Monday, 23 December 2013

The Man Who Planted Water: Lessons from an “Eco-Terrorist”

In 2002 I worked for the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). That was the year of the Earth Summit or the World Summit on Sustainable Development, an initiative trying to build international consensus and action to push back “the worldwide conditions that pose severe threats to the sustainable development of our people…” It was at this Summit where I met a most unusual man.
Like many government departments, DWAF had set up an exhibit to display their work in widening access to potable water, sanitation and other development-focussed projects such as the planting of indigenous trees. As a member of the communication section of DWAF, we took turns being on hand at the exhibit for any questions that conference visitors might have, handing out brochures, CDs and tap water fed through a water cooler. At the time, Joburg water was rated as the third highest quality in the world.

Enter the Earth Walker

On one of my shifts, a guy ambled into the exhibit with a rough, two metre staff in his hand that he was using as a walking stick. With his dishevelled hair, unkempt clothes and scraggly beard, he looked sort of like a Moses or Noah figure. As he came into my personal space, I stepped back a bit. He stank. I got the distinct impression that this guy had been sleeping on the streets for a good few days.
“Can I help you?” I asked as I took another solid step backward. “Paul Coleman,” he beamed back. “They also call me The Earth Walker.” I picked up a distinct British accent but none of this was able to dilute any of my scepticism. Earth Walker? Who the hell is that? “Uhuh, and you would like to speak to…” “… Minister Ronnie Kasrils says that I can rest here a bit,” he completed my sentence for me. “We are sharing a public platform tonight.” I knew that Ronnie Kasrils was unorthodox, but this one had me intrigued.

Brilliance in simplicity

He then began to explain to me that for the last Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, he walked from Canada through the United States through Mexico to Brazil on the Save the Amazon Walk. All along his route, as people discovered why he was walking, he would ask them to plant trees. On his journey, he met very interesting people who shared their stories with him. It was on this epic walk that he met the Man Who Planted Water in Mexico.
Apparently, Mexico has similar water challenges to South Africa. Like SA, they have a few big rivers that flow throughout the year from which they can dam and develop hydro-electric power but the vast majority only flows during the rainy season. For the rest of the year these rivers dry up and place the poorer communities in such areas in dire straits. In one of these villages, outside of Mexico City, the Earth Walker met a retired engineer. Alex was an octogenarian who had a brilliant but simple idea.
His concept was to build a series of small dam walls along a kilometre length of the small local river that dries up for much of the year. The idea was not so much to create an actual dam but rather, like a beaver might do, it was to slow down the flow of the river serving several functions:
1.      A slower river means that the community can use the water to irrigate the farmlands.
2.      Clothes could be washed more easily in the river.
3.      Children can now swim in it.
4.      Silt will gather and can be used to enrich the agricultural land.
5.      The river is filtered from pollutants with every dam wall it flows over as well as through the holes in the wall that are covered with rocks and twigs.
6.      Because the river is now slowed down, it will flow for longer during the year.
7.      Then when the river finally dries up, one can dig a well at the dam wall or place a water pump as the wall would have help feed the underground water system.

Government says No!

When Alex proposed this to the Mexican government, they rejected his idea. He even volunteered to fund the dams himself but the authorities would not budge. Governments generally have bought into the idea of big dams. This means working with the bigger rivers, using large acres of land so that water can be sold to municipalities or hydro-electric schemes can be established. In the biggest project of this nature, the 3 Gorges Dam in China, it meant the displacement of over a million people, billions of World Bank dollars. This dam is so massive that it has an effect on slowing the earth’s rotation (ever so slightly) and shifting the position of the poles by two centimetres!
So Alex took it upon himself to organise the building of seventeen dams for the one kilometre stretch. This the government could not tolerate so they broke down all the structures. Alex then had them rebuilt. The authorities smashed the walls once again. Alex had them rebuilt. When the government came to smash the walls once more they warned Alex, “Rebuild this once more and we will put you in jail.”
I’m eighty seven years old, I told them. I only want to bring water to the community, send me to jail. But they didn't send me to jail, because by now the people understood what I was trying to do and they'd get into a lot of trouble, so I rebuilt the dam.

The monopoly of knowledge

I reflected on this story once before. I had developed a PowerPoint from what I remembered of the story and presented it in a course on improving communications. It is this presentation that I came across recently in the search for a good input at the Rasooli Centre last 22 November 2013, ten years after I spoke to Paul Coleman, the Earth Walker. On reflection, and looking at the story with fresh eyes, I now see some really interesting insights in this story that could well be a metaphor for life.
There are the obvious insights. The one is that governments don’t always know best. They are often looking for the big solutions and do not factor in the minor (and often more critical) details. People’s interests are only taken on board when communities make it impossible for government to ignore them. Left to their own devices, governments can (and have) made extravagant mistakes. But this is also a story of how communities should make interventions for their own wellbeing. Communities know best about their own development priorities and needs.
More importantly, I think that this is a fascinating metaphor of how our modern society monopolises knowledge and information. Today, knowledge is specialised and gathered into large dams in their various industries with their own sets of specialists that act as gatekeepers. These specialised areas are not readily available for the ordinary person in the street and are expensive to acquire whether in book form or to study. One sees this in medicine, in business information and even in religion.
We create universities with their various departments, involved in their own areas of research. Libraries and resource centres fill up on a daily basis from the various dissertations and theses and papers that are written and presented at conferences. It’s not to say that these are not necessary and crucial for improving our understanding (in broader terms) of modern life and its challenges… The truth is that often these repositories, these dams of knowledge, are just for the academically-minded and remain out of reach of others, inaccessible, untranslated.
In religion, the clergy are the gatekeepers in institutions where knowledge is made scarce through denying access and rulings are made as to what is legitimate religious knowledge and information and what is not. Again, knowledge is then dammed up in institutions and structures with limited entry. Here we create apostates, heretics and outsiders of others who threaten our hold on the artificially constructed mega-dams. In this sense, science and religion are much the same.

Planting the Water

Yet, this has not gone unchallenged. There have been many Who Have Planted Water. Perhaps books are the original holes in big dam walls allowing access to anyone who could master literacy. The internet is the modern attempt to hit holes in these walls and make information available to those who have access to modern technology such as computers, the internet and smart phones.
But now there is a glut of information flowing, largely unfiltered through cyberspace. There is a big need for people-centred mediums (individuals and organisations) to act as the agents for slowing down and consequent filtering (or sense-making) of these streams of often raw data.
I think every individual is a potential “dam wall” or acts as a filter, a slowing down of information or wisdom past on down the generations from time immemorial. We do this when we recount stories from our parents, from others, from our communities. We have the real ability to slow down the river of experience and insights just enough for others to benefit, to enjoy, to use the knowledge, the technology that is the legacy of civilization.

The world is in trouble

In a world where the spectre of ecological disaster looms large, I think the relevance of this metaphor is so apt. It speaks to individuals and communities becoming agents for change where they find themselves. It speaks about positive and creative change. It talks about making interventions and ourselves becoming the channels, the mediums of transformation.
Yes, there is a need for governments to commit to policy changes, changing the philosophy of profits before people. There is a need for governments to make wiser choices for energy, for agriculture and for water resources. But these often seem insurmountable and out of reach of ordinary people. We need to slow the message down, translate it into people’s lives and empower them in the process so that communities own the change.
Interestingly, the Arabic word for the beneficent force and spiritual energy is barakah. Originally this word meant to tie the leg of the camel so that it does not run off in a sandstorm. In other words, if your wealth or sustenance has barakah it will not run through your fingers like water. It will stay, it will be of benefit as if planted. Sufi circles or circles of remembrance imitate this concept of the river dam to slow down and plant the barakah which is the flow of grace from the Eternal Source.
In the original encounter with the Man Who Planted Water, Neil Coleman tells Alex, after seeing the outcomes of his very simple idea, that “I’m going to turn you into a fairytale and I'll tell everyone the story.” I hope that this piece contributes to that promise.