Five Things You Can Do About Drought Disasters

A few years ago, I was an outreach director for the largest non-profit in the world. Its logo may or may not be recognized as a rosy-colored cross. Chances are, you’ve donated to this behemoth during natural disasters.  After I worked there for a short time, I began to feel conflicted about the work we were doing. I quickly understood that we thrived when disasters struck. The majority of donations - which pay rather high salaries and enormous overhead for such a large organization - flood in when flood waters are high. Because we depended on disasters in order to bring in money, we had little incentive to invest in disaster preparedness or prevention.

But can natural disasters be prevented? Obviously no one knows how to stop a hurricane or tornado in its tracks. (Though some say these disasters will become more frequent and dangerous if we continue to make poor decisions regarding the environment.) The work disaster relief organizations perform in the wake of such disasters is critical, and I honor that work. However, such organizations could do so much more to raise awareness regarding the disasters that we can do something about.

For example, when I worked for this disaster relief organization, I learned that my community was - and still is - in the midst of a drought. Our region has been declared a disaster by the USDA. In a marketing report I submitted, I recommended that we bring awareness to the water problem.

However, it was made clear to me that drought is not a money-maker for disaster relief organizations. People like to donate to after disasters have already inflicted hardship, not during the slow crescendo to future devastation. Perhaps people like to be able to see what they’re helping to clean up rather than imagine what they are helping to prevent. I felt disillusioned with my job because I understood just how high a priority we should place on prevention of water shortage disasters.

Across the U.S., particularly Texas and California, and in other locations around the world, water shortages pose threats to the basic life necessities. While many of us in the U.S. (except farmers) aren’t feeling the devastating effects of drought yet, we must work to improve our water management systems now in order to curb the severity of a harsh, dry future.

For example, Lake Mead, the man-made reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, has lost 4 trillion gallons of water over the past 14 years (the reservoir only holds 9 trillion gallons max). This lake provides water to 20 million people in southern Nevada, California and Arizona.  Las Vegas gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead. Experts predict that, at this rate, Lake Mead could be dry by 2021. If the lake drops another 80 feet (from its current 1080 feet to 1000 feet), drinking water intakes will no longer function and Vegas will be out of business.

Just this week, Guatemala declared emergency in 16 of the country’s 22 provinces due to drought. More than 236,000 families have already been affected. In Nicaragua, drought has killed 2500 cattle and left 600,000 people in a state of malnutrition.

Our nations, states and municipalities must start revamping water management plans, and we, as individuals must begin taking responsibility for our water usage and personal water supplies.

But what can we do? How can we help?

Herein lies the good news. We have the power to protect our precious water. Permaculture gives us tools we can use to protect our water supplies at our homes, farms, businesses and in our cities.

Permaculture is an ecological design system that mimics nature. From what I have seen, it can not only feed the world, but restore it.

Here are five ways you can help protect our water.

1. Re-do the Menu. At home, where do you use the most water? Taking showers? Flushing the toilet? No, not even close. Do you find it surprising that we eat most of the water we use each day? In fact, 92% of the water we consume each day is invisible to us and is hidden in our food. On average, a whopping 923 gallons of water are required to produce the food an adult in the developed world eats each day. Of course, some foods require much more water to grow or raise than others, so that number varies widely depending on a person’s diet.

Eating beef is one of the most environmentally-costly food choices on the menu. Including the water used to grow the grass or grain eaten by the animal, water for drinking and cleaning, it takes approximately 2500 gallons of water (some estimates are higher and some lower depending on source) to produce just one pound of beef. Curious about the amount of water it takes to produce some of your other favorite foods? Check out this site to find out about water usage in food production and to test your personal water footprint:   

Image from

2. Good-bye open fields and pastures. I was saddened while driving from Reno to San Francisco and up to Mount Shasta because I saw way more treeless fields than seems practical with the water situation. (Don’t cows like shade, too?) When gardening, farming or ranching, it’s important to keep some trees on and around the property because trees prevent erosion, keeping healthy topsoil on the grounds (a painful lesson learned by our grandparents during the Great Depression-era Dust Bowl); foster healthy air and environment through oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange; and each one feeds about 70 gallons of water per day into the atmosphere, as they lose this water to evaporation.

In fact, forested land is more likely to get rain than land without trees. Instead of clear-cutting fields for crops, permaculture creates food forests that include trees as vital to the health of the micro-ecosystem. According to a program on Farm Radio International, farmers in Guatemala and Mexico have observed that forests “attract” rain. Therefore, some farmers in these regions design their farms so that they plant their regular crops – corn, beans, cabbages, onions and watermelons - on part of the land, but they leave forest standing on part of the land, no matter how small the plot. They see so many benefits, including more water in the soil and more fertile soil.    

Instead of removing all trees for grazing livestock or monoculture (single crop planted in a field), permaculture promotes polyculture (many types of plants and trees) as a way to protect the health of the soil and prevent desertification.    

Polyculture and the Permaculture Forest Garden. Diagram by Graham Burnett.

3. Water from the ground instead of sprinklers. While in California, I went on a  university-sponsored tour of a “sustainable” ranch that was noted for its ideal water management systems. However, I was disappointed to see no rain barrels and well over 50 sprinklers operating at full blast during the middle of a sweltering, sunny day when I drove into the property. I was told the sprinklers stay on just about 24 hours a day, every day. During a terrible drought. This is considered ideal water management at a sustainable ranch?

Permaculture designers would disagree. The ranch was essentially giving more water to the sun than the grass. When you water from the top (sprinklers) most of the water is lost to evaporation or directed to run off the land because our cities were designed for channelization (water drains off properties and into sewers, allowing the municipalities to manage water). ESPECIALLY if you water during the sunniest part of the day, you will waste water. A better method is to water your property from the ground, as in drip irrigation. Or, better yet, use permaculture land management techniques that mimic nature by catching water in ponds or swales (see below).    

4. Dig Bioswales. Swales are a favorite in the permaculture arsenal and one of the most powerful yet simple tools. Essentially, you dig trenches on contour with the     topography of the land, trapping and sinking water that would otherwise runoff your property due to channelization. Swales create a fertile landscape that restores the water table. Swales water from below ground as opposed to above ground. Perhaps feeding the world would be easier if we all dug the right trenches and surrounded them with seedlings!

Permaculture swale keeps water on your property

5. Make a Permaculture Plan. If you’re interested in learning more about proper land management for water conservation purposes, get a permaculture designer to make a plan for your property. Or, better yet, attend a Permaculture Design Certificate course and get trained yourself. Even if you live in an urban space without much yard to speak of, you can still apply permaculture principles to help you conserve and save water.

Here is an opportunity to participate in an upcoming Permaculture Design Certificate course, which I am helping organize: Texas Permaculture Design Certificate course.  Come check it out!