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The Hopi Raincatchers: Traditional solutions for troubled waters

Hopitutskwa: an area of Arizona afflicted by dried out springs and parched fields. In the same place, roads are washed away by heavy rains. Until recently, water solutions were lacking in this arid land of the Hopi Tribe.

Enter the Hopi Raincatchers. This group of young Hopi Tribe members is bringing traditional rainwater harvesting techniques back to life, and the knowledge is beginning to have a wider impact.

The Hopi Raincatchers

Nine springs have now been restored on the Hopi reservation. Using low-cost techniques and simple tools, rock structures known as trincheras have been built, slowing the flow of rainwater runoff and sending it towards natural springs. These are the techniques that were used centuries ago by the Hopi people; skills which have since been lost.

Allen Joshevama, a 21-year-old Raincatcher, said: “Our job is to balance traditional wisdom with modern knowledge. While our work may not be noticeable now, it will benefit future generations."

There is more to the system than harvesting water. Rainwater is stopped in its tracks, preventing it from flowing downhill and eroding the land. Around the springs, vegetation grows, and wildlife is encouraged to the area; the whole balance of the landscape changes.

The group is sponsored by Waterock L3C, a grassroots organisation founded in Arizona by two grandmothers, who wanted to help the Hopi increase the productivity of their agricultural land. They worked with the Raincatchers towards water solutions, by taking them through a training programme.

The organisation’s founder and chairwoman, Laurence de Bure, said: “We have been impressed by the deep spiritual relationship that Hopi and Navajo youth have for the land and water on their reservations.”

Unearthing traditional knowledge

In an aim to breathe life back into water harvesting techniques, the organisation worked alongside Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation to rediscover lost elements of Hopi culture, and developed week-long on the ground workshops.

Laurence de Bure said: “This vital aspect of Hopi heritage was lost as a consequence of the forced relocation of Tribal youth from their homelands into U.S. Government mandated “boarding schools” during the late 19th through to the mid-20th centuries.”

She said that this separation prevented Elders passing traditional knowledge onto their children.

Securing the future

Beyond the immediate benefits, there is another advantage to the work of the Hopi Raincatchers. In an area that suffers from unemployment, new opportunities are being created, and water is helping to secure a future for the community.

The Hopi Water Department authorised Waterock to run workshops, and teach young Hopi how to build the traditional rainwater harvesting structures. The participants are paid for their time, and are armed with skills that could benefit their land and community.

Waterock said that many graduates of the programme have experienced increases in their farm harvest income, as a result of their new skills. Many farmers are building their own stream-based rock structures, and others are planning informal business groups.

The water department is now considering offering employment to workshop graduates, so that they can help the wider community restore farmland.

Laurence de Bure said: “On the personal level, the participating youth have been gaining confidence in themselves, and in time could become leaders in the regeneration of their tribal community and its agricultural future.”

Going global

Waterock and the Hopi Raincatchers are extending their knowledge across the globe, taking their workshops to indigenous communities that may face similar geographical challenges.

Three Hopi Raincatchers took their skills to Marrakech in December 2016, and exchanged ideas about traditional rainwater harvesting techniques. This was a UN-sponsored COP21 (annual Conference of Parties) activity, part of the UN Climate Change Conference.

Laurence de Bure said: “The purpose of the visit was to involve the Hopi youth with a larger group of Berber youth from the nearby Agafay Desert area in exchanging knowledge of traditional rainwater harvesting techniques.”

Requests for visits are now being made across Africa and Asia, and a visit to the Gundar Watershed area in Tamil Nadu, India, is planned for just before the 2017 monsoon season.

A Land Healers Foundation is also being created by Waterock, with an International Indigenous Land Healers Association on the cards for the future. The aim of both these groups is to encourage young people from Indigenous communities to rediscover water healing techniques, and use this traditional knowledge as a way to earn a living.

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