Now, I-I know that you never miss your water ’til you’re dry…
April in Koh Phangan and my body is a mobile irrigation system. Perspiration seeps unceasingly from pores that never close their eyes on the world. At the slightest sign of exertion – picking up a towel from the floor of the bathroom or tearing a square of paper from the toilet roll – a new response is triggered. I’m wet: perma-wet.
Cotton clothing works overtime in the heat, wicking moisture away from hard-to-reach places. Fresh sarongs, singlets and trousers become sodden in minutes, drooping un-flatteringly from my arms and legs in flaccid pockets that resemble a pelican’s throat pouch. My clothes have a permanent case of tuckshop lady’s arms, or is that just me?
The capacity of my body’s inbuilt sprinkler-system is astounding, if not slightly embarrassing. I’m dishing up salty water all over the place and meanwhile, more than half the island’s households, not to mention their gardens, are screaming out for water.
It’s April in Koh Phangan, Southern Thailand: the ‘rainy’ season has ended and barely a bucket of water to show for it. Tanks, dry. Soil, dry. Even the island’s notoriously green jungle looks like it could do with a drag on a raincloud. Mobile water delivery vans ply the roads back and forth between the island’s two main settlements. All over Thailand there has never been a better time to be in water!
With potable water at a premium, residents who have the good fortune to have access to a spring or stream on their property grow more and more anxious by the day, convinced that they’ll wake, one of these mornings, to find that their neighbours have diverted their supply during the night, leaving the garden tank/dam/spring dry. ‘My water’, ‘your water’… it’s not the same, not once you need it! Even Diesel knew that you ‘never miss your water ’til you’re dry.’
In the space of a few days, Guillaume, our HelpX host has gone from quietly confident about the supply of fresh water on his land to twitchy, suspicious and possessive. On an investigative excursion to the uppermost rock pool on his property, the place where water arrives from the mountain, Guillaume expresses dismay. The volume of water has diminished. Luckily, however, it is still flowing. Implementing a design to ensure water security jumps to ‘urgent’ on his list of ‘things to do’. Richie and I are here in the capacity of volunteers, so naturally, what concerns Guillaume concerns us.
The next day, while widening the bed of the stream, digging a trench and preparing to lay a ‘natural-looking’ stone and cement wall to create a water holding-pen of sorts, I am disturbed to see Guillaume fossicking about on the sandy bottom of the stream, seeking out holes, mysterious vortexes, that he believes appear spontaneously, spiriting the water away to an unknown underground location. I wonder if he’s talking about an underground aquifer.
The trees along the watercourse are thriving. They’re a good three shades greener than their unwatered neighbours. It’s natural that they should receive a fair share of the water. One square metre of direct tropical sunlight and this pond would cease to be faster than free beer at a Full Moon Party. It’s their presence that makes the existence of this watercourse a reality.
Despite their having been here before us, the trees, are not above suspicion. It’s their roots in particular that Guillaume despises: thick networks of threads that form a spongy mat along the water’s edge. I look on in horror as he rakes a machete through the network of roots, severing them, removing them from the creek in dripping handfuls.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the roots function in a manner almost diametrically opposite to what Guillaume supposes. Rather than ‘pumping’ water out of the stream, which undoubtedly they do, to an extent, I suspect they serve a crucial purpose: slowing the water, holding the water in the landscape for longer, raising the water table and helping prevent soil erosion. Take the roots away, and the water flows faster to the sea.
I spend the evening under the ‘waterfall’, a length of blue PVC piping that rockets a plume of water over a giant granite boulder, thinking about human intervention and the life of water. I wonder if locals would have a different way of looking at the problem; and if not the locals of this day and age, the generation before, or the generation before that. Indigenous knowledge. Surely they knew the benefit of non-intervention: how not to be greedy; how not to incense the spirits who guard the springs, water-courses, mountains and woods of the world.
In an attempt to understand how water works, Richie and I turn the solar-powered fan on in our room and plonk ourselves down in front of a Geoff Lawton video, Harvesting Water the Permaculture Way. Okay, it’s not sexy – there’s Hard Yakka work gear on parade, Akubra hats, laser surveying equipment, tape measures, mini-diggers, things called ‘level-sill spillways’ and a hellofalot of talk about clay… It’s not sexy, I repeat, but it makes sense: the imperative to catch water wherever it falls; the principle of taking it the longest course for the furthest distance at the slowest rate; the benefit of swales (on contour water-harevsting ditches) and working with, not against, nature. I wonder how we can convey the concepts in the film to Guillaume without upsetting his notion of how things should be done.
That evening as I stand at the sink running a soapy sponge across dishes only partially, not entirely, licked-clean of curry, I think of my father: the washer-up-er par excellence. I think about his trepidation, especially during the dry months, as he watched me or my sister running a tap: his insistence that we use less water; keep a tub for washing dishes and a tub for rinsing them, and a glass of water for washing our teeth. I recall the closely monitored shower-times and the visits to the tank to monitor the level of water. During scarcer months, I recall my father bucketing thrice-used bath water over plants to keep them alive: out of the kitchen, down the stairs, along the garden path, to wherever the water would be of greatest benefit to the largest number of trees, shrubs, herbs and perennials. He knew that once the water was gone, it was gone. That’s why he preserved it.
“He was ahead of his time that man!,” I say to myself, smiling, wondering that the simple act of washing up can make me feel so connected to my father, wondering that the age I’m living in is the Dark Age when we forgot how to use water wisely, sparingly.
I’d hate for him to see me now. I’ve grown lax with water-conservation: too much time lived in cities, without a thought of where it comes from, issuing like a miracle from silver fauwcetts that ring with heady abundance.
In 2011, when Rich and I worked for 5 months on a property in Norfolk where every litre used on site had to first be trucked in and carried one hundred metres down the garden path before then being lugged in sturdy black plastic barrels through the cab of our Renault Dodge into the back compartment of the van where we ate, cooked, designed and dreamed – we became truly gifted at using water sparingly, to support all the functions of life on our humble allotment: our own, the garden’s, native animals and the 100+ trees we planted.
That was the 2nd driest year on record for 96 years. Nearly all our trees survived.
With the help of less than a dozen permaculture interns and our dear friends Richard and Sam, we managed, during the summer of 2011, to equip that property with a living roof and two 500 LT IBCs to catch the rainwater runoff. It’s not a lot of water in the grand scheme of things, but a little goes a long way. For us, it represents being a step closer to self-reliance and water security: add a few swales, a dam, a grey water system and a rainwater tank (attached to a strawbale shed) and we’ll be laughing. Slow and steady solutions, that’s what it’s all about.
There are a lot of things to sweat about in life, especially in the tropics, but water need not be one of ’em – not if you know how to capture, store, use and recycle it wisely.
If you’re in Thailand and want to learn more about water-conservation, water-capture and the clever use of permaculture design principles, visit Panya Project or check out any online resources by Geoff Lawton.
Learn more about the impact and control of coconut hispine beetle, Brontispa Longissima, which is decimating southern Thailand’s coconut palms.
Koh Phangan Slideshow
Water is Life Slideshow