Slovakia's High Tatras Mountains

New Water Paradigm Case Study: Just Add Water

As anyone who read my post from earlier this year titled ‘Rehydrating the Earth: A New Paradigm for Water Management’ will be aware, the issue of global water management has been a topic of great interest for me for a number of years now. Following on from the writing of this article, which was originally published in the January 2015 edition of the Holistic Science Journal, I was provided with an amazing opportunity to go to Slovakia and visit one of the main case studies from the article, Michal Kravčík and his team of colleagues from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This article is my attempt at summarising this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Background

Without wanting to go over too much ground that was already covered in my previous article, I first became aware of Michal Kravčík after seeing him give a presentation at a Natural Sequence Farming conference held at Sydney University in 2012, and then subsequently, via a (freely available) book he co-authored in 2007 titled: ‘Water for the Recovery of Climate – A New Water Paradigm’.

At the time I was working as the Water Policy Manager for NSW Farmers Association, the largest State Farming Organisation in Australia, so it would be fair to say that I was well versed in the current state of national water policy debates. What’s more, I have also long held a personal interest in pioneering Australians in the field of water management, such as P.A. Yeomans and Peter Andrews. But nothing had prepared me for the work of Michal Kravčík and his uniquely holistic views on water management and the impacts that humanity is having on global water cycles.

Fast forward three years and I find myself working with a small UK based water NGO – the Flow Partnership. A key inspiration behind the establishment of the Flow Partnership was the work of Rajendra Singh in India. Again, without wanting to get too caught up here, over a period of about 28 years Rajendra’s work was directly responsible for the revival of seven entire river systems in the Indian State of Rajasthan, river systems that had been dry for over eighty years. My job with the Flow Partnership was to seek out and highlight examples of other similar global case studies, so naturally, my thoughts went directly to Michal Kravčík’s work in Slovakia.

To put this visit to Slovakia in context, it is important to understand that there are two uniquely interesting aspects to the work of Michal Kravčík and his colleagues:

  1. The New Water Paradigm – a scientific hypothesis developed by Kravčík and his team that provides a new language with which to explore other aligned global case studies and explain why they might be achieving results; and,
  2. The Landscape Revitalisation and Integrated River Basin Management Program – a unique standalone Slovakian case study for how a group can work with Government and communities to achieve remarkable flood and drought resilience outcomes both efficiently and quickly.

I will touch briefly on the New Water Paradigm, but as this was the primary focus of my previous writing, the body of this article will be about the ‘Landscape Revitalisation and Integrated River Basin Management Program’ that formed the main focus of our Slovakian tour.

New Water Paradigm

Our tour of Slovakia began in the capital, Bratislava, with a meeting with three of the primary authors of the New Water Paradigm – Michal Kravčík, Jan Pokorný and Martin Kovač. Without wanting to trivialise what is a complex scientific hypothesis, there are a few key points that I took away with me from this meeting, points that explain, for me at least, where the most significant changes in our approaches to water management are required. These include:

  1. That there are two components of the water cycle – the large water cycle and the small water cycle;
  2. That it is our ignorance of the small (or local) water cycle that has resulted in our incapacity to see the impacts of deforestation and urbanisation on the local and global water cycles;
  3. That reduced evapotranspiration, locally and globally, results in more short-wave global solar radiation being converted to long-wave thermal emissions and sensible heat;
  4. Thus, that reduced evaporation causes higher surface temperatures, and, on a global scale, is largely responsible for local climate change and overall global warming. And finally, therefore;
  5. Just add water – that strategically implemented rainwater harvesting measures can play a key role in addressing increased surface temperatures, the impacts floods and droughts, and, ultimately climate change.

This is clearly an extremely simplistic account, but it is my belief that this is where its beauty lies. In fact, in some ways the New Water Paradigm provides one of the most hopeful hypotheses for the future of humanity. If Michal Kravčík and his colleagues are right and water is, in fact, the most important factor in the regulation of global climate, then again in simplistic terms, all we need to do is: just add water.

The beauty of this as a scientific principle is that we already have numerous global case studies in place that can be used to test this hypothesis. Case studies like Rajendra Singh in India, Peter Andrews and P.A. Yeomans in Australia, Aba Hawi in Ethiopia, Yakouba Sawadogo in Burkina Faso, and, by no means least of all, Michal Kravčík and his NGO People and Water in Slovakia.

Before I go on any further, a personal note: for any academics that might be reading this article, I believe there is an important PhD thesis in this area and it is a research project that I would very much like to undertake. If you have any ideas about people to speak to or suggestions about potential funding streams, please do get in touch.

The Landscape Revitalisation and Integrated River Basin Management Program: A Slovakian Case Study

The main aspect of our trip involved a country wide tour looking at the work that had been implemented in the Slovakian Landscape Revitalisation and Integrated River Basin Management Program (‘the Program’). The Program was adopted by the Slovakian Government on October 27th, 2010. It was founded on the principal understanding that changes to the national hydrology, particularly as a result of more industrialised approaches to agriculture over the past five or so decades, had dramatically reduced the capacity for water to be held in the Slovakian landscape. Therefore, the Program’s primary focus was to increase the water retention capacity of the landscape.

To achieve this objective, the Program set a goal of restoring landscape water retention capacity of at least 250 million m3, focusing in on damaged parts of the landscape, thereby achieving flood and drought mitigation outcomes simultaneously. The public cost for achieving this objective was set at 4€/m3 of water retention capacity of an element, measure or system. Therefore, the ultimate public cost for flood and drought proofing the entire Slovakian landscape was set at 1 billion euros over a period of 10 years.

In a short period of just 18 months, 488 villages and towns were involved in the Program. In total, about 100,000 individual water retention elements were carried out with a total landscape water retention capacity of approximately 10 million m3. This amounted to 4% of the overall objective during the expected 10 year implementation period for the program. Note: numerous examples of these structures are included and briefly explained within the series of photos that follow at the end of this article.

In some cases it has been estimated that the initial investment was returned within six months of implementation, as a direct result of flood prevention outcomes related to torrential rains in the spring and summer of 2011. The double benefit was then also experienced, as the retained water was gradually released into the landscape, dramatically reducing the impact of extreme drought that affected Slovakia in the second half of 2011. Crucially, these measures will continue to bring repeated benefits in the following years, particularly as the solutions begin to settle and new ecosystem niches are formed. Beyond the direct impacts to the local communities where these projects were implemented, it is estimated that the focus on municipalities in the upper watercourse sections has had a positive influence on 500 to 1,000 municipalities located in the lower river basins, because the measures have a beneficial influence on the reduction of flood and drought risks throughout the entire catchment.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the implementation of the Program related to its almost entire focus on local community skills and resources. During its short 18 month lifespan, the program provided a total of 7,700 seasonal jobs for local people, and in the vast majority of cases utilised local natural materials such as soil, stone and wood. The positive impacts of this approach were twofold. Firstly, the public funds invested provided positive local community outcomes far beyond the direct impacts of the revitalisation measures themselves. And secondly, by engaging the local community in designing and building the solutions themselves, the community took on board ownership and stewardship of the solutions. This was abundantly clear in the remarks and obvious pride shown by numerous community members we met during our tour of the Slovakian countryside.

Although only a small portion of the planned scope of the Programme was implemented, this Slovakian case study demonstrates a globally significant example of a fundamental solution in combating climate change, ecosystem degradation, flooding and drought risks. What was clear from our tour of these projects was just how popular they have been within the local communities. Travelling the Slovakian countryside with Michal Kravčík at times felt like we were travelling with a local celebrity. On numerous occasions Michal was stopped as he walked down the street, often by people whom he had never met personally, people who simply wanted to thank him for the work he’d done in their communities.

But the response of Government has been a different story. Unfortunately, after only two years in power, the Government that had backed the Landscape Revitalisation Program lost power via a breakdown of their alliance. Upon gaining power, the current Slovakian Government immediately called a halt to the Program, even in the face of widespread support from communities and local governments throughout the country.

In seeking to understand why such a successful and widely supported program might be stopped dead in its tracks, the cynics amongst us might point to the sheer efficiency of the program as perhaps its greatest weakness. That is to say, in an area that, on the global scale is often associated with some of the largest levels of corruption known to man, the Landscape Revitalisation Program left almost no scope for corruption.

Whilst it could be argued that the above statement is largely hearsay, one only needs to look at the Government’s focus on previously dead ‘mega dam’ projects, to see where their agenda lies. But regardless, one thing is absolutely without doubt in my mind – that the Slovakian Landscape Revitalisation and Integrated River Basin Management Program represents one of the single most important global case studies for a New Water Paradigm approach to water management, and as such, deserves global attention both in terms of the theories and philosophies that underpin the approach, but also in terms of the success achieved in empowering communities to create positive environmental solutions in their own interests.

For more information on the Slovakian Landscape Revitalisation and Integrated River Basin Management Program, I highly recommend this comprehensive book that was written on the subject – ‘After us, the desert and the deluge?’, which again has been made freely available by People and Water in Slovakia.

Photographic Tour

Below is a series of pictures that I took during our trip that can hopefully paint a clearer picture of some of the approaches to drought and flood mitigation than I have been able to articulate verbally.

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