Keep Calm and Think Different, Part 6 – “Thinking Like a Swale”

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Last month I was invited to give a lecture on eco-design at a tertiary institution. As part of the lecture I provided background on why we should even bother to put the eco into design. Among the reasons was to build resilience to the predicted and observed effects of climate change: including increasingly severe weather events.

During the question and answer time a young woman tried to start a debate on climate change rather than ask questions about eco-design. Even before she said that her parents were farmers I could tell because she was parroting the same statements I’ve heard from farmers many times.

I steered the conversation back to eco-design and how a growing number of farmers are using it to their advantage to build resilience to drought and protect themselves financially. There are two primary examples of how this is done: 1) protecting waterways with fencing and plantings of trees and/or shrubs; 2) constructing swales.

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Bill Mollison’s quintessential swale. 

The young woman challenged these suggestions: “My parents can’t afford to do that.”

“Your parents can’t afford not to,” I replied.

Ask a farmer in California how expensive the current drought is for them.

Predicted and observed impacts of climate change include more frequent and severe droughts as well as more frequent and severe floods. On my farm I am preparing for both and would suspect any prudent, conservative farmer (like me) would do the same.

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Small-scale swale. 

A recent announcement by the UN climate science panel revealed that there are three areas where extreme weather will have the greatest effects, two of which are particularly pertinent to NZ: farming regions and coastal areas.

Here is a good time to pause and remind readers that I do not beat the drum for carbon reductions or engage in campaigns against cow farts. I am happy for others to do those things. In life we choose our battles and my battle is to try to convince as many people as possible that eco-design is smart design and anything else is wasteful and ignorant.

In recognition of River Week I’d like to focus the rest of this column on ecological water management and specifically what I call “Thinking like a swale.” A swale is an earthen berm that runs perpendicular to slope. It is perfectly level and therefore does not drain like a ditch.

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Garden built as a series of swales. 

A swale catches water in times of abundance and stores it in the earth. Instead of running off a property during heavy rains and adding to flooding, the water is held on the property in a giant underground ‘water tank.’ This stored water can be called upon in times of drought either from springs that form lower on the property or by the deep roots of certain trees whose foliage can be fed to stock.

In these ways a swale works like a bank account. Deposits are made in times of abundance and withdrawals are made in times of scarcity.

But “thinking like a swale” is not limited to water management. This type thinking relates directly to passive solar design: excess sunlight energy is collected and stored during the day in thermal mass and released at night as the indoor temperature drops.

What is easily the coolest example of thinking like a swale that I have come across recently is a project undertaken by my friend Sonam Wangchuk, an eco-design engineer and education reformer in Ladakh, India. As a way to develop resilience to the effects of climate change and protect the people of Ladakh, Wangchuk has used eco-design thinking and natural energy flows to develop a working model of a seasonal artificial glacier.

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Prototype Ice Stupa

The ingenious artificial glacier, nicknamed the “Ice Stupa,” takes excess winter stream water and freezes it into a giant mound using gravity and the natural sub-zero temperatures of the Trans-Himalaya. In springtime when water is most needed by farmers to germinate their seed in the fields the Ice Stupa provides early meltwater before the higher glaciers begin thawing in early summer.

Wangchuk is among the top eco-designers in the world, and this project is one of his best. To learn more about this amazing example of eco-design and support Wangchuk’s work, see the sidebar.

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Traditional stupas in Ladakh

To learn more about Wangchuk’s project, follow this link:


Peace, Estwing

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