Ziauddin Sardar finds hope in the desert

When it comes to water conservation, ancient wisdom often turns out to be far superior to modern ins

As we contemplate hosepipe bans and water shortages this summer, we should spare a thought for the more than one billion people who live with acute scarcity of water. Many belong to some of the oldest cultures; most are among the poorest in the world. Yet these third-world communities have developed ingenious ways of protecting and capturing water from their arid or semi-arid environments.

Think of the Maasai of East Africa, for example. They live in one of the harshest environments, where access to water is visibly a matter of life and death. They travel hundreds of miles looking for water not just for themselves, but also for the thousands of cows, sheep and goats they rely on for food. Not surprisingly, the Maasai are natural conservationists. Their customs forbid any drainage of wetlands and indiscriminate harvesting of plants. They regard permanent springs, swamps and marshes as sacred sites, to be protected at all costs. They constantly move between wetlands, allowing these ample time to recover. In areas where water is particularly scarce, they divide rivers and streams into zones that can be used only by people, or sheep, or cattle, but not all three. If this isn't a sustainable lifestyle, I don't know what is.

Poor rural communities in other parts of the world have developed equally ingenious ways of managing scarce water resources. In the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, the indigenous people have devised a clever way of tapping water from clouds. Clouds in this region, one of the most arid in the world, are scarce but they do come occasionally; along the coastal zone, one also finds a creeping fog. The region's coastal mountains often hold back the fog, which rolls in off the southern Pacific Ocean and disperses, creating a potential pool of water in the sky. But how does one tap this heavenly humidity? The natives have developed giant nets, made of very fine material, that trap the foggy-water, which is then collected through a network of channels and pipes. One square metre of net can collect up to 14 litres of water a day, enough for drinking, cooking and washing. The process supplies sufficient quantities to protect the region's biodiversity and meet the needs of isolated communities.

When it comes to water conservation, ancient wisdom often turns out to be far superior to modern insight. Take the women who live high up in the desert mountains of the Atlas range in Morocco. It is not the kind of place where you can grow much. But wheat, barley, beans and alfalfa are harvested by thousands of families - both as food for themselves and as produce for sale at farmers' markets. In the early 1990s, various UN agencies got together with the Moroccan government to find out more about what was being grown in the mountains, and convince the rural population that there were "more scientific" ways of growing and selling their produce. Researchers descended on the region, interviewing farmers, filling in questionnaires, organising focus groups. But the scientists soon discovered they had little to teach the farmers. The real experts were the rural women, who knew how to select the best seeds, store them, and make the cleverest use of the little water that was available.

In some cases, ancient technology is used to generate water from unusual sources. In Oman, the humble horticulturalists of Jebel Akhdar, which rises 3,000 metres above sea level, have a knack for cultivating roses. The bulk are grown in just two of the mountain's stepped-terrace villages; flowering lasts just six weeks between March and May. After harvest, a rough-and-ready distillation system is used to turn the roses into rose-water. You can't drink it, but you can use it to flavour all sorts of things, including coffee and my favourite sweet, halva. It also comes in handy as perfume in a string of Islamic rituals.

I have freely appropriated these examples from Dry: life without water. Co-edited by Ehsan Masood, the science journalist - an d, I am proud to say, my protege - this is an insightful, not to say stunningly beautiful, book. For decades, says Masood, scientists and decision-makers have assumed that "the spread of deserts was largely due to poor management practices of traditional communities and population growth". Their solution was to throw modern science and technology at the problem, fight desertification, build dams: "everything, it seems, except listen to the needs of the people".

All our efforts to change the environment and at the same time create something compatible with the forces of nature have failed. Now we know that people, far from being a source of the problem, are integral to the solution. "The lesson of experience is that enormous damage is done when we ignore people and neglect traditional expertise," says Masood.

Some of the longest-lasting and most successful initiatives described in Dry are those that promote, revive or build on indigenous knowledge and research. So let us not be so smug about the presumed intrinsic superiority of our modernity. The goat-rearers of Brazil, the camel herders of Sudan and the Bedouin of Jordan have a great deal to teach us, if only we could learn to listen.

Dry: life without water, edited by Ehsan Masood and Daniel Schaffer, is published by Harvard University Press (£19.95)

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