Landsculpting: A Reservoir of Natural Options

Gregory Pellechi is an avid traveler, freelance blogger and well versed in the issues surrounding humanitarian aid and development. He is currently in Cambodia training officials on how to handle asylum seekers and refugees for the United Nations. His personal blog can be found at:

With the advent of agriculture came humanity’s first foray into adapting the land to their use. Over time the methods and means of doing so have been even more varied and effective in their impact on our lives. Of course the goal has not always been to improve peoples’ lives. Though artists and theologians would argue that the existence of such sites as Mt. Rushmore, the Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge and plenty of others sites offer something that cannot be derived from mere food.

Regardless of the reasons, vast changes have had their impact on the landscape and as a result the world. Over time, attitudes have changed towards adaption of land for human use – especially in terms of water and flood control. Conventional thinking has always been that we can control water – making it do everything except flow uphill.

The latest methods purport that nature has always had it right when it comes to flood prevention and control: let it happen where it’s going to happen. This is of course quite difficult as a large percentage of humanity has chosen to live next to water, with a particular love for flood plains and the very fertile soil that can be found there.

At the same time that nature is being touted as the best controller of water, humans are finding new ways to influence nature in order to exert such control. Two examples are the creation of cloud forests and the use of sandstone forming bacteria to create reservoirs.

Ascension Island, located in the South Atlantic Ocean halfway between Africa and South America, is home to one of the first great experiments in using plants to foster water conservation. Originally a rather barren rock the island was inhabited by the British Navy and still used today for its strategic importance. The navy through the urging of Charles Darwin and the exhausting work of botanist Joseph Hooker along with the assistance of Kew Gardens created a cloud forest. They used non-native species from all over the world such as eucalyptus and banana trees and bamboo. Ultimately, they improved the fertility of the soil as well as the amount of rain captured by the ecosystem. This could only be achieved with careful consideration of the species used as each was placed to fill a niche.

That’s not to say that such a program could be effective everywhere or should even be tried. Introducing non-native species can have disastrous effects regardless of whether they are plants or animals. Ascension Island was successful in part because of its isolation and its lack of species filling the niches, according to Darwin and Hooker. But it does illustrate the utility of using natural rain collecting species to improve an area’s water resources, not to mean the various methods that nature has already developed for doing a job that humans are now trying to emulate.

In a far more recent experiment, architect Magnus Larsson proposed the use of Bacillus pasteurii to create structures out of sand, as the bacterium forms cement like bonds between the grains, creating natural rocks that can be shaped to need. His main proposal has been to create a 6000km long wall across the southern end of the Sahara Desert in order to counteract the growing effects of desertification on the communities that border the Sahara. In doing so, houses, buildings and reservoirs would all become part of the natural environment. All through the ingenious use of balloons to create rooms within the sand while the bacteria is injected to do its work.

In conjunction with a project similar to Hooker and Darwin’s man-made forest known as the Great Green Wall of Africa, the possibilities for the communities of the southern Sahara offer an excellent natural solution – though that’s not to say there wouldn’t be downsides or potential hazards with the introduction of such structures. The need to use local species would remain and the wall couldn’t be a complete structure as it would still have to allow for the natural passage of water, animals and humans between the desert and other regions.

Such projects illustrate the ingenuity of nature as well as humans’ abilities to mimic or utilize what the world has already created. That said, can we better predict the outcomes of such projects, even if they are more natural, than our current attempts at water and flood control? Regardless of our methods, we’re still sculpting the land to fit our needs rather than adapting our needs to the land.

Thank you Greg for guest blogging for us! We are looking forward to hearing more from you! 

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