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Dryland Strategies

Photo by Damian Patkowski on Unsplash

From a permaculture perspective, there are several strategies to increase water retention and availability on dry lands. These strategies aim to maximize water use efficiency, reduce evaporation, and encourage natural water infiltration and retention. Here are some dryland strategies commonly used in permaculture:

  1. Water Harvesting Ponds and Swales: Constructing ponds, swales, or small dams to capture and store rainwater runoff. These structures slow down water flow, allowing it to soak into the soil and recharge groundwater.
  2. Microdams, Net and pan systems: are especially useful in very dry and degraded areas. Lots of small dams are made all along the hillside to catch water and organic material. In each pan grass and trees will grow again.
  3. Mulching: Applying organic mulch, such as straw, wood chips, or leaves, to the soil surface helps reduce evaporation and retain moisture in the soil. Mulch also improves soil fertility over time.
  4. Keyline Design: Keyline is a contour-based design system that identifies the most efficient patterns for plowing and water management on sloped landscapes. This technique helps distribute water evenly across the land.
  5. Hugelkultur: Creating raised garden beds using logs, branches, and organic matter. Hugelkultur beds retain moisture and provide a nutrient-rich environment for plants.
  6. Drip Irrigation and Soaker Hoses: Use water-efficient irrigation systems like drip irrigation or soaker hoses, which deliver water directly to the root zone, minimizing evaporation and waste.
  7. Water-Efficient Plant Selection: Choose drought-tolerant or native plant species adapted to the local climate. These plants require less water and are better suited for dryland conditions.
  8. Companion Planting and Guilds: Planting compatible species together can create mutually beneficial relationships, such as deep-rooted plants helping to bring up water and nutrients from lower soil layers for shallower-rooted plants.
  9. Greywater Recycling: Reusing household wastewater (greywater) for irrigation can reduce the demand for fresh water on the property.
  10. Contour Planting: Planting along contour lines can slow water flow and enhance water infiltration, reducing erosion and maximizing water availability for plants.
  11. Permeable Surfaces: Using permeable materials for paths, driveways, and other hardscape features allows rainwater to infiltrate the soil rather than running off.
  12. Windbreaks and Shelters: Planting windbreaks and creating microclimates can help reduce wind evaporation and protect plants from harsh weather conditions.
  13. Catchment Roofing: Collecting rainwater from rooftops and directing it into storage tanks or ponds can supplement irrigation water during dry periods.
  14. Berm and Basin Systems: Creating berms (raised beds) and basins (depressions) in the landscape helps capture and retain water, promoting plant growth and preventing runoff.
  15. Compost and Soil Improvement: Incorporating organic matter into the soil through composting and other soil improvement techniques enhances soil structure and water-holding capacity.
  16. Alley Cropping: Planting perennial crops in alleys between rows of trees or shrubs can improve water retention and reduce soil erosion.
  17. Deep ripping: To keep costs low you can deep rip on contour like a thousand swales, then the little water you get will run into our deep rips and not run off. Use a Yeomans Plough if your ground is very hard.
  18. Closed Greenhouse: Consider using a closed greenhouse and water saving growing methods such as wicking beds, aquaponics and terraponics.
  19. Rock dams: Pack rocks in gulleys/donga’s to prevent erosion and help water infiltrate the soil.

It’s essential to adapt these strategies to the specific climate, soil type, and local conditions of the dryland area to achieve the best results. Permaculture principles emphasize observation and thoughtful design to create sustainable, regenerative systems that work with nature rather than against it.

More notes:

All irrigation water should go into gravel pits close to the plants rather than directly on the ground – this way it can soak in immediately and will be away from evaporation. Measure pH to ensure you don’t get increase in alkalinity through salt deposits.

Soak the land

In sandy soils such as in the Kalahari the water will just soak away. We’ll need to add clay and organic matter in order to make the soil absorb the rainwater. Then we can store massive amounts of rainwater in the soil where we can use it to plant or we can use it to drip slowly into our dams (which need to be deeper than 3m). Think of the landscape as a huge sponge. Currently its not spongy but we can make it so. (Can we mix the calcrete of the southern Kalahari with the sand to make better soils? Needs research) So we should build tree “nests” with nice soil and use calcrete over the sand to direct the water into these nests?


Bill Mollison highlighting successful dryland strategies

Using 4000 simple rock dams to hold back the water in the desert – massive changes!

Interesting links:



Read “Game Ranch Management” by J du P Bothma.

Desert Ways article by the Permaculture Institute



Here’s a great rundown on possible desert restauration fodder plants: https://desertification.wordpress.com/category/pastoralism-animal-husbandry/fodder/

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