The Eight Principles of
Successful Water Harvesting
1. Begin with long and thoughtful observation.
Use all your senses to see where the water flows and how. What is working, what is not? Build on what works.
2. Start at the top (highpoint) of your watershed and work your way down.
Water travels downhill, so collect water at your high points for more immediate infiltration and easy gravity-fed distribution. Start at the top where there is less volume and velocity of water.
3. Start small and simple.
Work at the human scale so you can build and repair everything. Many small strategies are far more effective than one big one when you are trying to infiltrate water into the soil.
4. Slow, spread, and infiltrate the flow of water.
Rather than having water run erosively off the land’s surface, encourage it to stick around, “walk” around, and infiltrate into the soil. Slow it, spread it, sink it.
5. Always plan an overflow route, and manage that overflow as a resource.
Always have an overflow route for the water in times of extra heavy rains, and where possible, use the overflow as a resource.
6. Maximize living and organic groundcover.
Create a living sponge so the harvested water is used to create more resources, while the soil’s ability to infiltrate and hold water steadily improves.
7. Maximize beneficial relationships and efficiency by “stacking functions.”
Get your water harvesting strategies to do more than hold water. Berms can double as high-and-dry raised paths. Plantings can be placed to cool buildings in summer. Vegetation can be selected to provide food.
8. Continually reassess your system: the “feedback loop.”
Observe how your work affects the site, beginning again with the first principle. Make any needed changes, using the principles to guide you.
Principles 2, 4, 5, and 6 are based on those developed and promoted by PELUM, the Participatory Ecological Land-Use Management association of east and southern Africa. Principles 1, 3, 7, and 8 are based on my own experiences and insights gained from other water harvesters.
These principles are the core of successful water harvesting. They apply equally to the conceptualization, design, and implementation of all water-harvesting landscapes. You must integrate all principles, not just your favorites, to realize a site’s full potential. Used together, these principles greatly enhance success, dramatically reduce mistakes, and enable you to adapt and integrate a range of strategies to meet site needs. While the principles remain constant, the strategies you use to achieve them will vary with each unique site.
For a thorough introductory description of water-harvesting principles and additional ethics see Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1 (Rainsource Press, 2006).