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Resilience Design for Water and Landscapes

The Story of The Sponge Village In Atego

Natalie Topa works as the Regional Resilience and Livelihoods Coordinator for East Africa and Great Lakes Region (EAGL) of Danish Refugee Council (DRC). Natalie has been living in East Africa for 16 years and brings her experience in urban and regional planning, economic recovery, community design, agroforestry, earthworks, permaculture and humanitarian assistance to restoring community agro-ecosystems in Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.

This Sponge Village Primer is one section of a series of trainings that Natalie co-hosts with Warren Brush under the DRC Uganda Northern Uganda Resilience Initiative (NURI), a DANIDA-funded program focusing on rural access roads, market infrastructure and water resources management in over 20-sub catchments in 13 districts of northern Uganda.

Using a combination of Permaculture, Agroecology, Agroforestry, Rainwater Harvesting, Ecological Restoration and the Circular Economy the Danish Refugee Council is working with the villagers of Atego to design for a resilient future. This approach is part of DRC’s Regional Regenerative Resilience portfolio in East Africa that is establishing household, farm and landscape level permaculture resilience design initiatives with demo sites in Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya and Uganda at various scales.

The villagers of Atego Village in Nebbi District, Uganda, remember a time when the hills were lush, the forests were green, the springs contained sweet water and the trees, shrubs and other native plants provided their medicine. But today the ecological balance has been disrupted. Rainwaters no longer percolate in to the hillsides and groundwater as the tree cover has been depleted. The valley floor now floods yearly, accumulating with other stormwaters that grow and flow in to the Nile River causing the river to swell, banks to be eroded and economic movement to be compromised. Local water resources for domestic use and livestock watering are increasingly strained which contributes to tension within the community as families compete to access water for their herds.

By creating a “Sponge Village” – a landscape design that soaks up the energy and resources that flow through it – the community aims to retain the water and nutrients in the landscape, thus allowing the trees and other natural features of the landscape to restore. Full details of the project can be found in the PDF below (click the image below to download/view)

Resilience Design for Water & Landscapes

In addition to the Sponge Village pilot site, the attached video shows how Warren and Natalie bring concepts of permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry and water harvesting to large scale rural infrastructure projects to mitigate floods and drought, and turn water from floods in to food.

Both the Sponge Village Primer and DRC Resilience Design for Infrastructure video were created in partnership with Mark Wambui and Re-tuning Cinema in Africa.



Natalie Topa was working as an urban and regional planner, based in Washington, DC, primarily focused in Transit Oriented Development (TOD), sustainable urban revitalisation and post-disaster recovery planning when she moved to South Sudan to work on post-war town planning and reconstruction in 2005. She then became Sudan Country Director and then East Africa Regional Representative for a large agency. Natalie quickly began to recognise patterns that were common in many of the contexts throughout Africa, especially in drought- and flood-prone dry-land and arid contexts. All countries in the region seemed to suffer from increasingly extreme cycles of weather and climate events. Each year people faced food, water and energy insecurity despite decades of investment. Year after year, donors and NGOs didn’t seem to address root causes of issues that caused the greatest vulnerability that can also lead to instability and conflict. Ms. Topa was seeing strong links between extreme weather events and ecological degradation, including biodiversity loss and soil erosion which undermined livelihoods and community wellbeing. This came with the realisation that extreme events were spurred from ecological degradation as much if not more than climate change at large. Since then, Ms. Topa embarked on a learning journey to build her technical skills to address the challenges she witnessed in the region. Among the courses, Natalie did her first PDC at the Greening the Desert site in Jordan with Tom Kendall, followed by a PDC with Warren Brush at Quail Springs in California, Water Harvesting Earthworks courses with Brad Lancaster and Warren Brush in Arizona, with Geoff Lawton and Glenn Armstrong at Zaytuna farm as well as with David Spicer in Portugal. Natalie has traveled to India three times for courses with Dr. Vandana Shiva and is personally moved by the atrocities of ushering people in to seed slavery. Natalie has since dedicated her life to supporting efforts to heal and restore community agro-ecosystems as a basis of circular bio-economy at the bioregional level. Ms. Topa believes that building systems-based resilience for households, communities and regions can happen by applying design and regenerative thinking to all contexts, including the natural, built, social and economic environments, particularly in this transformative COVID-19 era. The video and article represent Natalie’s efforts to bring restorative thinking and practices to her agency’s work with displacement affected populations.

One Comment

  1. Nati and the likes are the only chance for this planet earth 🌍 to exist and satisfy more generations tocome, thanks permaculturenews for putting her efforts out.

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