We find it of profound fascination that the first peoples who developed these water catchment systems learned, by observation of their specific environment, how to adapt their landscape to sustainably service their needs. It is interesting to observe how the principles of more modern conceptions of sustainable practice, notably permaculture and biomimicry, were accomplished in antiquity.
However, having made the adaption to the environment here, people left the land. Why? What caused them to abandon such systems? Had the capacity of these people to survive here been exceeded? Was it cultural and political or was it climate related? Anecdotally it would appear that local knowledge of these systems and how they worked has already been forgotten by a younger generation.
Finally, everything fitted into place when our ‘co-creator’ Mark Macklin, Professor of Physical Geography and Director of the Centre for Catchment and Coastal Research, Aberystwyth University, located a paper published in the late 1980’s. In the journal Agricultural Water Management the paper describes from a hydrological point of view how these systems work. ‘Water Harvesting Strategies in the Semiarid Climate of Southeastern Spain’ by Giráldez, Ayuso, García, López and Roldán. The paper clearly describes everything we had heard and observed. The upper part of the catchment is called ‘cañada’ and the earth dykes below are called ‘boqueras’. They are designed to capture rainwater ‘run-off’ and redistribute water to terraces for agriculture. They noted that these systems worked in areas where the ‘bronze age’ civilizations flourished and that they were maintained since pre-historic times. Here is an extract of their conclusions…
‘The water harvesting techniques developed by semiarid and arid region farmers allow a better exploitation of the otherwise scarce water resources There are a wide variety of devices depending on the position in the watershed. Simple hydrologic models may help the optimal design of these water-harvesting systems’.
It occurs to us that we, along with all ‘dry land’ parts of the world, are in particular need to adapt our water resources more sustainably than we do with our current practice. In April 2011 the city of Lorca, in Murcia, 45km (28 miles) from our location, experienced a magnitude 5.1 earthquake at a depth of 3km. Subsequent research by Pablo Gonzálezfrom the University of Western Ontario, using detailed satellite maps, indicated ‘slippage’ positions correlated to sites of previous ground water drainage for intensive farming. His team went on to study potential reasons for the slippage, finding that the water table in the adjacent Alto Guadalentin basin had dropped by some 250m over the last 50 years as water was drained for irrigation in the region. Their calculations show that this created stresses on the fault that initially triggered the earthquake and defined its eventual magnitude.
Unlike the farmers who adapted the landscape to their own needs here in the mountains, it would appear that the industrialised character of food production in the desert landscape, whilst capitalising on the sun and temperature, has failed to adapt sustainably.
The depletion of subterranean water resources has ultimately damaged ecological systems. Was it attraction to greater financial wealth credited to intensive farming that drew people away from our very rural environment? Did the ‘short term’ attraction of easily available and abundant water beneath the ground in Murcia lure subsistence farmers to the potential of greater wealth?
In October 2013 this same region, including our own, experienced some of the biggest ‘flash flooding’ in 15 years. Whilst this flooding is part of the character of this landscape the damage, which this one created, can be attributed to the sometimes contrary nature of climate change. The size of the flood correlates to the increased summer heat and the length of drought experienced prior to the weather event. This event dropped 240Lt of rainwater per square meter in less than an hour.
However, we at Los Gázquez, with the aid of our water harvesting system captured in excess of 70,000 Lt of rainwater, enough to domestically last us well into next year. Viewed as a ‘microcosm’ for sustainable water resources would not a water system designed to benefit localised communities rather than city economies and industrialised farming techniques be preferable?
We have seen the migration away from our location. However, could the creative interpretation of sustainable land use and manifestation of contemporary art, in all its formats, bring about a cultural re-birth to these mountains now so empty of people? As humans control and adapt the world to suit their needs could not a more creative and intellectual perception of this landscape reap rewards for everyone? Could art, equipped and working together with science allow us to re-interpret our value systems and profit those who engage with such a project?
‘The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper’.
We, at Joya: arte + ecología, now ask ourselves do we have the means and skills to re-adapt this environment? What challenges shall we face in restoring and preserving this system? If the economic value of our ‘marginalised’ landscape is low how do we attribute value in order to preserve ecology systems and live sustainably? How do we adapt in a contemporary context this land to our community needs and materially attribute significance.
We need an engineered response to restoring the water catchment system. We have to consider, in relation to climate change and changing rainfall patterns, the appropriate means to restore the terraces in order for their function to once more yield sufficient water for our community.
Simultaneously, we must, through applied knowledge of this specific ecosystem, restore or ameliorate the existing flora and therefore fauna. We have observed the negative response of the terrain to the absence of native plant species. Therefore, we must encourage the existing adaption of plant species to utilise the terrain in the service of augmenting the water catchment system.
We must also build in resilience to future change via scientific prediction, research and the application of cultural endeavour. We must, through the application of knowledge, the rigour of research and the utilisation of creativity attribute value to this system. The goal is to make a rigorously resilient programme that is reproducible and transferrable to other marginalised landscapes.
The scientific research of this system will provide the empirical backbone allowing us to adapt ‘up’ to the future challenges to water resources and how they are distributed. The art will engage us affectively, fostering sensitivity and awareness, attributing contemporary thought to the way in which we perceive art whilst culturally adapting non-centralist conceptions of value. Both shall attract the attention of the local community and the wider public through engagements with schools, universities and other organisations on an international scale.
We are using the geographical term of ‘ephemeral systems’ as, firstly, this is a term used to describe the transient nature of our subject.
However, metaphorically, the character of an ephemeral system allows our programme to have built in longevity. It suggests impermanence to art and scientific research in the face of profound ‘change’. This will consistently allow for creative and scientific adaptation and new thought.