El Niño

Last year, around the middle of April 2015, it stopped raining during what otherwise would have been our rainy season. We did get a few small showers between the middle of September and the middle of November, November normally being the wettest month of the year. By December our dams that by now should have been full were dry.


The pictures above and below show our small key point dam.


We tried adding shade to the big key point dam, but that did not have any real effect.


To have a drought in the second year of trying to establish a farm is not very helpful. We lost a lot of little trees, we had to delay adding animals with barely enough water available for the pigs we already had. We had to stop working on our garden that was only just starting to deliver produce. That all means loss of income when most needed to get things going.

However we have a saying in Permaculture: “The problem is the solution”. Although it is a real problem for us to get so much delay, a problem that could potentially force us to give up on our farm and look for income elsewhere, there has to be a way to respond to all of this that will actually make things better!

So let’s look at how the work done in our first year paid of. Below is how our key point dams looked in January 2015. Both were full just a few months after they were installed.


After it stopped raining in April 2015, these dams provided us with irrigation water until October when normally the rains would have returned. So by constructing these dams as soon as we could in 2014 we already were halfway done to survive an El Niño year.

The obvious questions now are: how much more water would we need to get through a complete year with irrigation? Where would we locate that water? And can we actually capture that amount?

To answer these questions we should first look at the results of something else we did.


Back in April / May of 2015 we made a test garden. We swaled it, covered the soil with mulch and wood chips. We planted lots of bananas and we used 35% shadecloth to lessen the effect of the bright tropical sun until the bananas would be big enough to provide shade. We kept the garden properly irrigated until the dams ran dry. In the months after that most beans, tomatoes and some other vegetables died. The bananas, pigeon peas and the papayas thrived, the carrots kept hanging in there. During many months of irrigation we had brought enough water deeper into the ground for things to survive.

So El Niño brought us drought AND it gave us valuable information and feedback. So yes, we should add more dams, we found the obvious locations for them and we know there will be enough water to fill them in any year that the rainfall will be normal. We also learned the effects of partial shade and mulching and we decided to swale and terrace all areas that will be used for crops. Actually El Niño gave us confidence, in ourselves and in Permaculture being the right choice. This blog in a way is the result of El Niño.

Fast forward to today. Only light rains in February, March and April, still hardly any water in our dams during the months that are normally the wettest. But then in May we got some showers. The big dam got about 25 cm of water from direct rainfall and a bit of runoff from the dam wall.


The small dam received enough road runoff to fill it quite a bit.


In June the summer normally starts. This year so far it has been quite clouded and at the start of the month we got a massive thundershower that dumped about 90mm of rain on us in just under one and a half hours. We now had the small key point dam full…


A meter of water in the big dam…


And also a meter of water in the small valley dam. This small dam was installed at the end of April 2015 and it never had more than 15 cm of water until this one short but heavy thunderstorm.


The land is green again, the weeds are going nuts and we have enough water to start work on our new garden.

El Niño is dead! Long live La Nina! Because that is what the weather models forecast for the next two years: more rain than normal. Let’s see what lessons we will learn next!


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