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Regenerative Design for Ground and Spring Water Recharge

Perceived water crises are occurring world wide as short hydrological cycles are collapsing in ecosystems in all regions of the planet. The role of water in its cooling effects of soil, plants and landscapes amidst rising global temperatures is often poorly understood or completely ignored. Water is not supposed to move along the surfaces of the planet. It is the currency of life above and below the surface of our ecosystems. It is supposed to be held and absorbed in order to feed sub-surface life and then be released to flow, all the while working with all species of life to move nutrients, regulate temperatures and then cycle back again. In many parts of Africa, this cycle has been disrupted and impacts the interconnected relationships glued together by water.During my time with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) as the Regional Livelihoods Coordinator for East Africa and Yemen, and then as the Global Advisor for Regenerative Resilience and Circular Bio-economy, I worked with our teams around the world to highlight and conduct trainings on the numerous opportunities we had within our remit of providing support to communities in forced displacement to bring nature positive solutions to our programs as well as operations. One example of this was the DANIDA funded project entitled Northern Uganda Resilience Initiative (NURI). The project was initially envisioned to provide standard rural infrastructure in support of farmers who were encouraged to do chemical mono-cropped farming with support of the project. The program was a multi-year and multi-million dollar initiative addressing 12 districts of northern Uganda. When I recognised the resources and vision, I knew we could do better and spent years leading the project team on integration of regenerative approaches from passive water harvesting in the landscape, road water harvesting, establishment of food forests instead of “wood lots” and redefining how the project would install dams across the country. The dams were standard valley tanks with no aspects of design to capture more water or help infiltrate for sub-irrigation. Where necessary, I engaged global experts including Warren Brush with whom we co-trained project staff, government engineers. The project initially outlined establishment of spring boxes to protect natural springs from erosion but there was no thought of recharging the springs. As part of these trainings, we integrated the concepts of spring recharge, demonstrating how ecological restoration can capture, store and infiltrate water and should be integrated in to sub-surface water harvesting which occurs regularly in the humanitarian context. I produced this video to show how this can be done with simple engineering in combination with agro-ecological and agroforestry systems.

Now, as an independent consultant, I support DRC, UN agencies and other international NGOs to bring the concepts of regenerative design for climate action so that more actors, policy makers and donors have stronger understanding of how we can build real resilience through design thinking. Each year, droughts like the one in Somalia and floods like in South Sudan prove over and over again that hydrological and nutrient collapse will continue to cause more disasters leading to increased forced displacement. We can change this. No gimmicks, just pure natural function. Let’s get to work.



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. My name is Ahmed Yousuf Idiris living in Hargeisa and iam permaculture Designer and we have permaculture center in the South of Hargeisa, Somaliland and we produce vegetables and fruits currently and we train farmers in that localities.
    We need technical guidance so that we need your help.

    Best regards
    Ahmed Yousuf Idiris

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