Tracking water: a permaculture perspective on flash floods

Flash floods don’t exist in isolation, they exist in a context.

They all start with one drop. I would like to tell you a story of something that happened to me today. It is a story of how flash floods form, how they relate to our culture and our lives and how we can reduce their risk by integrating water into our lives again.

Today I went out for a walk to clear my head. Working on a design all day had turned my eyes to squares and I needed a break, something to see other than pixels. As I stepped outside I decided to follow my curiosity.

Just one apartment block down from where we stay when we are in Athens is a curious little alley.

My partner had told me on several accounts that there was a little stream around here somewhere and I chose to look for it today. I looked over the edge of the street and there it was, next to an old oil barrel and some kind of old table there was a hole in the concrete. And down in that hole, maybe 3 meters down from the street level a stream flowed, clear as day.


My curiousity was locked in. I would follow the stream today. I observed the layout of the streets, and imagined how these streets must have formed in the past. If this was a stream that was here before all the concrete, the architecture must reflect it at least somewhat.

There were several drains on the sides of the road that appeared to have been installed because of runoff water, their placement and size is a pattern that I recognize from all over Greece.

My assumption was that the stream flowed in between the homes but was covered over by a road at some point. The road led right down the hill so that made sense. I imagined being a little rivulet of water.  What would be my easiest path? Rolling down the hill like a raindrop led me to a dip in the road. The bottom of a valley. The road came down, and then went up again. Immediately I saw the tracks of water damage in the brush over there on the sidewalk, and silt deposits that were so high that they crawled from the asphalt onto the sidewalk.

I had found the main valley. On either side of this area there were two distinctive features, a parking lot and a dumpsite.

The parkinglot lay uphill in the valley and the dumpsite downhill. Another pattern that I have noticed in many places around the world. Walking onto the parking lot drew me towards where the water should come from, being uphill made this a somewhat drier area which probably also contributed to the fact this was now a parking lot. I tracked the water back up the parking lot, and there I found it. A big gulley with a square concrete drain. Tracing that through the landscape with my eyes I was met by a big fancy office building and the dumpsite I spoke about earlier.

The gulley that would once have been a life giving stream was squeezed in between an office block and a dump site. I decided to track it downstream some more, how is this all connected?

Walking through the dump was relatively uneventful. Some stray cats ran away from me as I climbed over different layers of dumped soil, stones and concrete. The different stages of natural recovery (succession) showing me their age. Some areas were covered in trees whilst others didn’t even hold grass yet. At the end of the dumpsite I was met by a freshly scraped area. A bulldozer or digger of some sort had obviously come through here recently and scraped the area down to Greece’s ochre soil. I made a mental note and followed what was left of the gulley downstream. The gulley had largely disappeared underground and I assumed that it was concreted over similarly to the roadcrossing.

Then came the finale. I followed the scraped area down and came to what seemed like a parking lot or old foundation to a building. Some kind of tingly feeling raised its silent voice in the back of my brain. The slab was much lower than the surrounding area and had a kind of inclined wall of stone. I estimated the wall to be older than the regular age of the concrete boom of Athens.

In the back of the parking lot I saw an arch and opened a fence to make some room for me to get through and check all of this out. Everywhere there were signs of flooding. Little debris piles mixed up with mud and grass where rebar stuck out of the concrete, flowlines where the water would have run, neat deposits of sand on one side, silt on the other.

I came to the arch and found out it was a tunnel of some sort. A small trickle of water made its way down the stepped tunnel. Its sound made my heart jump with joy. The floor of the tunnel was made out of heavy marble slabs, beautifully polished and the arch out of some other kind of stone. Granite maybe? Or perhaps unpolished marble? But why would the floor be polished and not the arch? It was built absolutely beautifully the way ancient buildings are made, with stones cut in just the right anges so gravity becomes the glue that holds it all together. Very much labor and craft must have gone into constructing this. The tunnel went under one of Athens’ biggest roads, Kifisias.
I wondered to myself what this beautiful arch was doing here when this parking lot was so obviously ruined and undeveloped.

Then it hit me. This was the parking lot that had flooded some months back! This parking lot had been filled with cars and about 5 meters of water in a flash flood. I had been following the path of that first water drop hitting the concrete, that drop went into the covered sewer/stream and I had followed it all the way down to a place where a major flood event had happened. This was the little tingling in the back of my brain I first felt when I walked out into the slab.

The water had shown me this, and my ability to envision its path had led me to this place. I had tracked water! 😀
Then a further realization: That gulley used to be a river. Before all the concrete covered over the soil, rainwater would infiltrate into the soil and slowly weep out of it to feed a small river. Thats what the beautifully constructed arch was for. It was made to stand not only the test of time, but the test of water through time. Water had smoothed the marble in the tunnel. No one had bothered to smooth the marble at all! The water had done so over long decades of rubbing up against it with the energy of gravity and with the sediment it carried.
Then I looked around. The area was huge, and very sturdily constructed. I assume, but cannot prove, that underneath the concrete lies a small park or agricultural area. The river would have been a perfect water source and the tightening of the river to pass through the tunnel would have heightened its banks, allowing for year round water access. The walls had been constructed to push back the steepness of the area around it, allowing for a larger and flatter growing area. I have seen this many times in Portugal and La Palma. The steeper the slope of the land, the higher the walls. All of that amazing, crazy backbreaking work to create terraces. All for a few extra square meters of growing area.
This is of course all conjecture. But I have seen similar placces all over Europe. And it would be pattern illiterate of me to ignore this.
My teacher Warren Brush taught me to ask three questions. Three questions that can lead you down the path of recovery.
The first question is ‘what is this telling me?’
This experience tells me it is important to be out on the ground when trying to understand these things. You can’t remove yourself one dimension and look at it from above. You have to embody the raindrop, and the only way to do that is to be here and now, on the ground.
It further tells me a story of how concrete and runoff work together to encourage flash floods. Concrete works twofold, first off and most obviously; it is a runoff area. Water that falls on the concrete cannot do anything else but speed its way downhill. Its where gravity is pulling it and anything light enough in its path is taken along. Especially summer rains, with their warmer temperatures, tend to take along soils. Warm water disolves clay more easily, as any gardener probably knows. So concrete contributes to flash floods by producing runoff water. In other words: runoff water is a yield of hard surfaces.
It further tells me the other reason that concrete contributes to flash floods; it covers the soil. Imagine the soil like a huge sponge. It takes in water and when it gets too full it drains some water out the bottom. A full spong still has a capacity to hold water, but the exchange is very little. One drop in on top means one drop out on the bottom. If a large amount of water is suddenly released on top of a soaked spunge, it will run off. But all the time before that it will sink in. This process is well know and is part of the way nature cleans water. The soil spunge is what feeds rivers. It can take thousands of years for a raindrop to reach a river. Imagine that, the water that we see running in rivers today infiltrated into the soil in the middle ages.
A last thing it tells me is perhaps the most sad.
It tells me that the humans that live in this area of the world have lost connection with what sustains them. They no longer take care of their rivers.
‘A regenerative culture knows where everything that sustains them comes from. And it honors those things deeply.’ Another gem from Warren Brush. We have lost touch with the water that we drink. We have come to a point where we channel it underground and into concrete. It no longer is shown off as a source of beauty and life. It is a nuiscance to us that makes our houses sink and causes damage to cars in badly placed parkinglots.

That leads me to the second question: ‘What do I have to learn from this?’
We can learn not to cover the soil over with concrete so much. In order for there to be even the option of infiltration the soil needs to stay uncovered.
We can learn to let the water flow above ground. Locking it up under the roads and inside concrete pipes is not only disrespectful, it is dangerous. Dangerous because when the flash rains come, these pipes are never enough. And what happens when they overflow? People’s homes are flooded, their livelyhoods washed away, lives are hurt or lost. Much better to create the conditions around the rivers and streams for the water level to rise and take on that extra water without a hitch.
Another lesson is something that I hinted to already: We can learn to respect the water for the life-giving substance that it is. Without it, we won’t survive. Water is life. Scientifcally this is true. And if we want our children to have a future, we have to teach them to respect water in all its forms. The stream and the river as the foremost. They won’t learn to respect water if we don’t respect water ourselves. We disrepect the water by covering it with concrete and by poluting it, surrounding it on all sides with cars and exhaust fumes, concrete and trash.
We can learn to bring it back in its natural, abundant form. We can learn to let its shores be a classroom again, where we learn lessons of speed, natural abundance, drag, excitement, beauty. A place where we can learn to swim and to fall in love, where we write poetry and songs and plant trees to cool us down in summer. Most important to a river is that it is a place where we grieve for what we have lost.
All of these functions belong to the river. Covering them with concrete has robbed us of their gifts, and Athens as a city reflects it. The people in Athens reflect this. It is a city filled with people that don’t have a connection to the land. Restoring this essential part would be like a beacon of hope to all that live there. It says we care for our future, we care for our children and we care for the earth.
Now I come to my last and most important question: “How can we feed this to become life-giving?”
So lets start at the beginning. The places where raindrops fall. Where possible the concrete needs to be removed and then [the rain needs to be planted]. Planting the rain is rather simple. One takes the road runoff and directs it into basins. Anywhere from 30 to 50 cm deep. These basins can catch the rain and slowly infiltrate it into the soil. This planted rain will then feed trees throughout the year. Not just any trees, trees that people will enjoy having around. Trees that bear fruit and give good shade. It will enrich their lives to share in their shade and fruit. Trees will reduce the heat-island effect of the baking Greek summers and absorb a large amount of water. They are water pumps that bring some of that infiltrated water up and exhale it, cooling down the surrounding area.
Aother way we can feed this situation is by capturing some of the rainwater before it runs off for use the rest of the year. It is relatively simple to build rainwater catchment systems and I think it would do Greece well to encourage people to catch and store their rainwater. Rainwater is great for watering the garden, the trees or for flushing toilets. Think of this as a buffer between the roof and the road. All manner of water tanks exist and if even a quarter of the population would store half a cubic meter per person, flash floods would not have the impact they do today.
The best way we can feed this situation is to actually free up the streams and rivers. From my research I find that Athens used to have over 700 streams and rivers running through it. Ancient Athens used to be known for its life-giving rivers. Ancient Greek mythology is littered with references to sacred streams and springs. Art is as well. I will include in this post some images of what Athens looked like until recently.
How this could be done most effffectively is to research areas in which the rivers stlll flow continiously and find places where rehabilitation is both possible and culturally significant. There are areas within the center of Athens that were of huge importance to the Ancient Greeks and that are now left abandoned. One place that comes to mind is the river Illissos. Though it is largely covered in concrete it still flows in at least one spot as described in this article. Another area where the river still can be seen above ground is in Kallithea. Though it no longer runs year round.
I am sure that if the areas have been located and the public is allowed to participate it will be easy to find enthusiastic members of the public to regenerate the areas. A recent concept called ‘Ecosystem Restoration Camps’ could be applied here. And the scale of this area would give fertile ground for a network of like-minded folks to be set up.
In a larger pattern we could rehabilitate along the streamlines that are currently just gullies. Like the ones that I have shown running through Maroousi. In order to slow the water down and produce standing water where possible. In combination with the infiltration water coming through the soil from the ‘planted’ water it would evntually revive the streamlines to become year round once again.
In order for these thing to come into reality and perhaps eventually free the rivers oonce again we have to realize their importance.
To me the sacred is that which is truely life-giving. Not symbolically, not metaphorically, but actually part of the process that gives the gift of Life. Water is therefore a sacred element. Now, I know I am a foreigner in this country and it is not my place to call for change after having moved here only recently. Because of this realization I tried to look for some of the Greek ancestors to back me up ^_^ The ancestor that I found was in Plato, and he writes:

By Hera! What a fine place for rest! How large and tall this platanus tree is! And, this chestnut tree, how magnificent is its shade and majestic its branches! These places are all in bloom and balmy. A delicious spring ripples at the roots of this platanus and by dipping our feet we may feel the coolness if its waters. To judge by these figurines and statues one might say that this abode is consecrated to Nymphs and to the Acheloos river. How the air that we breathe here is sweet and agreeable! It is like the perfume of Summer, harmonious with the chorus of grasshoppers. But, what I like best, is this soft turf, thick enough to rest our heads comfortably, stretching ourselves on this gently inclined ground. My dear Phaedros, thou could have not lead me to a better place!

Plato, Phaedros

This slideshow requires JavaScript.