Resilience Dispatch #7: Traditional/Indigenous Technology for Water Security

Jul 1, 2020

The rice terraces of Banaue in the Philippine Cordilleras are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an ancient feat of hydrologic engineering. The system uses surrounding forests to infiltrate rainwater and recharge aquifers, protecting the rice paddies.

In this edition

Traditional Technology and Knowledge: A Surprising Solution to the Water Crisis

Michael Jenkins and Jan Cassin

When we talk about climate change, the main “change” is really in the water cycle. Droughts, floods, melting glaciers, sea level rise, stronger storms: it’s all about water.

But humans have been living in places of water extremes for thousands of years. Whether it’s the high Andes or semi-arid eastern Kenya, people have found ways to cope. In this edition of the Resilience Dispatch, we look at the ingenious systems that traditional societies have used over the centuries for water security.

It would be a mistake to think of these traditional approaches as obsolete. Studies show that present-day efforts to restore pre-Incan water infiltration systems in the Andes could increase dry-season river flows in the capital city of Lima by one-third, for example. As the world faces a growing water crisis, far too many of the proposed solutions are expensive and environmentally damaging. We need to be searching out low-cost, flexible, and sustainable solutions.

Ancestral and indigenous water technologies rely on incredible hydrologic and geologic knowledge of the landscape. In many communities this is held by the elder generation. It will be a great tragedy of COVID-19 if this knowledge is lost.

We also see, time and time again, that women are still an unrecognized and underutilized source of knowledge and authority when it comes to these systems, and to water resources more broadly. We’ll focus on this issue in the next Resilience Dispatch.

Our team at Forest Trends is cataloging traditional and indigenous water knowledge and technologies, and working with communities to build a broader scientific evidence base for these approaches. With our partners we’re publishing state-of-the-art research and supporting efforts to transmit knowledge from elder generations to younger community members before it is lost. It’s fascinating and inspiring work.

Learn more about indigenous and ancestral water technologies, and efforts to revitalize them, on our website.

Map: Indigenous and Ancestral Water Technologies Around the World

Missed a Dispatch?

Catch up on previous editions of our Resilience Dispatch.
  • A Statement from the Forest Trends Team on Injustice
  • How Indigenous Knowledge Can Drive New Discoveries In Medicine
  • Forests as Pharmacies: A Field Guide
  • A Conservation with Bruce Beehler
  • Indigenous Communities & the Pandemic
  • Net Zero Commitments & COVID-19
  • What We’re Reading and Watching
  • Communities, Food Systems, Forests, and Climate in the Time of COVID-19
  • The “Amazon Strategy” 
  • Films about the Great Outdoors
  • COVID-19 & Climate: A Conversation with Manuel Pulgar-Vidal
  • Our New Partnership with Arbor Day Foundation
  • Earth Day Preparations
  • Forests and Public Health: Where Do We Go from Here?
  • A COVID-19 Update on Our Work
  • Backyard Biodiversity
  • Welcome to the Resilience Dispatch
  • The Coronavirus Crisis: How Did We Get Here?
  • Adventure in Your Own Backyard