Changing how we plan land use, part two

Learning from other countries

Header image credit: JustDiggit

Cyclone Gabrielle was a big wake-up call for Aotearoa (New Zealand) with most people making the connection with climate change. We can learn from countries that have been dealing with weather much more extreme than ours. Australia and California come to mind, swinging as they go between drought and wildfires, and then floods.


For me, work happening in the developing world is very encouraging. In India there are many projects regenerating land. Over time farmers have been encouraged to grow commodity crops instead of subsistence crops. Costly inputs such as commercial seed and biocides delivered diminishing returns as the land degenerated and many rivers dried up. The land could no longer sustain people when monsoon rains had died up and many migrated to the cities to find work. Some farmers took suicide as a way out.

Now there are many projects using different methods to harvest water. These often combine Permaculture principles with traditional knowledge. These inspirational projects are regenerating the land and changing lives for the better.

A map of India showing the location of nature-based solutions. Two of the text boxes refer to Andrew Millison’s (A.M.) videos that you can find on YouTube (Image from: How Plants Cool and Heal the Climate)

The Sahel

This video shows great progress made in the lands of the Sahel.

One of the people tirelessly raising awareness of this great work and the need to continue this work is Natalie Topa. Here is a screenshot of her extolling the work of the World Food Programme.

So how is this relevant to Aotearoa?

You might be thinking that these countries are so different to Aotearoa. Their dry climates are more like Australia or California. Water harvesting is the commonality. We have attempted to get the water off the land as quickly as possible, but there is a limit to the size of stormwater pipes we can upgrade to, and higher stopbanks might lead to more death and misery when they are eventually breached. There is a lot of talk about managed retreat. Another major problem highlighted by the cyclone was the amount of plantation pine slash (waste) racing down our rivers.

New Zealanders aren’t going to move into the hills and start digging water-harvesting structures with shovels any time soon. But as the enormity of costs of managed retreat and the loss of productive river flats begins to mount we will be prompted to think more about how land use upstream can be changed to slow down water. Recharging our catchments and greater drought resilience will be a bonus.

Here are some ways water can be slowed in the landscape.

  • Increasing soil carbon – a one percent increase in soil carbon will retain 187,000 litres per hectare. This will also provide an income stream for sequestration once the government is satisfied it can be verified.
  • Use diverse pasture species – these open up the subsoil, create organic channels for the water to move deeper, and extend the reach of the mycorrhizal fungi that absorb water.
  • Create small check dams that slow water down. (Not the big ones that hold back huge volumes of water that eventually become torrents of wood).
  • Terracing – this practice is widespread in Asia and South America. If the terraces are sloped back towards a hill, water can be directed sideways and will flow more slowly.
  • Mosaic design – rather than extensive monocultures of pasture or pines a more interesting and varied landscape will help to slow water.

As the need to give portions of our fertile river flats back to nature, the practices described here will help us to make hilly country more productive. It will take a deliberate effort to build fertility using regenerative practices.

Ecosystem restoration camps?

Ecosystem restoration camps could be a way to support more resilient ecosystems here in Aotearoa. The movement began in Spain and is now worldwide. This video provides a great overview.

Please comment – especially with examples of the regeneration of catchments.

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