Permaculture - rethinking our waterways


Our rivers, lakes and seas have been in the media a lot these months and years. Just this October, storms brought electricity shortages that shut down sewage treatment systems in parts of Ireland, leading to pollution of the natural environment. Only days afterwards a new EPA report listed the urban areas around the country which don't even have full sewage treatment at the best of times, not to mind occasional interruptions to power supply.

The twin pressures of peak oil and climate change raise the very real possibility that electricity may increase in price or be interrupted in supply on a more regular basis, and what fate then for our sewage systems and waterways? Fortunately there are many solutions that can be adopted if we decide to take a low-impact path. One of these is to design our sewage treatment infrastructure using permaculture principles so that we remain independent of fossil fuels to keep our rivers clean and healthy.

Permaculture is a design process that can help us create gardens, businesses, societies, sewage treatment systems or anything else to meet our needs while also protecting the natural world. So many of the systems that make up modern society take a huge toll on people and on the environment. Almost every aspect of modern society seems to add to the pressures on our climate systems, biodiversity, water quality and our own health and wellbeing. By contrast, permaculture offers us a way to continue to meet our needs in a friendlier, safer way.

When it comes to keeping our waterways clean, permaculture design does not offer a prescriptive response, but rather a general approach. The permaculture principle “use and value renewable resources and services” may steer us towards a reed bed system that uses locally available wetland plants to filter and re-oxygenate sewage effluent before discharge. If we want to follow the principle “catch and store energy” we may want to use a compost toilet rather than a flush loo so that we recycle biomass and nutrients back into the soil and reduce water use. Each of these approaches has their pros and cons depending on your priorities and preferences, but both will help protect waterways if municipal treatment is inadequate or if occasional power-cuts leave us stranded with raw sewage in our local river.

Permaculture also has three core ethics summarized as earth care, people care and fair share.
Care for the earth:
is the provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
Care for the People: is the provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
Share the Surplus: is reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes a re-definition of waste as a resource to share into the system to re-purpose into usefulness.

Whether we are designing a vegetable bed, sewage treatment or a new urban rail system, the permaculture ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares leave us in no doubt that these must be prioritised in our designs. We must take account of all of the possible impacts of our endeavours and ensure that people and the planet are neither violated nor disenfranchised by our designs, choices and actions.

Remember that we can go a step further than simply doing no harm. In tandem with introducing a sewage infrastructure that can function effectively without the need for electricity, we can also do so much more. Ireland is currently struggling to meet its Water Framework Directive targets to improve our river water quality nationwide. To help meet these targets we can introduce planted wetland and woodland buffer zones along all waterways in our farms across Ireland. We can plant trees along the contour of sloping farmland to mop up heavy rainfall and reduce runoff. Our urban stormwater from roads, yards and roof surfaces can be filtered through purpose-built constructed wetlands, providing habitat, soul space, flood protection and water filtration. These are just some ways that we can all contribute to protecting and enhancing our waterways and water quality, and ultimately our own health using permaculture.

About the author: 

Féidhlim Harty is an environmental consultant and author of Septic Tank Options and Alternatives. His new book Permaculture Guide to Reed Beds has just been launched.

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