the Thai government has since ignored the urging of NGOs and villagers to keep the gates open and decided to close them, and said they will continue to do so for 8 months a year.

For more information visit Rivers Watch and a Ubon Ratchatani University study.

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Uganda – Ryan’s Well

When six-year-old Ryan Hreljac heard about the many children in Africa who do not have clean water to drink he decided to do something to help.

Ryan, from a small town near Ottawa in Canada, listened as his teacher explained that $70 would provide a well and became determined to raise the money. That night he told his parents that he needed $70. His mother, Susan, said he could do extra chores around the house. Ryan vacuumed, washed windows, and, with amazing determination, patiently worked, saving every dollar in an old cookie tin. It took him from January 1998 to the end of April to collect $70.

Susan took him to Watercan’s office to hand over his donation. Executive Director, Nicole Bosley explained that $70 would only buy a hand pump. It would take $2,000 to drill a well. Undeterred, Ryan replied, “I’ll just do more chores then.”

When he had raised $700, Watercan invited him to meet Gizaw Shibru, director for Uganda at Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief, who actually dug and maintained the wells. Shibru asked Ryan to choose the site for his well. Ryan wanted it to be near a school and they pinpointed Angolo in North Uganda, a village whose closest water was 5 kilometers away.

In July, 2000, Ryan and his parents visited Angolo. Ryan looked about in amazement at the 5,000 children lining the route to the school, calling “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan!” “They know my name!” he cried in astonishment. “Everybody for a hundred kilometers knows your name, Ryan,” said Shibru.

They arrived at the well next to the school’s vegetable garden. It bore the inscription “Ryan’s Well, formed by Ryan Hreljac for Community of Angolo Primary School”. Ryan’s penpal Jimmy led him to cut the ribbon and the celebrations began.

After this project was completed, Ryan had a new goal: “I want everyone in Africa to have clean water.” Since, Ryan has collected more than 2 million dollars, and financed more than 120 water and sanitation projects in 9 African countries. Friendships have grown and innumerable people have been inspired by his example.

“I’m just a normal boy,” Ryan says when anyone asks about his achievements. Although many people would disagree with this statement, it is very true. He plays soccer, basketball and hockey. He enjoys reading, playing Nintendo and swimming as well. He has friends in the elementary school he attends, including dedicated volunteers like Jack who, like Ryan, plans to be a water engineer when he grows up. He loves to visit his Nana and his cousins in Ontario’s Niagara region and his grandparents near Deep River, Ontario. Ryan plays with his brothers Jordan and Keegan and with dog Riley. He has been writing to his African pen pal Jimmy Akana, who you may have seen with him on the cover of Reader’s Digest.

Throughout, Ryan’s family has been very supportive of his efforts to get clean water to Africa. Older brother Jordan sets up most of Ryan’s audiovisual presentations and little brother Keegan has licked hundreds of stamps for thank you letters and notes that have been sent around the world.

Ryan has received many awards and has been speaking at United Nations summits. But the best example that youth make the difference is shown by the fact that it is in schools, where children are not just applauding, but learning from Ryan’s experiences and are inspired to take action, join the quest and collect money in support of Ryan’s Well Foundation, caring for their local water resources and learning more about global issues.

His website offers materials to include his story in classroom activities.

Visit –

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USA – California – Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District

This plan was designed for the flood-prone Napa River valley which took a new approach to river management. Usually, conventional flood control emphasizes forcibly altering a river’s natural flow and tendencies by combining various types of infrastructure such as dams, channels, dredging, widening, or levees. This approach is often expensive, environmentally insensitive, and may create new problems whose long-term costs (such as silt buildup or drying up of downstream areas) outweigh any initial benefits.

Floods are assumed to have been a part of the Napa River Basin for thousands of years, and many have been recorded there since the area began to be settled. A few attempts at flood control have been made over the years. In 1944, a dam was built on Conn Creek, which created Lake Hennessy, which didn’t solve much. The County went through a period of creating flood control plans following a flood, but never received much support, and so the plans would be shelved until the next flood. In the past 36 years, Napa County residents have suffered $542 million in property damages.

With the imminent expiration of federal funding for the Flood Control Act of 1965, a few actors from different sectors were moved to create a new, restorative approach which broke with the traditional flood control model. With funds from the state and federal government, they raised the local portion by voting to introduce a half-cent sales tax increase, which would be used to contribute to the project. The collaboration included residents, industry, local, state, regional and federal state entities, academics, environmental organizations, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and various non-governmental organizations.

After spending thousands of hours planning in town hall meetings and workshops, a comprehensive plan was created. This plan instead took a “living rivers” principle and worked with the Napa River by reconnecting it to its historic flood plain, buying over 600 acres of reclaimed pastureland and returning it back to a wetland. Among other things, this would hold excess water. Other plans included installing two levels of terracing on the river banks, which would allow the river more room to spread out in times of flooding. Several bridges were targeted to be replaced with larger ones to allow more room for the river to pass under it. At one “oxbow” (a horsehoe-shaped kink in the river which overflows when fast-moving flood waters are less likely to follow sharp natural curves of the river) will be fitted with a bypass channel to shortcut the oxbow in times of flooding. The plan also includes the cleanup of disused contaminated industrial properties. When completed in 2007, the project will protect 2,700 homes, 350 businesses, and over 50 public properties, which means $26 million annual savings a year ($1 billion for the life of the project), while sustaining migrating fish and wildlife.

For more information visit the Napa Flood and Water Conservation District.

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USA – Louisiana – Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program

This is an example of “regional environmental management” for a degraded and economically important ecosystem. It shows how a complex web of players can coordinate a successful strategy despite multiple interests and agendas.

The Barataria-Terrebonne (BT) estuary in Louisiana is the country’s largest, covering an area of 16,835 square km where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Its rich natural resources have been important to the livelihood of the people who live there, but overexploitation, development, agriculture, and industry dramatically impacted the water quality, posed health risks, affected fisheries, and was causing land to sink.

Concerned about the state of the nation’s estuaries, the US government made a decision to create environmental management plans for the major ones in 1990. Hiring a small team of full-time staff and recruiting volunteers who were given the challenge of developing a plan for the BT estuary, the government’s conditions were that the plans should be an inclusive coalition of “government, private and commercial interests” to identify the issues, create strategies, and coordinate the whole process through carrying out the commitments.

The plan was developed in clear stages. Workshops, open to everyone who wanted to participate, attracted some 250 people, and included representatives from all three levels of government, industry, citizens and others.

The first stage was a “visioning” exercise where participants were to brainstorm what they hoped to see for the estuary in 25 years time. This would include the variety of perspectives, which were then written and displayed as keywords, which were organized into loose groups. This helped to clarify some of the basic themes, and to summarize a vision statement.

The following workshops followed the same procedure as the first. The next workshop was to identify obstacles to realizing the vision, and challenges in overcoming them. In the third workshop, participants brainstormed actions to deal with the challenges. Another workshop gave participants a chance to identify “catalytic actions,” those which would not only produce desirable results, but that would trigger other desirable results as well.

Results of this workshop formed the basis of the “action plans” which were part of the final environmental management plan, for each of which alliances were created, and participants then signed up for the ones they wanted to be a part of. Over the next year, details within each alliance were worked out, and the plans began to be implemented in 1996. The management plan is comprehensive and includes four basic elements:

  1. Planning/management/procedures
  2. Ecological management
  3. Citizen involvement/education
  4. Economic development.

Until now, the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program has been successful in attracting public attention on the estuary as an important ecosystem, garnering support and involvement from citizens, and gaining a level of trust and credibility for the program. Some of the concrete actions so far have focused on preventing further land loss, so mulberry, blackberry, oak and other trees have been planted to protect the soil. Old Christmas trees have created brush fences which were lined up on the coast to protect soil from eroding through wave action. Some other projects have worked to redistribute water or silt to build land where it is most needed. Still others are installing small-scale sewage treatment systems for houses and cabins along the waterways, and an education program was launched to help farmers find alternative methods of weed and pest control (to reduce the use of chemicals). Many of these programs have involved the use of community volunteer groups, high school students and local business associations, which has helped to create a high level of public participation in the project.

For more information visit the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

Read a more detailed version of this story in Human Ecology by Gerry Marten

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USA – New York (New York City) – Watershed Protection

The New York City (NYC) Water Department supplies some 1.3 billion gallons of water to nearly 9 million New Yorkers every day, transported mainly by gravity through a system of 19 reservoirs in a 1,969 square mile watershed that extends some 125 miles north and west of NYC (The Croton and Catskills/Delaware watersheds).

For years, NYC’s water quality was one of the highest in the country, but increased pressure from agriculture and urban sprawl caused the water quality to decline, as was seen by an increasing number of boil-water alerts over the past 5 years. Installing a filtration system would have cost an exorbitant $2-8 billion dollars. City, state and EPA officials thought it would be much cheaper if they focused their priorities not on purifying degraded water but by preserving it at the source – -the watersheds themselves.

From 1989 the city began a watershed protection program, funding upgrades of sewage treatment plants, water supply facilities and dams, and a watershed agricultural program, which paid farmers to remove some sensitive lands from production and apply conservation practices in place of crops. This was the first upstate-downstate collaboration where water quality and economics were viewed as a shared, not a conflicting, goal. In 1997, watershed communities, the City and State governments, the EPA, environmental organizations and others united to create a landmark Watershed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) which had 3 main elements:

  1. Land acquisition and stewardship: The City spent (or will spend) $250 million (properly, with a consultation process) on purchasing lands or conservation easements (giving money to landowners to conserve the land they own) in undeveloped land near reservoirs, wetlands, or land with other natural features that are sensitive to water quality. Priority is given to buying undeveloped lands around reservoirs, streams and wetlands. In agricultural regions, a total of 3,000 acres of highly erodible land and 2,000 acres of riparian “buffer” lands have been targeted for protection.
  2. A watershed protection and partnership program: This is meant to promote watershed-wide cooperation, and especially build good connections between the City and its upstate neighbors, who are the day-to-day stewards of the water on which NYC depends. These might include maintenance and rehab of water and sanitation facilities, water conservation education programs and a “bank” which loans money to environmentally sensitive projects in the watershed communities.
  3. New watershed regulations: This replaces the outdated 44-year-old standards related to design/construction/ operation of wastewater treatment, and stormwater control measures.

While the MOA is seen as a milestone in the City’s water supply, the challenge lies in implementing it, but the expected result is that over 165 stream miles, and thousands of acres of natural areas will be preserved, resulting in improved water quality at a fraction of the price of a filtration system.

For more information visit the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

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USA – Various locations – Phytoremediation

This emerging technology is marketed under various names like “Wastewater Gardens” or “Living Machines.” It is also commonly known in industrial ecology as “phytoremediation” or “bioremediation.” But the underlying principles are similar: a system whose design is to facilitate natural processes “doing the work” of cleaning up wastewater, restoring degraded ponds, streams or wetlands, treating sewage, or more controversially, toxic waste sites.

The use of wetlands to treat wastewater is not a new idea. The Chinese and Egyptians, for example, used them, but the concept of actually constructing a wetland was first attempted in 1904 in Australia. The technology became more developed in the seventies and eighties as part of the emerging fields of industrial ecology and ecological engineering. The goals of these fields are to optimize natural processes to perform industrial functions with reduced costs both to the economy and environment.

The system relies on the use of specially chosen native species of plants and non-pathogenic microbes specifically targeted to the system in question. With a diversity of regions and applications, experts are refining their systems especially in bioregions which have other successful projects which have served as models. The systems have been used in the US, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Generally the sites are used for more benign types of wastewater and sewage treatment, but they are also being used to clean up oil fields, abandoned mines, weaponry testing sites, fertilizer spills and other sites contaminated by toxins. The potential of using them for “remediation” of dangerous zones caught researcher’s attention after sunflowers grown hydroponically on floating styrofoam rafts were used to “vacuum” radioactive waste in Chernobyl.

Specifically chosen plants act as “pumps” which draw and concentrate pollutants from the soil, and stimulate the growth of chemical-degrading bacteria. The plants can then be disposed of. This is seen as a less expensive alternative to removing or transporting soil or waste materials. On the other hand, there are concerns over whether animals and insects feeding off these plants would then reintroduce these toxins to the food chain. It also might discourage corporations from using cleaner industrial processes in the first place as they could use the process to justify creating toxic pollution.

These systems may have their greatest potential in the developing world, where sanitation services are not keeping up with growing rural and urban populations. Warm climates are ideal, as vegetation grows easily year round. Their potential, as with alternative energy, could represent a shift towards “decentralization and diversification” of wastewater services, with systems introduced for apartment buildings, schools, hotels, or small factories, which would remove dependence from and take pressure off of a distant, centralized, and costly treatment plant.

Like conventional wastewater treatment, the systems generally operate on several levels, where sewage (blackwater) first enters a sealed primary holding tank, where bacteria reduce the waste by 65-95% in a good system. Then it passes into a wetland cell, or layered garden, a bed of gravel with specially selected vegetation on top. Additional third gardens sometimes are designed which receive the wastewater that can be used for non-drinking water purposes such as irrigation or toilet flushing. Well-designed systems have met EPA and European Health Authority standards.

The costs are an estimated 5-10% of ordinary maintenance and operation costs, and can be designed to rely on gravity, thus reducing/eliminating the need for energy. They can reduce the amount of fecal coliform bacteria by 99% without the use of any chemicals, such as harmful and expensive chlorine.

For more information visit the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Zimbabwe – Water Farming

  • Author: Eric Schneider
  • Posted: March 2009

Phiri Maseko turned his farm into a paradise that resists droughts for several years. How? Through water farming!

Zimbabwe is known for water scarcity and droughts. Yet, at the farm of Zepheniah Phiri Maseko, crops grow quickly and bountifully, even in drought years, and the abundance on a modest three-hectare homestead is enough to support a family of 15 and raise cash for other expenses. It is a lesson in deep spiritual belief: “When I visit farmers, I say, ‘You must commit yourself to the soil.'” Zepheniah Phiri Maseko is a farmer whose innovations in soil and water conservation have drawn international attention and visitors from around the world.

To say that Phiri’s success as an innovator is purely the result of his creativity and hard work would be to oversimplify. A deeply spiritual man, Phiri is driven by a commitment to honoring and conserving land and water for its spiritual value. To him, faith in God translates into a deep respect for the bounty that can be drawn from nature. Phiri tends to view natural phenomenon such as the interaction of soil and water, the properties of plants, and even his own innate abilities as an engineer, as gifts. His work extends from this set of personal values, and he encourages others to respect the soil and water as the source of life.

Phiri’s farm is located in a hilly area outside the small town of Zvishavane. This communal area consists of several farms that border his own, leaving each 3-hectare plot with little room for expansion. Above Phiri’s farm, a ruware, or rocky mound, poses a unique challenge. When heavy rains fall, this rocky area channels the water down the hill, carrying soil with it and causing major erosion. Phiri, however, has managed to transform this challenge into an advantage. It is there, just below the rocks, that he has developed structures that achieve what he calls water “planting.” Below, in his fields, this water can be “harvested” to supply enough water to all his crops, trees, and vegetable beds without the need for conventional irrigation. With his terraces, pits, sand traps, ponds, and tanks, Phiri is consistently able to control more than 50 percent of the runoff from rain, while in most countries it is only possible to store and control 20-50 percent of the total runoff, according to water expert Sandra Postel. In her 1998 publication, “Pillars of Sand,” she describes the immediate link between ability to control run-off and food security. Phiri is able to accumulate enough water in a good rainy season (at least three heavy rainfalls) to see him through two years of drought.

The evidence of this abundance of water is revealed in the oversized stalks of maize, two-story mango and banana trees, and lush vegetable gardens that grow on or between each crop area. These vegetable plots grow sweet potatoes, beans, paprika, carrots, tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, cabbages, and more, which provide for his family and can be sold throughout the year. Such variety is unique to small-scale farmers, who usually rely on one cash crop like maize, cotton, or tobacco. With his approach to cultivation, Phiri is able to avoid the need for artificial fertilizers or pesticides.

A well also supplies pure drinking water and is a resource to other farmers in times of need. The fish pond behind Zepheniah’s house provides a home to fish for consumption, as well as to a variety of bird species that use this lush area as a natural haven. The ponds are lined with reeds, sugarcane, bananas, kikuyu and elephant grass, which protect the banks. These ponds, and the lush foliage nearby, attract a variety of birds and wildlife, transforming this small farm into something of a wildlife refuge. A waterhole serves as an indicator of the water table. Each time it fills after a rain, it shows that enough water has seeped through the soil to replenish the underground store. If this occurs three times during a rainy season, Phiri’s farm will be supplied with water through up to two years of drought.

Not content to enjoy the fruits of his labor alone, Phiri has made his farm into a living university for other farmers, attracting them from farms throughout the region. Many of the strategies employed by Phiri have their roots in various traditions and technologies from around the world. Others were developed through Phiri’s own relentless zest for experimentation. But what truly sets this farm apart is the employment of every possible strategy to prevent runoff, as though the water itself were as precious as gold, and each drop counted. Once farmers dedicate themselves to conservation, Phiri says they will naturally see increased yields.


Zepheniah Phiri
The Zvishavane Water Project
P.O. Box 118
Zvishavane, Zimbabwe
Phone: 263 513250;

Adapted from

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