Honoring the Hierarchy: Water as a Priority in the Dry Tropics

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Sam Kenworthy

I live in a visually stunning part of the world. The landscape here is a tropical blend of rugged hillsides and steep valleys, ridges extending haphazardly into dense jungle, white sand beaches pock marked by rocky outcroppings, and bizarre flora and fauna adapted to this chaotic climate. There are no cool months; heat pervades everything. Humidity, however oppressive at times, ranges significantly in its intensity. The ebb and flow of water throughout the year dictates nearly everything. Because water is such an important part of having success in the dry tropics, management strategies for this resource are crucial. This article takes a look at the hierarchy of design and focuses on the importance of the second tier of the hierarchy: water as a critical element of overall site design.


When most people think of the tropics, they immediately think of monsoons and beaches, palm trees and bananas, but rarely do they think of drought and oxidation. Dry and slowly decaying landscapes do not come to mind. Not all of the tropical belt is water rich, though. The tropical dry-land forest eco-system, for instance, revolves around the coming and going of the rains, and subsequently so does the relative humidity. Humidity, of course, represents water, and in this environment water is only in abundance for about half the year, maybe seven months on a good year.


It is important to note that within the tropical latitudes, there are both dry and humid tropics. Design consideration for each vary. This article primarily focuses on planning for the dry tropics, but to a certain extent, the principles can be applied to the wet tropics, as well. The main difference in design technique between the wet and dry tropics is that in the dry tropics, one is concerned with far longer periods of drought than in the wet tropics. Due to this long period without water, storage and water management strategies in the dry tropics become far more important. Wet season water management techniques in the dry tropics can be very similar to year around water management habits in the wet tropics, but do note that places with higher annual rainfall or more evenly distributed rainfall may need to consider alternative approaches to those described in this article.

Hydrological Cycle

What does the yearly cycle of water tell us about the value of a space? How does water dictate the success one can have on a homestead level, at a small business level, or on a large scale, commercial level? How can one evaluate the all important factor of water when planning for and mapping out the future? All of these questions and many more are important to consider when beginning to embark on a relationship with the tropics.

As designers, the process is simple--step back and make sure you are honoring the hierarchy of design:

  1. Access
  2. Water
  3. Structure

We teach this layered ordering for a reason: to enforce the idea that before considering dwellings, one first must be able to physically get to the site, and secondly must have access to water to make the site viable. Only after resolving these two over-arching design priorities can one dig into the patterns associated with structures.


Water Value

Water is the key to everything. Water runs this planet and the lives of all humans and eco-systems on it. To disregard the water factor when developing a site, regardless of whether you feel you have too much or too little, is to commit a mistake that you will regret for the duration of your relationship with the land.

Site access if the first rung on the ladder of design priority, and rightly so. If a site is inaccessible, it isn't especially useful. Without access, the land can not really be put to work, if that is the intention. If access is difficult, the impact one can have on a site is severely limited. Creating good, year around access that permits one to easily get to and away from a site is really the first step in any development. Water, though, comes in a close second on the design scale, mainly because without access, one need not even move on to the second step. However, once access is established, water becomes a top priority as the abundance of water will determine nearly all of the following design considerations. In a certain sense, access and water need to be considered nearly simultaneously as without water access doesn't mean much, and without access, there is no need to develop water infrastructure.

Too many times I have seen folks select a site for a good view alone, for the fun neighbors, or begin to develop a site without taking into account where their water will come from. Usually these scenarios end in some serious headache and wallet-woes for developers and land owners alike. Imagine completing a home or farmstead and not having readily available water. This happens more often that you would think.

Case Studies


I have worked on several projects that, although well intentioned, have had serious problems with water simply because their plans did not follow the hierarchy that is intrinsic to permaculture design. In one instance, an organization had chosen an amazing site for development, but getting to the area was quite difficult. In fact, at certain times of year the place was totally isolated and without any access at all. Additionally, the original design simply by-passed the subject of water. Eventually, at great cost and effort, water had to be pumped in from a significant distance to simply begin development. Moving water over long distances is not only a heavy upfront cost for a project, but also demands constant ongoing investment to cover energy costs and increased maintenance work, among other hidden costs.

In another example of previous work, a project began construction on a home site before having determined any course for their water resource, mostly banking on hitting a good water artery by digging a well. At the onset, there was no well, and municipal water was not available. As it turns out, the well that was attempted came up dry, twice. At this point, design considerations changed considerably as the reality that water was simply not available started to dictate decision making. The design hierarchy was initially ignored, but eventually had to be re-considered in order to have success. Avoiding the hierarchy typically leads to double work, as one has to return to the start should an issue like the problem mentioned above arise.

Consider for a moment how important water is. Is there anything you do from the moment you wake up until the time you go to bed that does not require water? Where does it go, and where does it come from? Is it expensive? Is it safe to drink? In a world that has an ever more unpredictable climate, the water question is ever more important. Designing for resilient water systems is the key to success in any climate, but especially in the hot, and in this case, dry, tropics. How do you get there?

Evaluate Your Location


The first consideration might be the fluctuation in rain movements throughout the course of an entire year. Where I live, it is not unheard of to go six months or more without rain. For those of you not living in drought prone areas, this may be hard to comprehend, but dry season means zero rain for the entirety of the dry part of the year. With less water, biological activity slows down, productivity drops, and a lot of plants, animals, and people suffer. In many cases wells dry up, people are forced to buy water, and cattle and other livestock are either sold off, or lose a good amount of biomass due to the lack of forage. What's most intriguing is that this pattern is the norm; it happens every single year. However, you can design around these problems, increase productivity, and have success far faster with a few simple strategies, including:

  • Catch as much freely available water as you can (rainfall)
  • Minimize your use
  • Re-use and recycle water as often as possible
  • Use gravity to move water where possible
  • Diversify your water sources

Water Budget


Make a water budget, regardless of whether you live in a water rich or water poor area. Figure out what you need and when you need it. Odds are, you need water when you don't get it freely from the sky, which means planning and forward thinking are important. Include in your budget your potable water uses, your animals, any irrigation you might have, washing your vehicle, filling your swimming pool, and anything else you can think of. Once you have a number you think is accurate, figure out what it might take to store at least part of that water on site. If you live in an area with rich water resources throughout the year, you can get off pretty easily. Your water plan will probably just involve storing enough water to get you through a power outage or a maintenance episode on your pumping system. However, if you're in an area such as mine, that has long periods with no rain, water planning becomes far more important. Using a water budget, at the very least you can figure out how much water you use, and where you may be able to conserve. Once you've got a monthly or daily allowance sorted out, cross reference that use with the rain patterns. How much time do you need to cover without rain? Do you have a good well that has a good rate of replenishment throughout the year? In permaculture, we typically try to capture energies when they are at their peak. The same principle applies to water. Do your best to capture water when it's in abundance, and hold it for a time when it is most needed. You might not be able to balance your uses with the costs or space needs of storage. That's ok, but planning for at least some storage for some uses is a step in the right direction. Considering these things before developing a site is absolutely critical to long term savings and success.

Prioritize Siting


Site your water needs appropriately. To make a resilient water plan, siting is key. Any time that you have to work against gravity you will intrinsically increase your costs, the vulnerability of your systems, and probably the complexity of your project. By siting areas that require water (think showers, washing machines, gardens, your house) below where you store water, the resiliency of your site is dramatically improved, and your dependency on systems you can't control is diminished (think electrical grids). In instances where that is simply not possible, store water as high as possible. Although this may mean below your roof line in many cases, the higher you can store water, the better.

Water Storage

Hold water as long as possible. When it rains in the tropics, it really pours. Sheets, buckets, or downpours, the water falls the way it is described. In times like these, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, try to keep the water on your site. The soil is the biggest and best bank of water out there; use it. Forcing water to move slowly and over as much distance as possible helps it infiltrate into the soil, which in turn will slow dry season's desiccating effects considerably. In addition to holding water in the soil, hold water in the plants you grow. Minimize bare spaces, and encourage water storage in the natural elements around your site. Trees and shrubs that shade, grow quickly, and can be used as mulch are critical to keep water in the landscape. See this article for more tropical mulching tips.

Combining a plan for your infrastructure and your landscaping is a great step in the right direction and is the beginning of taking a whole systems approach to site and project success.

Lastly, be cognizant of what your water uses are, where you can reduce water use, and what the economic and/or ecological impacts of your water use might be. With a detailed analysis, it is highly likely that you will find that up front investment in water infrastructure will pay itself off quickly and be one of the best uses of money at the onset of site development. If you feel like you need help or expertise on the subject, consider hiring a  consultant that can give you a push in the right direction or taking a class to hone your own skills. Plan for multiple systems that can back one another up. Store water high to take advantage of gravity. If you can, install a well to compliment municipal water or a roof catchment system. The more sources of water you have, the better. In a climate where water is everything, you can never really have too much.


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