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Contour Farming and Sponge Cities: Working With the Land Instead of Against It

The need for more effective conservation efforts is becoming more urgent worldwide as shifts in the climate prompt a wide variety of changes in ecosystems around the world. Water sources are of particular concern, as they are one of our most vital natural resources. These resources are becoming more and more at risk of depletion and pollution as a result of climate change and human activities. Furthermore, damage from worsening disasters such as floods and tsunamis is a growing concern. All these problems must be addressed as water is not only necessary to sustain life, but it also is a vital element of the food production process.

While industrialization has contributed to the pollution and loss of water resources, technology can actually also be a valuable tool for maintaining our food and water supply. Similarly, innovations in infrastructure and agriculture efforts can go a long way if implemented strategically at a large scale. While agriculture is a necessary industry for the sake of maintaining worldwide food supply, it does account for approximately 70% of freshwater use worldwide, and therefore creative solutions to minimize water use are highly valuable. 

As a result, conservation experts are in the process of designing and developing creative solutions for water conservation — with two major examples being contour farming and sponge cities. However, work still needs to be done. Engineers, governments, and companies need to work together to develop the most efficient systems possible and execute them efficiently on a large scale.

Ways to Work With the Land for Water Efficiency

One of the best ways that we can improve water efficiency is by working with the land rather than against it. Often, the land is naturally suited to the ecosystem, and is thus already in an ideal state to conserve water. For example, native plants are acclimated to local water levels and rainfall, and rivers have carved routes through land masses that are structurally accommodating to them. 

Changes to the land that are meant to improve the output of various production processes or reroute water systems, such as dams, are often self-defeating by reducing the efficiency of water usage or simply redirecting problems rather than solving them. 

Sponge City Infrastructure

“Sponge cities” are a design concept that is intended to reduce damage and danger of flooding through the use of porous materials and maintenance of natural land patterns and structures. The concept was originally developed by prominent urban designer Yu Kongjian, a Chinese national. 

Many existing structures that are built to redirect flood waters are built out of non-porous materials such as concrete. As such, these structures don’t absorb water as it passes.  

Additionally, these structures and paths work against the natural patterns of waterways. They are relatively straight and direct, which doesn’t effectively slow down waterways that naturally run in curved patterns. If anything, these structures can speed up the water they redirect as more and more water gathers and moves forward unhindered. 

This is especially true if the water is moving downhill. As a result, vast quantities of fast-moving water can easily sweep away objects or unsuspecting people and block exit paths, trapping those in floodplain areas. 

In contrast, the design of a sponge city would emphasize the inclusion and maintenance of porous materials. It would also utilize the natural curves and indentations of the landscape to slow the movement of the water. 

Natural Stream Restoration

A key element of sponge cities is the restoration of natural streams. This can be achieved through a variety of means, including:

  • Restoring meanders to artificially-straightened rivers;
  • Restoring vegetation to riverbanks;
  • Supporting biodiversity and native organisms;
  • Reconnecting floodplains;
  • Removing barriers.

These efforts will slow rivers and improve absorption, thus reducing the danger of fast-moving waters and minimizing damage from erosion. 

Contour Farming for Water Conservation

Contour farming (also known as contour plowing) is a sustainable farming technique in which farmers plant crops perpendicular to slopes, to take advantage of the slopes’ natural contours. This is meant to reduce soil erosion and maximize water absorption, thus more efficiently using water while also ensuring that the land can be used for farming for a longer period of time. These efforts can also result in higher crop production during the land’s period of usability. Contour farming is also a highly achievable endeavor for many farmers, as it does not require specialized equipment, and can be performed with standard tractor machinery.

Advantages of Contour Plowing

The advantages of contour plowing include the following.

  • Reduced tillage erosion;
  • Increased water infiltration;
  • Decreased sedimentation of waterways;
  • Increased efficiency of nutrients and fertilizer;
  • Increased yields.

Overall, this method is not only highly sustainable but also provides benefits to farmers in terms of long-term returns on their investments. 

Drawbacks of Contour Plowing

The drawbacks of contour plowing include the following:

  • It is often difficult to establish key contour lines and maintain them from year to year.
  • This method can be less effective on very steep or long slopes.
  • Not all irrigation systems align with cross-slope contouring.
  • Weed control can be difficult due to challenges related to access and the increased concern of toxic runoff.

Many of these challenges can be overcome with proper preparation and access to resources. 

Ways to Improve Contour Farming

The following methods can be used in conjunction with contour farming to improve outcomes:

  • Strip cropping: Strip cropping is the process of cultivating alternating long strips of crops using a crop rotation system, to improve absorption and minimize soil erosion. 
  • Crop rotation: Crop rotation is a system where different crops are planted in an area throughout time depending on the growing season. This is meant to minimize the severe depletion of a narrow range of nutrients that can result from monocropping practices
  • No-till farming: No-till farming is a type of farming where tillage processes (which agitate the soil) are not used. This is done to minimize soil erosion and the disruption of ecosystems within the soil.
  • Investment in new equipment: In some cases, farmers may find it worthwhile to invest in new irrigation systems or new tractor engines that are better suited to contour farming.
  • Modifying existing equipment: Modifications for your equipment can also be a useful way to change your approach to farming. 

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