Water (16m 18s)

“Only when the well is dry, can we learn the worth of water.”
– Abraham Lincoln

Today we’re going to talk about how we can catch, clean, conserve and reuse water.

Most life on earth is happening within 2-5 meters above and below the soil. The closer to the line at top of the soil you get, the more life there is. …When it rains, water falls right on this line, right at this zero point, and then nature explodes in both directions – bwwwwww. Nutrients exchange – tkk tkk tkk tkk tkk… leaves sprout arching up toward the sun and roots dig into the soil and the explosion extends into the air and into the soil… dvww dvww dvww …This happens only if there is a good source of water.

…Many chapters in this course provide strategies to contain water within this 2-5m space. For example,

  • In earthworks, we’re slowing, stopping and soaking water into the soil at the zero point,
  • In sanitation, we’re catching our grey and blackwater at the zero point,
  • In soil and plant chapters, we’re making compost and creating layers of vegetation to trap water in this space
  • Fish, insects and animals, all live and drink water in and from this space

Water is the source of all life on the planet. So when we talk about catching, cleaning, conserving and reusing water… we’re talking about how to contain a steady food supply for all of our fellow species within this 2-5m space.

Here are a few other unique properties of water:

  • Water is the only element known to man that can be in three states: a solid, a liquid and a gas.
  • It expands and contracts as it heats up or cools down.
  • It has thermal mass. If you have ponds around your site, it will absorb heat during the day. This regulates the temperature.
  • And it has capillary action. It wicks up. It can be absorbed into something and actually go against the forces of gravity.

Water strategies

A few good water strategies to consider:

The first one here:

“To create the longest path, moving as slowly as possible, passing through as many living things as possible, is the most fertile design. (From Ridgedalepermaculture.com and other sites online, original author unknown)

Another point is to cover 10-15% of your site with water, water bodies like ponds, canals, water tanks, cisterns… the more water you can store, less temperature flocculation and more water security you’ll have during the dry season.

Doing earthworks and planting layers in a forest are two great ways to contain water in this space. The layers in the forest catch and absorb water on the leaves before it hits the ground and earthworks shape the land to catch what falls through.

Hydrological cycle

The hydrological cycle is how water naturally moves through nature. Water evaporates from some body of water, the ocean being a big one. It gathers in the clouds, moves overland and falls on the land, onto the soil, into the lakes, the rivers and the streams. Then some soaks back into aquifers underground and some of it makes its way downstream, eventually ending up in the ocean again. The hydrological cycle is how water cycle’s through nature.

Human cycle of water

Let’s now address the human cycle of water, how water cycles through us, or more specifically how we commonly use water. First, we find water from a source. Then we transport it somewhere, filter it, conserve as we use it and then reuse it.

I’ll use this cycle as a template as we cover each area:

So first, sources. Where do we get water? Water comes from the sky, the surface of the earth or below the surface of the earth.

Catching water

Rainwater catchment – Rain is like money: It falls from the sky every so often, in some places more than others, many places receive at least some rain although some places receive no rain. Since this thing is coming to us, at no cost to us, we want to hold on to it. It’s free. It falls from the sky and it’s this magic potion that makes everything grow.

Rainwater catchment is a basically a gutter. It’s nothing too technical, just a pipe cut in half and then you can channel the downspout into a tank or underground.

First flush systems

After you catch rainwater from the roof, you can install a first flush system. A first flush system flushes away leaf litter and sediment from the roof so it doesn’t contaminate your storage tank. There are several common designs for first flush systems online. At Kailash Akhara, they channel rainwater from the roof into a 1000L ong, a lightweight concrete tank. So all leaf litter and sediment from the roof would settle in the big tank and then it run into an overflow pipe and into the trenches. I’m sure there are decent first flush systems out there, I guess I’m still wondering if maybe a simple settling tank could serve just as well.

Another type of rain catchment is fog nets. When I was in Peace Corps a few years ago in Cape Verde islands, a friend named Nate built several fog nets with his community on Sao Nicolau, they do this on other islands as well. These are plastic nets, about 3m tall x 5m long, attached to vertical poles. They work best when installed in cloudy areas, at the top of a ridge.

Here we have six meters high and three meters wide. We have two here and three tubes to go with them. If this one gives 1000L of water a night, that is 50 cans of water, then with 10 more of these, Serra would have plenty of water.

Catching water from a river

A water wheel is a pvc pipe, wound around a frame that turns with the current of the river. This is a good way to passively collect water throughout the day. And also this type of water extraction, you could call it, puts a lot less impact on the environment than building a dam. Remember, small, simple, slow solutions are what we’re going for.

Getting water from a well

So if rain is like money, then the aquifer is like our savings account. We don’t really want to touch the savings, we want to stay in our checking account, which is our tanks above ground, or work with the free cash that falls from the sky. But it’s okay if we use our savings account, it’s all the same thing in the end. Many people use well water as their main source of water. I think the main thing when using wells is to not over pump it. It’s important to give the well time to recharge.

A water pump is how we’ll pull water from a well to the surface. A water pump is one of, if not the most important device you’ll have at your site.

The most common type of pump is an electric pump. Electric pumps are in virtually every home that is not connected to a water supply. Other types of water pumps include a bicycle pump, a seesaw pump, a good ole hand pump and a ram pump, which has a mechanism that moves water using hydraulics. You can also install a windmill. Here in Auroville there is an organization called Aureka – they install windmills all over South India.

Storing water

Once you catch or collect water, then we need to store water. We can store water underground in ponds or cisterns. Or above ground in tanks. Types of water storage vary greatly – you can use bricks, ferrocement, plastic tanks and liners.

Storing water above ground

A water tower stores water and creates water pressure throughout your site.

.43psi or .43 pounds per square inch is the amount of pressure gained for every foot of rise in elevation. Domestic water pressure is typically around 8psi. So a good height of a water tower is about 6m. At Magic house, our tank is about 5m off the ground. And that seems to be enough pressure to take a decent shower. Building a water tower may be a construction feat in itself. We’re building a tank to hold thousands of liters of water in the air. You can use a steel frame, bricks, or place a tank on top of houses to get the desired height.

Water filtration

So now we have caught and stored our water. Now we need to filter it. One of the most common ways we filter water is through reverse osmosis. This is an energy-intensive method that basically crams water through a very fine filter. It removes all particles, viruses, bacteria… it actually strips water down to such a pure form of H2O that it would deplete our bodies of minerals and make us sick if we were to drink it. So reverse osmosis filter companies must add supplements like calcium and magnesium to the water to make it more potable. If you see distilled water in the store, this is the same thing. Distilled or water cleaned by reverse osmosis is mineral deficient. Instead, there are several passive methods of water filtration that are cheap, simple to install, and filter water just as good as RO.

One is solar distillation. I had the chance to build a solar still when I was in Peace Corps a few years ago in Cape Verde. Nick, another peace corps volunteer and I, designed and built a solar still with our high school students. Cape verde receives very little rain, (about 10cm per year) and Nick thought a solar still could be a good option to get water. We built three different prototypes, each improving on the one before. The best model distilled 2 liters of clean water per day. So, yeah solar distillation works, but in our case, as I’ve heard is the case in general, is the output wasn’t enough to supply even a domestic sized system.

Another way to filter water is through a bio-sand filter. In Haiti, Paddy and Quinn and a crew of volunteers at All Hands volunteers were building domestic bio-sand filters for people after the 2010 earthquake. These work well, I remember one of the challenges was that the filter had to always stay wet, and because it was a small system you had to manually fill the filter each day.

A few months later in Dominican Republic, I learned about the Aquapure Water filter, a charcoal and silver-lined fired ceramic water filter. Instead of sand, this filter was made with sawdust and small traces of silver mixed with clay. Then the pots were fired in a hot kiln. This cooked the wood leaving charcoal, a natural water filter. Silver also has micro-bacterial properties and helped to clean the water as well.

Later in Thailand I learned about what I understand to be one of the most effective ways to filter water… It filters water using gravel, sand and activated charcoal. This guy Josh did a lot of research on this subject. He and his buddy Nate started an organization called Aqueous Solutions. They installed this water filter at Pun Pun and other rural communities around Thailand and Burma. (video) “We have had this water filter for 5 or 6 years now and it is remarkable. When the water drains through, it will leave a thin layer of dust and biofilm at the top, which functions as a catcher and the even clearer water is pushed up to the next container. The third container is the charcoal container. Fill it half with charcoal. It will function as a bacteria and chemical substance absorbent. The water stored in the last container is pure, hygienic and can be consumed.

Heating water

So now we have clean water, what if we want to take a hot shower? One simple way to heat water is to get a black hose, coil it around, put it on top of your house, connect one side to the cold water flow and put the other end in your shower.

Another method with a hose, is to make a compost pile and coil a hose through the pile as you build the pile. As the pile breaks down, it heats up the water. And then of course after a few months, you have good compost too.

Another way to get hot water, probably the simplest way, is to make a big box, out of concrete or wood, just remember the box needs to stay dry. The inside of the box is painted black and a piece of glass is placed on top. Face the box toward the sun. Then place two metal barrels inside. Then connect an entry pipe to the bottom and an exit pipe at the top for hot water to exit. Then you’re all set. They built this at Panya Project a few years ago and I had a hot shower everyday I was there.


Where do we use water? We use water in the kitchen, for washing clothes, in the shower, in the toilet. Any water used for something other than poop is considered greywater. And any water that comes into contact with poop is considered blackwater. Okay, a few notes on water conservation. At Sadhana Forest in India, outside their bathrooms, they have a metal cup with a small hole in the bottom. This uses very, very little water though provides enough to wash your hands.

Grease trap

To dispose water from the kitchen, it’s good to run the water through a grease trap. A few types of grease traps, first you can get one from the store. Here is one we used at Panya, it’s a large bucket. That separates oil and food particles and then water goes into a greywater system from there.

Another type of grease trap is a series of 20L buckets. Each bucket acts as a settling tank. In these pictures here, you can see how the water is slightly clearer as it goes from one to another.

Another type of grease trap is to run the water through worm compost. It’s a concrete ring filled with gravel and soil on the top containing worms which consume the oils and food residue and dispose of the water into a greywater system from there.

Greywater recycling

Greywater can be recycled a few ways. You can plant banana trees in a circle and dispose of your greywater right in the ground. First, you can return the water straight back into the ground. Then you can plant several banana trees in a circle to suck up all the water. If you use this option, avoid using chemical soaps and detergents.

The simplest greywater system is a tiered set of concrete rings filled with gravel. The gravel collects sediments from the water. Then you can add activated charcoal, wood vinegar and pond plants to filter the water. Make sure you have enough water flow so the water doesn’t become stagnant.

Flush toilets create blackwater because the water touches poop. Typical systems channel the wastewater into a septic tank and then into a drainfield. There are several wastewater treatment plants around Auroville and Pondicherry with really breakthrough technology in this field.

Rice water test

The last thing I’ll share is the rice water test. There is a rice water test you can do that demonstrates how our intention affects the state of water. This test, inspired by Dr Emoto, is where you take three jars, fill them with equal amounts of rice and water, and you write on the outside of each jar – “Love me, hate me and ignore me”. Then you put intentions of each emotion into the jar over the course of a few weeks.

We tried this test at Panya over the course of a month. We asked everyone to think about the emotion each time they came across the love or hate jar. The results after a month were astonishing. The “Love me” jar was sweet and fairly clear. The “Hate me” jar was dark and murky and the “Ignore me, or recognize me”, as we wrote, was the darkest.

You know, they always say it’s better to be hated than ignored… that seems to be true. This is also an example how our intention, only our intention changed the state of the water. When we did the test, there were plenty of people who wanted more proof, they weren’t satisfied with these results… but you know, these are results. We somehow changed the color, the condition and ultimately the amount of bacteria and life in the water simply by looking at it and thinking about something. We don’t know why this happens on a scientific level. But it happened. The colors changed.

If we can change the color of the water in this experiment, what else can we do? What else are we capable of changing with our intentions? Is there a limit to what we can do when we put our mind to something?

If you want to learn more about water, or structuring water, check out the Magnetic water documentary or read through the work of Masaru Emoto or Viktor Shauburger.

So when start thinking about our water design.. Think about where are you going to get water, how will you move it, filter it, conserve it, heat it and reuse it. Consider the systems already in place, available water sources, local materials and so on. The more secure your source of water is, the more secure all of the life will be on your site.

Okay, that’s it for the water chapter. Thank you for your time.