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Interview - Issue #3


An interview with Julia Watson

Designer and author Julia Watson describes the things she saw during a recent trip to Beira, Mozambique, as “the future of climate change”. A provincial capital on the shores of the Indian Ocean, and the fourth largest port in Africa, Beira was devastated by Cyclone Idai in March 2019. One year on and the city has yet to recover and rebuild.

Julia is the author of the book Lo– TEK Design by Radical Indigenism. She coined the term Lo-TEK - combining lo-tech and Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK) - to describe Indigenous technologies that she believes can be adopted more widely to mitigate climate change and build a resilient future.

Idai’s impact on Beira is a warning for other coastlines over the next 15 years, she thinks. Like so many cities across the globe, Beira was no stranger to extreme weather, but Idai was on a greater scale of magnitude. All around the world, extreme weather events are becoming bigger and more frequent, taking and destroying lives and homes.

The globalised industrial systems we rely on, from food to manufacturing, are considered to be highly efficient - if you don’t factor in little inconveniences like waste and other externalised costs- but they can only function within a very limited range of conditions. The just-in time approach taken to get food on the shelves, for example, means the slightest perturbation from these conditions and the systems can’t cope. There is no resilience built into them -something the spread of the Covid-19 virus has highlighted to ruinous effect. We urgently need to change this.

The good news is that we have all the knowledge and technologies we need. Traditional, Indigenous technologies- LoTEK - that communities across the globe have been using to sustain themselves for centuries, and which have largely been forgotten in Europe, offer the resilience we need and provide multifaceted responses to many of the crises we face - from sustainable food production to flood defences and carbon sequestration - and do so in a way that is symbiotic with their environment.

A view over the sacred Mahagiri rice terraces, a small portion of the one thousand year old agrarian system known as the subak, which is unique to the island of Bali, Indonesia.

Chris King: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Julia Watson: I’m a formally trained architect, landscape architect, and urban designer, and am currently teaching urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. I started studying at the University of Queensland in Australia 20 years ago, and I did a course at that time called Aboriginal Environments.This is when I first got an inkling that there was something else out there that we weren’t really looking at, because of whatever lenses of understanding about the Indigenous world we carry with us. So I’ve had this interest in Indigenous tribes and Indigenous relationships to nature, on a global scale, for a while. I’ve also studied Indigenous spiritual landscapes and done a lot of spiritual pilgrimages around the world to explore our relationship to land and how Indigenous people conserve landscape, looking at the differences with, say, UNESCO World Heritage and the national park systems, which are very Western constructs.

C K:
What is it about Indigenous technologies that intrigues you so much?

J W: One of the first realisations I had was that often these spiritual relationships to land were about conserving the natural resources in that ecosystem on which human survival is dependent. Then there are narratives and mythologies that are formed that overlay that fundamental relationship and reinforce an appreciation for those ecosystems. In this way they develop the respect or the understanding that these ecosytems are alive. Through my studies and teaching, I kept on coming across all these amazing ecosystem benefits that these systems - these sacred landscapes - had, and I feltthere was something more here that people weren’t exploring.

A line of evenly spaced spoil craters snakes along the surface of the desert from the high Elburz Mountains to the plains of Iraq and is the only evidence of an invisible, subterranean man-made water stream called a qanat, first constructed by the Persians during the early years of the first millennium BC.

C K: Many of the communities you’ve documented are living on the fringes, so how did you learn about them and the technologies they utilise?

J W: After working on projects with the Subak and their unique terrace system for irrigating rice fields in Bali, and with the Ma’dān (Marsh Arab) people in Iraq, I looked for island-building technologies in other communities around the world. I went from Iraq to the Uros people in Peru, and over the years I’ve been keeping these exhaustive lists of technologies. I think there are currently about 60 island-building technologies and communities around the world, and I’ve read references to similar technologies that previously existed in Europe, dating as far back as the 14th century. Although those technologies have gone now from Europe we still see them today in Uganda, Congo and Malawi. But, as development moves forward in the paradigm that we have at the moment we are in danger of losing them also. For example, in Lake Loktak in north-east India, the local fishing community creates 200 metre diameter floating islands on which they build their houses. But the local government is burning down their houses because they don’t wantthem living there.

C K: How far away are we from the widespread adoption of these technologies?

J W: There’s starting to be a rejection of one-size-fits all technologies that are dependent on harder infrastructure and don’t look at local conditions, environments, resources, knowledge, and building systems. Instead there is a growing appreciation that the thinking has to be more complex. This is just one way of doing what we’re doing in terms of development and climate resilience - there are lots of other different ways. Let’s open up the floor and think of something that can have an exponential impact. The adoption is going to come from designers realising they can implement these technologies in an urban axis, in big,fast-developing cities.This is already happening in places like Shenzhen, in China, for example, where there are lots of urban design projects that are trying to deal with flooding. Initially they had been considering the use of a polder dike system that was developed in the Netherlands for land reclamation, but the Chinese have their own polder dike system, which has been used and perfected in the south of the country over thousands of years and is more suitable for that environment, using silk worms, aquaculture and mulberry trees. I think opening up these ideas to designers, governments and intergovernmental organisations, coupled with the momentum of the climate change movement, means there’s going to be a trickle-down effect in terms of awareness and adoption of these technologies.

In the southern wetlands of Iraq, an entire Ma’dan house known as a mudhif, which is built entirely of qasab reed without using mortar or nails, can be taken down and re-erected in a day.

C K: To what degree do you think the technology you’ve seen in Indigenous communities is scalable and able to feed and sustain large populations?

J W: Some of these technologies are already scaled. For example, the East Calcutta Wetlands houses a sewage-fed wastewater aquaculture treatment facility that is completely nature-based and treats the water of about seven million people every day. It is the largest facility of its kind in the world. We have other aquaculture systems in Indonesia and China that are smaller but have the potential to scale up. And in Tanzania, the Chaga people’s tradition of kihamba farming (plots of land in an agroforestry system) has seen them adapt an area of forest roughly the size of Los Angeles for use as farmlands. You talk of the need to imagine anew the relationship between place, nature and the physical spaces we construct and inhabit.What does this new relationship look like? Current thinking declares that we need to conserve wetland and plant more forests to help us with climate change.

C K: We need these nature-based solutions, but they often marginalise human communities, so do we go for nature or humans?

J W: It’s this weird tug of war between the two, but there are many examples of how we can do both at the same time: we can have wetlands that are productive for food alongside flood mitigation and a range of other benefits. It’s how we design them that makes them what they are, and these Lo-TEK solutions haven’t been designed by designers but by communities. So, what if we took those systems and added design-thinking, municipal will, stakeholders and lots of investment? I think one of the issues is that, even within Indigenous communities, these Lo-TEK systems are thought of as agrarian, and therefore backward and less desirable than something more “advanced”. But in places like New York, there’s a movement to bring agriculture back to the city. There’s a realisation that we’ve messed things up and, from a development perspective, why would Indigenous communities want to advance in a way that completely erases a history where their identities were embedded in their ecosystems.

Built by the Tofinu, the city of Ganvie, meaning ‘we survived’, floats on Lake Nokoué surrounded by a radiating reef system of twelve thousand acadja fish pens.

C K: How do we go about reconnecting and bringing nature back into our cities?

J W: Fundamentally it comes down to understanding our ecosystems, the intelligence embedded in our ecosystems, and the way we as humans interact with our ecosystems. It’s a symbiotic relationship and that’s the way cities need to be. It shouldn’t be a case of us moving into a space and over time fortifying that space, reducing it to hard surfaces that are only supposed to house humans and designed only to be beneficial for humans. If the design of cities were such that the ecosystem dynamics were part of the evolution of the city’s formation, we would come up with something very different to what we have. Studying these Lo-TEK systems shows us that there are hundreds of different ways to live in this world. It’s going to be a slow process of seeding these ideas in cities, within governments, and also with developers at a small scale. And through those projects - that individually don’t amount to much but with a multiplier effect can have a much larger footprint - we can create an impact and start to see a mitigation of climate change on a meaningful level. But if we don’t act now, the 21st century’s greatest loss won’t just be the planet’s biodiversity, but also those nature-based technologies that could bring about the changes we need.

Las islas flotantes is a floating island system on Lake Titicaca in Peru inhabited by the Uros, who build their entire civilization from the locally grown totora reed.

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