By Lola Hierro

(Translation - Kashyapa Yapa)
(cover photo courtesy of: Adripino Jaya, Ayacucho, Peru)

'Go back to the origins', recommend those who know and study ancestral wisdom, its legacy from many angles and also its connection with how to find, conserve and protect a resource so scarce as vital: water. "I have not invented anything new. I am only giving back what the elders taught me", tells Dr. Kashyapa Yapa, a Sri Lankan native, living in Ecuador for the last 20 years, which he had spent in travelling through Latin America to learn from its natives. A civil engineer with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley, he is in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) to participate in the seventh edition of the Rural Water Supply Network Forum, which takes place every five years. More than 500 water and sanitation experts meet here this week with the intention of joining forces to reach the goal of one of the Sustainable Development Objectives: provide potable water to the 663 million people who do not yet have it, from now till 2030.

Yapa took part in the forum with an unusual presentation: it was very humane and he tactfully sidestepped the scientific norms demanded in a meeting like this. His topic, 'Nurturing water: ancestor groundwater recharging in the Americas', highlights his commitment to reevaluate and recover the ancestral water nurturing practices and to promote them. The audience listens attentively for half an hour during which he sketches just a summary of his vast experience studying the engineering technologies of pre-Hispanic civilizations, a theme he develops extensively in his freely downloadable book 'Prácticas ancestrales de crianza de agua' (Ancestral water nurturing practices).

During a free period, Yapa met with Future Planet to share with us some advice that, in his opinion, two millennia-old American civilizations too would have given us, if we were to take this opportunity to make the best use of this resource and improve the agriculture. "In brief, it all means listening carefully to the Earth. Our heads are full of things and we forget the lessons of our grandparents, about what they observed", he claims. So, what can we do?

1. Learn from the past
Our ancestors put learning about the climate first, because that is what brings us water. At times it comes late, at other times comes too much... They were experts in managing risks. They wanted to know what is going on. Despite nothing had been written down, they learned that the sun returns after the night, and that the seasons repeat themselves... Having understood the cycles, they tried to understand the past to learn about the future. Analyzing the climate, we can foresee weather phenomena and take precautions, or make the best of what little we have. Foreseeing, also, means understanding the history. We should not limit observations of these phenomena occurring only within our own lifetime. My father, grandfather, great-grandfather..., all did this same work in the same area, with the same type of agriculture... That information, experiences over hundreds and hundreds of years, has an immense value and helps us.

2. Give excess rain the merit it deserves
We face two different phenomena: a lot of rain may fall or a drought may occur. We think that drought is the worst, but an intense rain is more dangerous because it occurs suddenly, and could destroy everything if you are not prepared. A drought, on the other hand, occurs gradually. Our ancestors were more worried about a rain too intense, because with a drought, you learn little by little and seek a remedy. Today we have lost that vision. Why did people live in the desert, if life is difficult there? Because, with so much sun, if the crops come up, they grow more rapidly and produce more, compared to a rainy area where the high humidity makes the crops rot... Semi-arid zones have given birth to all the great civilizations that we know of. Besides, cultivating does not need that much water, which is an error: the science is only now learning that a plant needs much less water to feed itself than what we believe.

3. Learn the language of nature
Halo Solar - by Stacey Baker-Bruno, Earthsky org
Did anyone see what happened to sun six months ago? A huge halo surrounded it. It was impressive and hardly anyone paid attention although it was very rare. These phenomena must tell us something, but we did not even take note of it. Even if not so obvious as that, we can see smaller rings at times, and what they indicate is a sky with few clouds. That means the night sky too will remain clear, letting the heat of the day escape, and a frost could come. Those who can foresee the frosts know when to plant the seeds, to be able to harvest in time. Around the Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, at four thousand meter elevation, this knowledge is still valued and preserved. There, they usually plant from September until November. However, since March they observe the weather. They select an elder, a community leader, called Yapuchiri in Bolivia, who takes charge of weather forecasting. They have thousands of signals and secrets and observe many things: when would appear some flowers, certain birds..., all that.

4. Do not ignore wild plants
Some plants that we have domesticated, like wild potatoes, give smaller products and have no taste. We have modified their properties over a long period to be able to sell them and eat them. The same with the original version of corn, domesticated in Mexico. The original is hardly comparable because the grains are very small. Our ancestors have continued to select and modify those plants, but preserved the original version too, without any genetic change, because from that you can learn a lot. Potatoes and other tubers, grown around Lake Titicaca, were domesticated hundreds of years ago, but they never destroy the wild plant because if they know the behavior of the original plant, they can understand how the domesticated one will behave. This is very important.

5. Choose better where to plant
We already said that knowing the behavior of clouds and other phenomena we could predict whether there would be frosts and floods, for example. When the frost comes, the crops on the plains may be destroyed almost totally, but on the slopes, the damage may not be so bad because the cold air may move down quickly over them. If, in a given year, they foresee too much frost, they do not plant on flat lands, but on the slopes. Many Andean farmers do not have just one lot, but 20 or 30 small parcels all around, in what we call ecological niches. They choose a site adequate for the expected climatic condition. Also, it is interesting to observe the birds: where they land and lay their eggs. If they do so in the lowest part of a ravine that is because they are certain that no heavy rains or floods will occur. If some humans can forecast the weather well, why should we doubt the birds?

6. Promote more rainwater collection
I was talking with a colleague from Congo about problems of water faced by people who live on hills. In heavy rains, water flows into the valley, making them go down, collect it and bring it up. Yet, the latrines are up on the hill and contamination flows down to the same source. Why do they not live in the valley? Well, because mosquitoes are abundant, and up the hill, the problem is not so bad. Some minor details are missing here. In ancient sacred books, we can read that in some cities, people were fined for not having in their homes a tank to catch rainwater. It occurred two thousand years ago, in today's Israel and Palestine. Each family was responsible for collecting its own water and did not have to go to the king and cry to receive water. This individual responsibility is what is missing in that community of Congo. It rains a lot there but their roofs are not designed to collect the rainwater.

7. Make use of the shallow groundwater
In Peruvian deserts there is hardly any water, only that small amount coming down the Andean range during snowmelt. This feeds the rivers a bit during the first few months of the melt but afterwards, groundwater is what maintains life in this area. Have you heard something about Nazca lines in Peru? They are a mystery. Below these lines exist hundreds of kilometers of tunnels dug by man, two or three thousand years ago. About 20 filtration galleries function to this day. Traces of 50 or more existed in this area alone. These filtration galleries are tunnels that collect and transport water underground so that it is not lost through evaporation. A river on the surface at times loses its water; it does not run because the earth absorbs water little by little. Water does not run like a river, but exists a flow underneath. Soil filters the water, so, if you dig a gallery below that, it picks up that water and carries it to the village. These galleries of Nazca are well-built, with stone slabs measuring about 70 to 80 centimeters in width and 80 to 90 in height. So, people can pass through them to build and to maintain, because sand and other fine sediments that enters along with groundwater can plug the galleries. Tunnel access points were built every 100 meters or so to provide maintenance.

8. The value of tectonic plates
Even for hydrogeologists, who are experts of groundwater, finding where it exists, whether it is of good quality and of sufficient quantity to cover all the needs is not an easy task. How did our ancestors managed to satisfy the demands of the population? Nazca is a region with very active tectonic movements, those that break the Earth surface. We call these breaks geologic faults. Those movements decrease the soil density, or loosen-up the soil. Water travels easily along the faults, and it will quickly enter a gallery, the kind we talked about before. Thus came up the hypothesis: that Nazca lines indicate where geologic faults exist. Though not that hard to check, it is still not scientifically accepted. Our ancestors did not have hydrogeology degrees, but they knew how to use the resources. We should look for geologic faults because there could exist water we can tap into, but working carefully, because the roofs may collapse as well.

9. Let's make Pachagramas (earth calendars)
In Bolivia, the government accepted that its meteorological institute does not have the ability to provide high quality forecasts for agriculture. They have very little historic weather data. And, the number of degrees that the temperature will rise, or the millimeters of rain that will not fall mean nothing to the farmers. This is the difference between foreseeing climate for agriculture and weather forecasting for institutions. Because of that, the government of Evo Morales began to value Yapuchiris, the expert farmers. A pilot project near Titicaca has given these farmers computers to record their forecasts for agricultural campaigns and to monitor them later. They are called Pachagramas or earth calendars. They record whether the forecast of a frost, for example, gave correct results or not. Gathering all this information weekly, just imagine: in four or five years there will be a huge database of proven information. We can keep discarding the predictions that do not work, and adapt those that do to find patterns and trends.

10. Take agriculture to water, not the opposite
There are examples in Trujillo, Peru, where people cultivate with fresh water in the desert. Water comes from higher up: it filters into the soil and concentrates in the lowest lands, near the sea. Noting the presence of groundwater with less salinity than seawater, our ancestors removed the sand and found it. They had no pumps to take that water out. So, they excavated down to the level where fresh water was and cultivated in those sunken fields. They developed an incredible technology that is still working today. Take advantage of the excess water from higher up, but changing the mentality. Without bringing water to the plant, take the plant to where the fresh water is. You will not waste water.

11. Breastfeeding the Earth
When it rains on steeply sloping terrain, a gully (a flow path carved into the slope) carries a lot of water, but very soon, it runs dry. To use that water better, our ancestors blocked the gully and built another, less-steep channel to move that water to a flatter area, thus reducing its velocity. This water infiltrates the soil and goes down. So, surface water is turned into groundwater. Water reappears thousand meters below in the form of springs. How did they know that a spring will appear there? Many trials are behind such efforts, which are not guaranteed hundred percent, neither are they resolved in one day. That water may take one, two or three months to reappear. An NGO from Peru, CONDESAN, is carrying out an investigation in Huamantanga, sending out dyes along with channeled water. That is how we realized it takes that long. They calculate that about 40% of that water can be recovered. The technique is called mamanteo, because you 'breastfeed' the Earth with water.

12. Store water within the soil, not on the surface
The soil is the world's largest reservoir for water. It charges us nothing, nor causes any disaster if you know how to work with it. Why do not we take advantage of it? If you collect water on the surface, wanting to keep it for several months, a part is going to evaporate. And, it costs a lot. If you keep water under the ground, it comes out with no hurry. Terraces facilitate one way to store water in soil. You feed water to the first level of crops; the excess filters-in and feeds the next. Occurs no wastage of water, no erosion either. In Machu Picchu, after 500 years, we hardly see any erosion. They skillfully stored water with good drainage.

13. Ask for permission
In indigenous communities, all nature-related activities are combined with elaborate rituals and ceremonies. It is important to respect that vision: that we are not alone in this world; you do not change the nature just because you want it that way. All of us are in this together: the water, the animals and the man... You have to request permission. Once I asked, "Why do we do so many rituals to make a terrace wall?" "Under that stone you picked up to make the wall, the wind goddess was resting", I was told. The moving wind meets the stone and rests for a while underneath. If you pick it up, you are disturbing her. The same with our relatives. As there were no cemeteries before, the dead were buried in the fields. So, seek permission from your grandparents who are resting there. This is the way to understand how they work.

Kashyapa A.S. Yapa
17th January 2017, Sierra Leone.

If you would like to start a discussion on this theme, please write to me.

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