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Foreword, Volume 1

Foreword to Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1

by Gary Paul Nabhan

Although rainwater harvesting has been accomplished by humans in virtually every drought-vulnerable region of the world for millennia, our society seems to have some collective amnesia about the utility, efficiency, sustainability, and beauty of these time-tried practices. Fortunately, this book and Brad’s lifelong passion for practical, ecological, and aesthetically pleasing solutions to our water woes may cure us of that amnesia just when we most desperately need to remember such solutions are readily at hand. From where I write this is Northern Arizona, nine out of every ten trees outside my window are dead, due to the worst drought in fourteen hundred years, and the artificial reservoir known as Lake Powell is projected to go dry within six more years. And yet, those of my neighbors who harvest water off their roofs, parking lots, or slopes (as we do) have never had to haul in water during the last six years of subnormal precipitation, and elderly Hopi farmers have still produced crops every year in the floodwater (ak-chin) fields. At a time when surface- and ground- water is becoming increasingly privatized, fought over, and transferred between watersheds and aquifers as if were but one more globalized commodity, Brad demonstrates a diversity of strategies that can quench our thirst, sustain local food production, and keep peace among neighboring cultures. Because struggles for access to water are likely to be one of the most frequent causes for warfare and social unrest over the next half century on every continent, Brad should be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace for offering the world so many elegant means of avoiding such struggles through local harvesting of both water and traditional ecological knowledge.

Like many arid land ecologists scattered around the world, I was first inspired to consider the supreme importance of water harvesting for desert cultures by reading Michael Evenari’s classic, The Negev — The Challenge of a Desert, about Israeli Jewish attempts to learn from their ancient neighbors, the Nabateans, who drew upon diverse runoff catchments and storage practices to make their prehistoric civilization flourish at Petra, the Negev, and Sinai. With the likes of arroyo-of-consciousness journalist Chuck Bowden and straw-bale movement founder Matts Myhrman, I sought out older treatises and surviving practitioners of O’odham (Papago) ak-chin farming in the Sonoran Desert. We found that there was much to learn from our desert neighbors about the harvesting of both water and nutrients; Brad has continued and extended our earlier, haphazard efforts of rescuing such knowledge from Native American elders. But Brad has also gone two steps further than many of us. He has essentially accomplished a worldwide survey of water harvesting practices, humbling his predecessors by compiling a dizzyingly diverse portfolio of strategies, techniques, and technologies. He has then tried and fine-tuned every one of these strategies, so that he now has firsthand knowledge of how they function, and at what cost. His own desert abode is a like a walk-through encyclopedia of water harvesting techniques gleaned from cultures and innovators from around the world.

There is both quantitatively-informed precision and beauty in what Brad has implemented, and this combination is a rarity in our modern world. Technological fixes have grown increasingly ugly, but as you can see from the drawings and photos in this masterwork, Brad’s designs sing to us as they solve our water shortages.

A half century ago, Thomas Merton prophesized that “some day, they will even try to sell you the rain,” warning us that the privatization and corporate control of our hydrological destiny could become our doom. What Brad’s genius safeguards for us is “water democracy,” and I predict that this concept will become a keystone of environmental justice throughout the desert regions of the world, if not everywhere. We will no longer think of desert living as “lacking,” or “limited,” but celebrate the abundance before us. With tongue in cheek, we may even offer our sympathies to those who live in soggy, “drought-deficient” places, who may never be able to share the joy with us of harvesting our own fresh, delicious water, just as horned lizards have done off their very own backs since they first emerged on this dry planet. Blessings to you Brother Brad, the Patron Saint of Water Democracy.

Gary Paul Nabhan is a Kellogg Endowed Chair in Borderland Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona and author of The Desert Smells Like Rain, Coming Home to Eat, and Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. He farms an experimental orchard with harvested rainwater in Patagonia, Arizona.