Jacqui van Heerden

“Water is life. Its management is one of the major themes of permaculture and water is likely to be the biggest issue of the 21st century, whether in the form of too much or too little” – Rosemary Morrow 2006.

The state of our water on earth is such that clear drinking water is no longer freely available to most of us. Those of us in the cities cannot just go down to our local river or lake and have a drink; this water is inaccessible to us because of the pollution of industry, agriculture and ourselves.

We have to now pay for “safe” drinking water without knowing the long-term effects of these disinfectants making our water “safe”. These water prices are equivalent or greater than that of refined petroleum.

Natural stores of water in the land such as aquifers, swamps, and wetlands are being depleted by irrigation, housing development and mining.

You could say that water is our most critical resource as while some organisms can live without oxygen none that we know of can live without water.   

The water cycle is one of the bigger systems of the earth and is a continuous movement of water within the Earth and atmosphere. It is a complex system that includes many different processes. The water cycle is also an integral part of other biogeochemical cycles. The supply and release of water in many forms is inextricably linked. Damage to one part of the cycle affects others.   

Fresh drinking water is a finite resource. Ninety-seven per cent of water on earth is salt water. We can’t drink it. Of the remaining three per cent, 75 per cent is ice frozen in the polar ice caps and glaciers, 13.5 per cent is deep groundwater 800 metres-plus down so there is very little available to us. While strategies have been looked at to desalinate seawater – at enormous costs, there always exists an opportunity to look at our relationship with water and how we value it and create water security.

And it’s not all about us – nature uses water in wetlands, rivers, swamps, soils and ground water to regulate vegetation and climate and drought proof the land. When we interfere and dam it or drain it, this deprives the natural environment ultimately affecting us as well. The Murray-Darling is a case in point with ongoing political to-ing and fro-ing while the river and associated wildlife slowly disappear.

While there are no economically feasible strategies or technologies for freshwater creation from the sea or from polluted sources, there are currently several neglected strategies for recycling, purification, conservation and increased storages of rainwater.

What is our self-responsibility towards our own water security? And before you think this won’t impact you, consider how quickly things can change with droughts and flooding. Permaculture design prepares and plans for floods. Be aware of your reliance on having your fresh water piped to you.    

To have water security you need to have enough water from an assured source all year round for your needs. In permaculture we always design for more than one source for our key resources in case one is negatively impacted.   

In the cities, plan for another source of water apart from mains water. Increase your capture of rainwater in tanks and in your soil through installing swales, increasing plants and using a living mulch to cover your garden soil. This will build up the ground water and soil structure to hold the soil resulting in less watering of your garden.

Know how much you can capture yourself from rainwater and how much you use.  We have all seen the sudden downpours in Melbourne and how so much water just runs into storm water drains – imagine if our households and nature strips could capture this and store it not only in our tanks but in the ground for future access.  Increasingly with denser living conditions design of water capture needs to be considered in all developments.

Carry out a water audit – how much water do you use per day to have a cup of tea, clean your teeth, water your garden, wash your car, cook.   

Minimise your water use – remember dry composting loos.

All of this can be done by urban city dwellers.

How do we restore our water sources close to us in cities so we are not vulnerable, how do we clean up our rivers so they can be sources of fresh water? Around the world there have been many attempts to clean up rivers, by governments, not for profits, community groups and individuals. To name a few there is the River Trust in the UK, the Interceptor used in Malaysia and Clean Up Australia, which is mainly a community effort.

Imagine a clean Maribyrnong River or Moonee Ponds Creek, free of pollution, chemical and other, filled with native aquatic life and plants that keep it clean so that we can take a drink from it •

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