The Permaculture Approach to Water

by |June 18, 2010

Permaculture is a grass-roots, ecological design movement whose popularity has grown rapidly in recent years. The concept was created in the 1970s by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The word “permaculture” was initially conceived of as a contraction of “permanent” and “agriculture” – an approach to sustainable food production. To paraphrase the movement’s founders, if traditional agriculture was labor intensive and modern agriculture is energy and resource intensive, permaculture is design and information intensive.

Permaculture has many facets, but one of the most exciting is its approach to water. Permaculture designers believe that through intelligent landscape design, it is frequently possible to go beyond conservation of water to actually recharge groundwater supplies. As far as I know, most permaculture designs have been carried out at a relatively small scale, but results so far seem to show amazing promise that deserves much more study.

The best known permaculture water-conservation demonstration site is undoubtedly the “Greening the Desert” project by permaculture designer Geoff Lawton in Jordan. Through a combination of mulching, contour swales, micro-irrigation and careful planting, Lawton’s team managed, in a short time, to grow food where no one thought it was possible.

The best way to understand what Lawton is doing is to is to watch his video on the topic:


In “Greening the Desert II,” Lawton and his wife Nadia revisit the original project and look at how the permaculture movement has grown in the region.


One of the major intellectual influences on the permaculture approach to water was the work of P.A. Yeomans, an Australian farmer who wrote a book in called Water for Every Farm. Yeomans system was called “Keyline Design.” Keyline integrated contour swales, microdams and other creative, small-scale approaches to conserve and store water in the landscape while building topsoil. In this clip, permaculture designer Darren Doherty explains how keyline design works.


Of course permaculture designers were not the first people to make use of slope and earthworks to control erosion and build soil. Some of the most beautiful and famous ancient sustainable farming designs involved terracing to catch water and grow food on marginal lands.

Terrace Farming In China. Source: Wikipedia

Terrace Farming In China. Source: Wikipedia

Terrace Farming in Uttarakhand, India

Terrace Farming in Uttarakhand, India

In some ways permaculture has a “post-modern” sensibility in that it borrows from ancient farming techniques and indigenous knowledge while also drawing from the most up-to-date understanding and knowledge of geology, biology, physics and systems ecology. In an era of increasingly expensive energy and declining resources, maybe it’s finally time to abandon the “brute force” approach to controlling nature and look to more elegant, whole-systems design strategies such as permaculture as we attempt to envision a more sustainable future.

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5 thoughts on “The Permaculture Approach to Water

  1. gaiapunk says:

    Great article I would love to see more Permaculture integration with the work that the Earth Institute is doing.

  2. Yes, a good lot of strategies touched upon. I especially liked the the acknowledgement that Permaculture

    “borrows from ancient farming techniques and indigenous knowledge while also drawing from the most up-to-date understanding and knowledge of geology, biology, physics and systems ecology.”



  3. Michael says:

    Nice post. I think the benefits of catching and sinking water are fairly self-evident. The obstacle for permaculture is to challenge the current practice of creating concrete drainage systems that remove water from the land as quickly as possible. The city of Austin has created some municipal rainwater in-soak systems that are truly amazing. Berms and swales on industrial/municipal scale. Hoping to see more and more of this around the country as the ideas spread!

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