Water Farming Part 1: Why And How Can We Start Farming Water?

Permaculture design is about working with energies. If you have already got lots of elements in your design, such as trees, buildings and animals, it may not be very practical to design a water system from scratch. However, it seems energy efficient to take into account the flow of water as the starting point of any design. As much as possible, it’s advisable to plan where the water is going to go and what you are going to do with it before you add anything else in. This article will explore how to find out how much water you can expect on the land you’re designing, and go into some ideas of what you can do to slow, spread and sink it for maximum efficiency and soil regeneration, while part 2 will go into more detail on practical applications.

Water is life

It may seem like an obvious statement but without water there is no life. Water is the blood of the earth, the sustaining element which can create life and also destroy it. Human societies throughout history have recognised and honoured this with water celebrations. Even though our relationship with water can be seen to have gone somewhat off-balance – the ‘Blue Gold’ report from 2001 estimated that due to groundwater and aquifer depletion, by 2025 the global demand for freshwater will be 56% more than what is available (1) – many of these water-appreciation events still exist around the world. From water-throwing parties like New Year all over South East Asia (2), the Midsummer Fiesta de San Juan in Lanjaron, Spain (3), and Vardavar in Armenia (4), to still-alive traditions such as creating nature groves, “sarpakkavu”, to honour the Naga or water-snake deities in India (5), the world has many examples of our continued connection to and recognition of the value of this element. Permaculture and water harvesting systems are based on the actions taken by resilient societies, both ancient and current, which have enabled these societies to live in harmony with the world around them for centuries or, in some cases, such as with the Wixarika in modern-day Mexico, millenia (6). One thing these societies seem to have in common is that they show their respect not just by caring physically for the environment in which they live but by weaving reverence for it into their culture. This may be something to consider when you start thinking about how you use water in your life.


Water comes in many forms and we have many different ways to utilise it, however, one thing which is always the same is that water follows the principle of flow. If we wish to use this flow to benefit the sytems we are designing, it is probably a good idea to see where the flow is going and work with it. Blocking the flow creates tension and needs a lot of energy to maintain the block. If we really wish to block part of a water flow in our design we need to consider what we are taking the energy away from and where we can usefully redirect it. This kind of thinking may seem obvious but is often ignored in large-scale water design systems, those which follow the “path of scarcity” (7). The country of Laos, through which snakes the largest river in South-East Asia, the Mekong, may have an annual festival celebrating the Naga water-spirits (8) but somehow seem to have disconnected this part of their culture from the actual river, since they have preliminarily agreed to host 11 proposed dams along the river’s length (9) (10). The river already hosts 6 dams upstream in China which have caused some disruption to the ecosystems and drought problems downstream.

“If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world’s most important and iconic rivers,” as Maureen Harris of water protection organisation NGO International Rivers is reported as saying last year (10).

You are probably not designing anything along the same scale as the Mekong but the principle of flow is the same. Block it, and you could cause stagnation and thus loss of biodiversity. Perhaps less physically obvious than the water flow is the fact that water in the landscape is not necessarily present in the form of pools or rivers. In fact, the best place to store water on your land is not above the soil where it can be subject to evaporation, but inside the soil itself (7).

Bearing these two things in mind – the principle of flow, and that the best place to store water is in the soil – what are some ways of catching and storing this most precious energy?

Rainwater Harvesting

Even in the driest climates, it still rains. But it does not often rain at exactly the same time that you need to water your crops, and sometimes it rains more than you need at that moment. Rainwater harvesting is a great way to balance this out and a very useful book to read about the subject is Brad Lancaster’s 3-volume Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. The first volume of this is actually available as a free PDF online (11) though if you find it helpful you may wish to contribute to Lancaster’s work monetarily (12).

The idea of rainwater harvesting is to catch the water where and when it falls and channel it into a useful place – mainly by storing it in the land, as mentioned above, or in cisterns which will then be used to irrigate the land at a later date. The benefits of this are many: quite apart from the obvious utilisation of a free beneficial resource, rainwater is also cleaner than groundwater, can be replenished more easily, and is more nutritious for the soil as it contains less minerals (7). If you only use groundwater to water your land the mineral deposits could eventually lead to salinification of the soil, especially if there are not systems in place for rainwater to run through and wash these minerals through the soil (7). Lancaster describes how many modern water systems are designed to direct water flow away from the land while simultaneously investing lots of energy in pumping water up from the ground. We can reverse this energy inefficient trend, which encourages a culture following a “wasteful path to scarcity”, by recognising and utilising the value of this resource and thus changing the culture to one following the “stewardship path to abundance” (7).

old stone well dark

Opening a water bank account

Lancaster’s inspiration is Zephaniah Phiri, a Zimbabwean “water harvester” (13) who, with an average annual rainfall of 559mm, used “the only two things he had- an overgrazed and eroding 7.4-acre (3-hectare) family landholding, and a Bible” to get to the point where he could “provide all of his water needs from rainfall alone” (7).

In the arid climate of Tucson, USA, Lancaster, following much of Mr. Phiri’s methods, now harvests “annually over 100,000 gallons (378,500 litres) of rainwater within a 1,200 gallon (4,540 litre) tank, the soil, and vegetation” on 0.5 of a hectare of land (7).

Rainwater falls from the sky – it does not take any kind of technology in order to gain it, and if you have a successful means of harvesting it, it can provide for much or all of your water needs. It is replenished every time new rain falls. In this way, if we use rainwater as a “primary water source” it can be analogised as a “current account” which we use on a regular basis. By contrast, the groundwater is our “savings account”. By harvesting rainwater we can “make deposits to our water account by allowing water to recharge and accumulate in aquifers [so that] our “savings accounts” are enriched and reserved for times of need” (7).


There are many things which you may already have on-site which can help you with rainwater harvesting. Firstly, any roofs of buildings are ideal rainwater ‘nets’ for catching the water, which with minimal input you can direct to wherever you think it is appropriate. In order to gauge where exactly you want the water to go it may be useful to know roughly how much rainfall you are going to be able to catch with the roofs, for which Lancaster provides a simple formula. Firstly, if you multiply the area of the space in square metres which you wish to harvest rainwater from (say, from a roof) by the average amount in mm of rainfall in your area (which you can probably find online) you get the amount in litres which will fall in that space per year. However, even if you are working with an impermeable surface such as a roof you will still not be able to harvest 100% of the water, as some will be lost due to evaporation and other factors. To calculate more accurately, therefore, you also need to multiply the figure you came out with by the “runoff coefficient” – a number between 0 and 1, with closer to 0 meaning less water is running off so more is infiltrating into the soil (such as with rich forest soil), and closer to 1 being the most runoff (such as from an impermeable roof) (7).


Equipped with this calculation you can see what kind of systems it would be appropriate to put in place. For this we can turn to Lancaster again, as well as looking at Mr. Phiri’s farm, which, although he died in 2015, continues to harvest water. His work has inspired so many that there now exists a Phiri Award for “indigenous innovation among Zimbabwean farmers” (13).

Once you start really considering water, where it comes from and how you can use it, the potential for this amazing and potent element becomes clearer and clearer. Even if you are not designing a water system in the place you live right now, you can still start practicing mindfulness and respect when it comes to using water. Obvious practical things you could do include monitoring your water usage such as turning the taps off when you are cleaning, and using energy efficient appliances such as washing machines and toilets to minimise water waste. Then there actions you could take such as considering the benefits of urinating in a place which is not your toilet – thus saving the amount of water it would take to flush the urine away (which in many places, for example the USA, is usually potable water) (7) as well as giving you a new resource of nitrogen-rich plant fertiliser (see for example 14). There is even an international celebration to recognise the value of this action – International Pee on Earth Day (15), held on the solstice of 21 June every year. Such events may seem trivial, yet it seems important to remember that part of the reason why so much of our water usage is wasteful and inefficient is because our culture allows it. So if we want to become more abundant perhaps we need to foster more abundant cultural pratices. You may not feel it is appropriate or comfortable to suddenly start celebrating the Naga spirits and it may not be – the more personal your recognition and celebration is, the more effective it will be.

The next part of this article will look at some practical examples of what to do with your newly harvested sky-fruits. I thought I’d better include Lancaster’s warning, though: “Once you start putting this information to work, every rainstorm could pump you with so much excitement that even if it’s 3.a.m when the clouds break you’ll be running outside in your underwear”…(7)


1. Barlow, M, 2001. ‘Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World’s Water Supply’. IFG Committee on the Globalization of Water: Canada. Available as a PDF here: https://ratical.org/co-globalize/BlueGold.pdf

2. Wikipedia, 2017. ‘Water Festival’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Festival

3. Turismo Granada, 2017. ‘Fiestas del Agua y el Jamon en Lanjaron [The Festival of Water and Ham in Lanjaron]’ (page in Spanish) https://www.turgranada.es/agenda/fiestas-del-agua-y-el-jamon-en-lanjaron/

4. Welcome Armenia, 2017. ‘Vardavar’. https://www.welcomearmenia.com/armenia/vardavar

5. Menon, S, 2010. ‘Sarpakkavu – Nature Groves in Kerala Homes’. Karma Kerala, 31/1/2010. https://www.karmakerala.com/news/2010/01/31/sarpakkavu-nature-groves-in-kerala-homes/

6. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/

7. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1, 2nd Edition. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA).

8. Lexa-French, I, 2012. ‘Loy Kathung: The Night of the Naga’. TravelFish, 26/11/12. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/laos/24

9. Fawthrop, T, 2016. ‘Killing the Mekong, dam by dam’. The Diplomat, 28/11/16. https://thediplomat.com/2016/11/killing-the-mekong-dam-by-dam/

10. Rigby, J, 2016. ‘Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river’. IRIN News, 10/5/16. https://www.irinnews.org/news/2016/05/10/dams-drought-and-disaster-along-mekong-river

11. United Diversity Library, 2017. ‘Brad Lancaster: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. Volume 1’. https://library.uniteddiversity.coop/Water_and_Sanitation/Rainwater_Harvesting_for_Drylands_and_Beyond_Volume_1.pdf

12. Harvesting Rainwater, 2017. ‘Store’. https://www.harvestingrainwater.com/store/

13. Scoones, I, 2015. ‘The Water Harvester Zephaniah Phiri has Died’. Zimbabweland, 2/9/10. https://zimbabweland.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/the-water-harvester-zephaniah-phiri-has-died/

14. Steinfeld, C, 2007. Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants’. Ecowaters: New Bedford, USA.

15. McCarroll, J, 2016. ‘Happy International Pee on Earth Day’. Stuff NZ, 21/6/16. https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/home-property/81264774/happy-international-pee-on-earth-day

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth) I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and since then have been traveling the world learning about and practicing permaculture. Born in London, I've lived in a number of places in England, Spain, the Basque Country, and Italy. My mum lives in Leipzig (Germany) so I've spent some time there. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and have recently become interested in dance meditation. Currently, I live in Thailand in a Forest Buddhism community school, so you can expect lots of tropical permaculture related articles in future.


  1. Interesting article. Can you recommend a DIY water catchment system that will hold from 3 – 5,000 gallons of roof catchment rainwater? I have been looking on the web but nothing strikes me as 50 – year durable. Also, when looking for a plastic 2500 – 3000 gallon tank which plastic is best and what does one avoid? Any other tips on selecting the best plastic water tank?
    Thank you,

  2. Check the recycling symbol on the bottom of the tank. The quickest and most reliable way to check for water/food safety is by consulting the recycling number. The best type of plastic for use in long-term water/food storage is high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is indicated by the “2” symbol. HDPE is one of the most stable and inert forms of plastic, and all plastic tanks/buckets sold specifically for water/food storage will be made from this material.
    Other types of plastic acceptable for water/food storage include PETE, LDPE, and polypropylene (PP). These plastics are represented by the numbers 1, 4, and 5 respectively.

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