A few days ago we were in La Mesa for some groceries, and the talk of the week there was all about water… Because there wasn’t any. La Mesa has no drinking water as the last effect of El Niño. Most of our neighbors are in a similar situation. Nobody here is really prepared for extremes in the weather. We’re a little proud that our dams still have water so we can irrigate our gardens every day. As a result we got some carrots, a cabbage leaf and a squash for lunch and dinner today. In our water tanks we still have over 6000 liters of drinking water. We are slowly starting to get somewhere.
The underlying problems with the water here and in other parts of the world is our absolute faith in human technology. When there is too much rain we want to get rid of the water as fast as possible. When it’s too dry we drill wells and install pumps to bring up water, or we transport it in from elsewhere. I call that a problem because pumping up water often leads to declining ground water levels causing worse drought conditions later. Transporting water requires a lot of infrastructure. All of this can fail, like this week in La Mesa. The most simple and effective solution still is storing rainwater when it falls, where it falls, in tanks, dams and simply in the ground.
We’re living in a mountainous region, so water that isn’t caught and stored flows downhill fast. The amount of rainfall here is sufficient to not have any water shortages ever. In the past it was never as dry as we see now. Most mountains here were covered in forests with a thick layer of humus holding on to water, because it functions like a sponge. That sponge also releases water slowly over time, creating springs and streams. Most of those forests have been cut down, to make space for houses and farms. Now we experience increasing problems with water. During the rainy season it comes down in thundering flows leading to frequent flooding and during the sunny seasons all this bare land gets really hot. Whatever trace of water the ground still holds evaporates because of this heat. Further droughts and a changing, more extreme, climate are what results.
The fields below La Mesa are all brown again for lack of water.
Our aim is to show it can be different. When El Niño hit us in 2015, our second year here, we were not all that ready yet. Today we have quite some faith that we can withstand another drought much better. We still have a lot of work to do as you can see on our water plan (image below). We hope to complete most of it during the next 12 months, to maximize our water catchment and minimize erosion. What we really hope for is that over time we will discover new springs, where water comes out of the ground long after our rainy seasons end.
Most of the work we need to do is to dig terraces and swales. The first big terrace is nearly finished: 20 meters long, over 4 meters wide, dug level into the slope. Water will sink into the ground more easily and in heavy rain events it can flow over the path in the middle which ends in the gully leading to our valley dam. That way we also secure the capture of water if it cannot sink into the ground fast enough.
While a large part of Colombia will struggle again with flooding and droughts over the next years, we will continue to work on our project to create sustainable solutions for the future. We are building our experience with our local climate, we test and refine our methods and evaluate our results. We’re preparing for the moment that more people start to realize that we need to bring function back into our landscapes. And while La Mesa suffers from lack of water, we continue to irrigate our new gardens!