1GabionsLandStorm WaterWater ConservationWater Harvesting

Wadi Mukheris and the Wonder of Gabions (Jordan)

The year 1999 was a busy one, with the potential of Y2K and “the end of world as we know it”, with the threat of computers failing as the clocks trip over the year 2000 at start of the new millennium. For part of the year I was working as the lead permaculture consultant with a team in Louisiana, USA, on an ex-army ammunition manufacturing plant re-design into an eco-industrial park. We taught many PDCs to locals.

For part of the year I was working in Macedonia after the Kosovo crisis as the lead permaculture consultant in a team to re-design the largest refugee camp in Europe since the Second World War — with 46,000 Muslim Kosovar refugees on 100 hectares — into a permaculture demonstration site and education center. We ended up putting more than 900 locals through PDCs.

For part of the year I was also working as lead permaculture consultant in Vietnam on a reforestation project for a Japanese NGO. The Lam Ha district in Lam Dong province is a colonist area southwest of the central highlands, a restricted area that requires a special permit to enter this area of rampant colonisation, with deforestation rapidly being covered with monoculture coffee almost off the horizon. In the extreme distance old growth forest was still being clear-cut and aggressively exploited and the remaining organic matter burnt — all for coffee monoculture. The frustration for me was extreme and the challenge immense in scale and sheer numbers of colonists. We taught a PDC, installed earthworks and we built a project infrastructure all in the face of blatant corruption and over-charging.

With the project in Vietnam underway, the Japanese NGO offered me another job — to design, implement and establish a demonstration of small-farm sustainable agriculture on 10 acres in Jordan. That was my final engagement in 1999 and my first involvement in Jordan and the Middle East and particularly the Dead Sea Valley. Japanese NGOs are very respectful towards their consultants and, being over 40 years old at the time, they insisted that I should not work more than eight hours per day and because I love to work on the land from sun up till sun down I had quite a bit of spare time. My accommodation was on the shore of the Dead Sea, and with many extra hours to spare each day I would walk the desert landscape, observing and reading and analysing the features of the ancient environment.

This is where my intimate relationship with Wadi Mukheris started. As it was the closest wadi, it was convenient for me to walk and observe all the different, subtle patterns in the landscape through the seasonal changes. I noticed all the animals took refuge on the shade side of the wadi, and many were nocturnal, emerging only at sunset. I was most surprised to find freshwater crabs in the shaded pools of water, in deep crevices. I snuck up on their pools and carefully peered into their little shady desert water world and they appeared to be feeding on a thin green water weed that grew in the pools. These freshwater crabs must be occupying the lowest altitude fresh water crustacean niche in the world, at almost 400m below sea level. If they wash out in a flood they die in the Dead Sea, so they must have a cling-on survival technique.

Early in 2000 I was extremely lucky to see 75mm of rain fall in four hours — that’s half the year’s rain in just four hours. When observing that kind of event you get a full understanding of the statement “a desert is a flood waiting to happen”. It became obvious after that event that there was some real concern around the potential erosion that was occurring and which could increase — particularly around the restricted road bridge channeled in between the massive five star tourist hotel complexes that were planned, with some already under construction.

In 2001 a large civil engineering project was started to stabilise the wadi’s exit point and the restricted channel under the road bridge and on down its final 100 meters to the Dead Sea. This heavy-duty civil engineering work increased every year for the next 12 years and must have cost an enormous amount of money, with what seemed to be an almost infinite set of variations of cause and effect after each year’s large and rapid rain event.

It was early Summer in 2002 and I was taking one of my usual walks up Wadi Mukharis late one afternoon. Just 300 meters up from the road bridge, just around the first bend, there was, to my surprise, a huge rock wall gabion. The size was hard to imagine at a distance but it was obviously large, and as I walked towards it I was thinking “I know there has only been 180mm of rain over the Winter and I know this gabion was not here seven months ago, so how much silt has built up on the back side?” Climbing the 5-metre rock wall, it was obvious it was built by a large excavator, with the larger rocks just rolled into position, rather than lifted. There was a trickle of water running from the base. When I got to the top I was shocked — it was already almost full of silt, to just half a meter from the top of the rock gabion wall spillway, and the silt field stretched back 250 meters.

After studying and photographing the silt field it became obvious that it was deposited mostly by one big rainfall event, because the flow patterns in the deposit were plain to see and the top surface was perfectly level. I walked further up the wadi to find another large gabion and a succession of smaller gabions further up, all with good silt field deposits behind them.

In 2003 I returned to find all the gabion silt fields full and a constant small flow of water coming from the base of the lowest and largest gabion. I also noticed that trees were starting to germinate in the damp sections of the silt fields. These trees were all nibbled down by the huge numbers of Bedouin fat tail sheep and goats that are shepherded through this region, particularly in the Winter months, when the temperatures are mild compared to the mountains in Jordan.

From 2003 through to 2010 I would visit the wadi only occasionally, when I would look at the entrance and wonder at the amount of money being spent on the massive amount of concrete and civil engineering going into the area just above and below the bridge. My time in the latter part of this period was mostly fully engaged in trying to get the “Greening the Desert — the Sequel” site started and established, but in 2010, when I was teaching a PDC for the PRI Jordan, I decided to take the students on a field trip to see the gabions in the wadi.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the water flow had increased significantly. The tree recruitment had increased and looked like it was starting to get in front of the grazing herds, although nearly all the trees were tamarisk. The crab population had increased and you could hear frog calls.

Now in November 2013 I just walked the wadi again and found a slight increase in water flow, a great increase in tamarisk trees getting away from the grazing herds and invading the civil engineered systems and a diversity of trees starting to appear. There is also a large increase in crab and frog populations.

So it starts with water, and when water is advantaged, then, as always, the plants and trees win in the end, even when all the odds seem stacked against them. The environmental niches are created and naturally become filled and life is renewed again.

The classroom is all around us all the time — we just need to be able to look, listen and learn to read the patterns in the landscape.

Just as with all the passive soakage rehydration features that we incorporate into permaculture earthworks design, so it also true to say for gabions: “they truly misunderstood, misrepresented and not given the credit they deserve”. The benefits of passive soakage strategies are not obvious to the impatient eye and those who desire instant results. But those ‘quick results’ are often also impermanent. Passive soakage takes time and increases over time — rainy season after rainy season. With rehydration of the subsoils and substrata layers, water is passively pulled by gravity into every crevice and sponged with capillary action to even defy gravity, albeit just for very slight vertical lifts in height, but defied just the same. Away from evaporation, cool, safe and secure soaking and seeping is infinitely slower compared to surface volume flows that violently crash through the angular landscape profiles of dry lands.

Every year to about the seventh year the rehydration increases in speed and absorption and becomes more efficient. Then around the seventh year the ultimate capability event is achieved and recharge capacity is at its maximum in speed of take up and capacity. This is true of passive water soaks in all climates, but here, for us to understand this event, we need to be prepared to engage in an intimacy with the dry lands. With these systems, surplus water discharge is not so obvious because at the lowest point of the recharged, rehydrated substrata, water is passively pulled by gravity and coaxed towards the water table, refilling aquifers. This is an obligation we have to fulfil if we intend to use shallow aquifers, which are by far the largest of all fresh water reserves we have on earth — 11% of all fresh water — and which we can positively influence with these systems.

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is GeoffLawtonOnline.com. Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.

6 Comments

  1. Been trying to research gabions since I first read about them here almost a year ago. As I’m planning to purchase land in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, USA, I would love some sort of instructional article on how to build them. Seems pretty straightforward….just stacking rocks like a puzzle. And I’m thinking the base needs to be three times the height…just seems to make sense to me.

    1. Yes that would be a good average for anything up to 3m high, then I would increase the base width to height to the power one for every meter gained in height. So a 5m high gabion might be 25m wide at the base.

  2. Sorry to whinge, but I can’t help but think about the money that is spent on motorways when it could be spent on gabion projects right across our desertified landscapes in Oz.

  3. Hello Ty,

    Depending on your site (particularly the grades, the bank profile and the depth of soil down to the bedrock) you may find that a sand dam could be useful. Many of the processes that Geoff is observing with those gabions also occur with sand dams. I am surely no expert, but I would guess that the big difference (with those gabions) is that the sand dam is designed to be an impermeable block that enables storage of water underneath the sand; and then upstream of that block you get recharge of groundwater (which happens with the gabions too but via a slightly different structure). A couple of youtubes get the idea/design/implications of the sand dam across quite well:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjzcfPax4As

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZhG_vxLCR8

    I was interested to hear the story in the second youtube that the sand dam concept emerged by accident (at least in Kenya) because they initially built these dams (to my eye they might better be thought of as low weirs with midstream spillways) to conserve surface water and they thought they had failed when their dams filled up with sand within a few short years (usually by three years). But the locals were used to harvesting water from natural sand soaks and quickly realized that the sand was a great ally because it filters the water, protects it from contamination by stock etc, deprives mosquitos of breeding pools and prevents evaporation.

    Another point of interest for permaculturists in the second youtube is the associated swale-like trenching that they do and also the extensive terrace systems—seems to illustrate, once again, the robustness and practical success of water harvesting earthworks.

    A general summary of sand dams with other references can be found at:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sand_dam

    Having watched some of those folks lug enormous containers of water around for irrigation I really do wonder how it is that humanity can’t spare 0.01% of the global military budget, or the advertising budget, or the fraudulent bank bailout budget, to provide people with some basic technology e.g., the ever inspirational EMAS water pumps, tanks, heaters etc as in:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByPAW-K3LxM

  4. Heh in our part of the world we don’t move huge rocks we make gabions as basketsout of chainmesh netting and fill them with small stones. That does not take any heavy lifting and cleans up the landscape a lot. Cheers, Ken C.

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