Desert or Paradise?
Collecting and storing water is a concrete step towards being free: here is what has been done in practice at Autosuffienza – Centre for Applied Ecology
Francesco Rosso | Creator and custodian of Autosufficienza Centre
In 2009, after years of searching, we finally decided to buy the land on which La Fattoria dell’Autosufficienza now stands.
We had long been looking for a place where we could become resilient, i.e. ready for the changes and challenges we would face in the years to come.
We were aware that, as a human species in the western world, we were becoming weaker and weaker: for some 300,000 years we were self-sufficient in water, food, shelter, heating, health; all thanks to what our surroundings offered us. In recent decades, however, step by step, we have become completely dependent on a small group of multinational corporations, which in fact provides us with everything we need for survival.
Cities like Dubai and Las Vegas, communicated to the world as role models, are certainly the most unprepared for any kind of crisis.
The constant threat of economic, financial, energy and environmental crises has led us to imagine a place of self-sufficiency, where we can be independent of the ‘system’ and guarantee, for ourselves and future generations, survival even in the event of catastrophes of various kinds.
Without water there is no life
During the search for a place to build our self-sufficiency, one of the indispensable requirements was the presence of quality spring water.
Human beings and all living creatures consist of at least 70% water. The Earth itself, seen as a living being, respects this parameter and is 70% water. However, this water is 97% salty. Of the remaining 3%, 75 %is fresh water trapped in glaciers and a further 12% lies more than 700 metres below the surface.
The water in lakes, rivers, groundwater tables and in the atmosphere available to humans and most living things on earth is 0.375% of that on the planet. Fresh, clean water is the greatest wealth we can have.
The goal of clean water led us to search high up: unfortunately, when you are low down there is almost always someone polluting above you.
When we arrived in Paganico di Bagno di Romagna in the province of Forlì Cesena, 700 metres above sea level, we were shown a farm that had been abandoned for 50 years from a residential point of view and for over 20 years from an agricultural point of view.
All the buildings were collapsed and dilapidated, there was no interesting infrastructure, there were no fruit trees, there were no lakes or streams to guarantee water all year round, but there were natural springs of pure, quality water.
We decided that this place would become the change we wanted to see in the world.
Water when you don’t need it
At Fattoria dell’Autosufficienza, as in many parts of Italy, it rains a lot during the colder months, when water is least needed, and very rarely during the summer months, when we need it most. From the earliest years, we realised how in the driest summers the streams would dry up completely and the springs captured upstream would not be sufficient for agricultural use.
Our knowledge of permaculture, and in particular that put into practice by Sepp Holzer – the rebellious farmer with a lush farm in the Southern Alps who would become a role model – made us realise immediately that we would have to invest a lot of energy, in the years to come, in collecting and conserving water.
Investing in water (and therefore in life) for seven generations
Today, everyone is looking for recipes and advice offering immediate solutions to the increasing drought and infertility affecting much of Italy’s land. Immediate solutions always involve water and soil fertility as an externally produced event, very often appearing cheap in the short term, but are extremely expensive in the long run.
Our choice has been to invest for the next seven generations and, even at the expense of immediate benefits, to think about the impact of our every action, so as to build wealth and beauty for those who will inhabit these places after us.
For permaculture, water, like any indispensable resource, must be sustained by multiple elements: with this in mind, we studied everything we could do to harvest and infiltrate as much of it as possible into our land.
Practical interventions on the Farm
One of the very first works was the construction of 2.2 km of swales (level ditches) in the extensive arable fields where we grow ancient cereals, legumes and seeds. In contrast to drainage ditches that convey water quickly away from the land, the swale collects and infiltrates water slowly into the soil, recharging the water table. Interspersing one swale close to another along the slope also greatly reduces surface erosion, as the water can never gain speed.
- Natural water catchment basins
Following a visit to Sepp Holzer’s Krametherof, we were astounded by the beauty and productivity that this man had managed to create in a completely inhospitable place and climate, and also thanks to his initial advice, we started terracing the land surrounding the farm centre and creating natural water catchment basins, i.e. without the aid of tarpaulins or cement.
We had already tried in the past to make basins by digging the ground in some wet areas or areas that we felt could collect water, but with disappointing results. The neighbours confirmed to us that, given their previous experiences, it was not possible to collect water in these areas without using cement or plastic.
When we put the question to Sepp Holzer, he replied that he had done lakes all over the world without cement and plastic, in any climate and terrain without failure, and that we certainly would not be the first.
And so, in 2018, the first two natural reservoirs of the Farm were made, followed by others in the following years. These are wonderful mirrors of water that immediately filled with life: frogs, newts, water snakes, dragonflies and birds came from all over to settle in the new home and enrich the Farm with biodiversity.
Even before Sepp’s arrival, we had already started terracing the land around the company centre: having learnt with him the technique to do it safely and professionally, more than two hectares were terraced in just a few years. The terracing and lakes require a lot of energy in the initial phase. They are done with a heavy excavator, which clearly consumes diesel, pollutes the atmosphere and radically alters the soil. This is why those who take a natural farming approach are not always in favour of this type of intervention.
The main reason is that they reason in the short term and not over seven generations. If they considered amortising the initial environmental and economic costs with 300 years of soil regeneration and water harvesting, the initial investment would become insignificant.
We had very sloping and very eroded soils near the farm centre that were unable to infiltrate water and retain organic matter. Soils that became poorer every year. Today, the terraces, in addition to becoming richer every year in organic matter and retaining a large amount of water, have become super productive thanks to a polyculture that was unthinkable before the interventions carried out, which sees fruit trees and berries on the edge of the slope, aromatic herbs on the slopes and vegetables on the terrace.
- Rainwater collection
The gutters of the farm buildings channel water to storage tanks and the overflow to a catchment basin, so that 100% of the rain that falls in more than 1,500 square meters of covered area is not lost. Water from the roadside ditch has also been channelled into the basin, so that it too can further contribute to water collection.
- Treatment and reuse of grey and black water
Black and grey water from the facilities following a phytodepuration process (filtration with gravel, plants and bacteria) not only does not risk polluting soil and groundwater, but is even recovered in a downstream basin used for irrigating a vineyard and several surrounding areas.
- Intercepting the springs
When we became aware of a road in the forest upstream that was collapsing, we followed the water in September, the month of maximum dryness. We were able to capture the spring at the rock and thus found the supply for another water catchment basin we had made in the past, but which tended to dry up during the summer.
- Mulching and organic matter
The way we cultivate also contributes to retaining as much water as possible in the soil. Keeping the soil covered with vegetation as much as possible, with abundant mulching and the addition of organic matter helps to collect water, as well as limiting evapotranspiration. Various studies show that a soil with only 2% organic matter can reduce the need for irrigation by 75%, compared to poor soils in which the amount of organic matter is less than 1%.
The combination of these solutions leads us to collect huge amounts of water in reservoirs, tanks, but also in the soil and groundwater, which, in exceptionally dry and hot years such as 2022, proved providential.
Collecting and storing water is a concrete step to realise a paradise.
This article appeared in Vivi Consapevole magazine – n°70 (September/November 2022).