Yes, we can regreen the desert – and we must

Yesterday I participated in a very hopeful Zoom call. It was about how ordinary people in India’s driest state, Rajasthan, restored water to their dried-out lands.

The guest was Miini Jain, director of operations for The Flow Partnership, and she introduced us to the pioneering work of Dr. Rajenda Singh, who has won the Stockholm Water Prize (2015) and the Ramon Magsaysay Award (2001) for working with the people of Rajasthan to bring their villages back to life by restoring the water cycle.

The thing is that you really need to see the change, not just read about it.

I first learned about how powerful these strategies are for restoring the water to the land and recharging ground water by building structures to slow down water, at Tamera peace research centre in Portugal many years ago now. (You can learn more stories here.)

That was when I learned that the drying of the land and the disruption of the water cycle go together.

This is what happened in Tamera when they built a water retention landscape.

In Rajasthan, they built johads, or traditional ponds, and in this video, you can see that the use of johads goes a long way back in history.

People in Tamil Nadu have done a similar thing in restoring their land, through a forest co-operative. 

There are similar stories in the USA. While reading the sad story of the Gila River, I learned about the Tres Rios Environmental Restoration project, which rehabilitated nearly 700 acres in and around the Salt River, restoring a vital wetland and riparian habitat. 

“The lush and scenic Tres Rios is now home to more than 150 different species of birds and animals like muskrats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, bobcats, and beavers. The beautiful cottonwood groves, willows, mesquites, and other desert shrubs around the reed-lined ponds and along the trail attract many migratory and wintering songbirds. By bringing the Salt River back to the condition it was in during the early 1800s, this project is repairing a natural habitat. The reclaimed water from the wastewater treatment plant is pumped over to the wetlands, and the plants and animals take what they need before it is discharged back into the river.”

Phoenix did, on a somewhat larger scale, the same kind of thing as the Rajasthan farmers did. “Former agricultural fields were graded and contoured into the wetlands you see today. Once the depths were just right, plants including rushes, sedges, arrowhead, cattail, and floating aquatics were installed to recreate wetlands of the southwestern United States.”

The city explains how they did it:

“Most of the rivers in the southwestern United States have become choked with a non-native plant, salt cedar, or tamarisk. This plant was originally brought into this country in the 1800s as an ornamental plant, and for stream bank stabilization. In the 20th century, staff started to realize the danger of importing foreign plants into the fragile desert environment. Sonoran Desert wildlife has lived with native plants for millions of years.

The plant and animal communities have evolved together, with the animals using the plants for shelter and food, and the plants using the animals for seed dispersal. Native plants are perfectly suited to sustain native animal populations. Now, the salt cedar has displaced many of the native plants. The salt cedar invasions have thrown off the natural balance between plants and animals, making survival more difficult for the native wildlife.

To reverse the process, Tres Rios staff removed large tracts of salt cedar and replaced it with native cottonwood/willow riparian corridors. In some areas, where the salt cedar is very thick and will be impossible to replace, the river sediment will be dug down and filled with water. This will prevent regrowth of the salt cedar, provide habitat for waterfowl, and offer a clearer channel for flood flows to utilize.”

There are so many examples of how dried out and desertified land can be restored that it should give us tremendous hope that if we put our minds to it, we can regreen the desert. And this is becoming an increasingly urgent task.