Cape Town is Out of Water: What Can Living Soils Do to Help?

Images from Lonely Planet and University of Cape Town

Rainfall over 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa has been dismal. The city is experiencing the worst drought in over a century, and the city has about 10% of its usual water capacity available. The water is estimated to last the city until mid-July, with strict usage regulations already in place.

Regenerative agriculture rebuilds degraded agricultural soils and increases the soil organic matter in those lands. Just 1% of soil organic matter in an acre of land can hold as much water as a backyard swimming pool, serving as a reservoir of water in dry times like the current conditions. This can help reduce the water pressures caused by agricultural irrigation, which could instead be diverted to drinking water for residents. Unfortunately, lands farmed using conventional farming methods have gotten down into the 1–3% soil organic matter range, when they should be in the 6–8% range. That’s a shortage of 60,000–140,000 gallons of water per acre that the soil should be holding.

Matthew Koehorst, a regenerative agriculture consultant outside of Cape Town, shared his perspective on the role of regenerative agriculture in the region, which could serve as a stabilizer in future water stress.

Raised on a sailboat in the Caribbean, Matthew’s deep connection with the natural world began young. He studied environmental science and anthropology in university before getting a post-graduate degree in education. While he hasn’t taught in formal classroom settings, Koehorst has used his knowledge to implement community-based educational programs to empower locals through living soils and regenerative agriculture, as well as consulting through his company Six Kingdoms.

“I was feeling that all environmental issues are basically fundamentally education issues.”

Taking a hands-on approach to education, Matthew has hosted educational workshops and classes with the urban farming project Oranjezicht City Farm. Through the urban greening project Greenpop, he has also helped educate and remediate the mass deforestation occurring in Zambia through planting high value fruit trees, indigenous trees and food forest installations.

Breaking ground on the first trees of the regenerative orchard at Diepklowe

Matthew brings a fresh perspective on agriculture to the region and believes that the water cycle and farming systems would be much more resilient with the adoption of living soils practices.

“Be observant and foster curiosity.”

He says that some farmers in the region recognize that the rains are less consistent and still changing, which puts immense pressure on the current conventional agricultural systems that are heavily reliant upon the seasonal rains and local dams for summer irrigation.

Site of the regenerative orchard Diepklowe. Keyline inspired deep ripping, drip irrigation and cover cropping are employed to reduce irrigation demands.

One of his most recent and ongoing projects, Diepklowe Regenerative Farm, is contributing to the shift on the 728 acre property. About 95% of the property has been set aside as a nature reserve, leaving room for the new regenerative orchard and an existing 2000-tree organic olive orchard.

The project was originally designed by owner Tony Davenport and Koehorst, and the two invited local community stakeholders and experts to collaborate in a bosberaad. Bosberaad is an Afrikaans practice going back many generations that involves hosting a council to discuss the best way to approach a project or problem.

The new orchard consists of over 200 trees with 55 varieties of apples, pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, figs, pecans, and more. The system is designed to accommodate silvopasture and alley cropping between rows of trees and is intended as an experimental proof of concept project for the region.

All of the living soils practices being implemented on the farm, including composting, biodiverse cover cropping, silvopasture, alley cropping, etcetera, help contribute to the farm’s net benefit on the microclimate. The farm is spring-fed by the reserve portions of the property and uses minimal amount of water in comparison to conventional orchards.

The effect of having cultivated land that is continually covered in perennial and annual biomass allows for the transpiration of water back into the atmosphere, holding of water in the soils, and the beginnings of a healthy balance between the two hydrological processes for an area.

“Humans for a long time have considered ourselves outside of ecology and I see regeneration as nothing more than just reimagining ourselves as to being actually deeply within ecology on earth.”

Matthew firmly believes that the water issues are a systemic issue, one that involved both human behavior, financial ties, agricultural practices, industry standards, and education. The education on living soils farming systems presents some of the biggest opportunity for long term change, he says.

On top of engaging communities and their youth to educate on these topics, Matthew recognizes that their needs to be improvements on large scale commodity farms, too.

“You need to look at industry and agriculture and be honest about the fact that they are by far the largest consumers of water, and the only reason we don’t address it is because of the financial implications of saying something.”

The challenges faced in the region are not at all dissimilar to those faced in farming regions of North America: conventional farmers are insulated and pressured to maintain current practices through agricultural extension offices and input suppliers, as well as by their peers.

Matthew has not begun any work on conventional commodity crop transition projects, but is very curious in the potential. He thinks starting conversations around constraints around transitioning, changes in weather patterns and coping with drought, changes in their farmed soils, costs of operation, record keeping practices, and changes in input quantities would shed a lot of light on how helpful a regenerative shift could be.

Changes on these scales could begin to significantly alter the hydrological cycle and provide resilience that the region so desperately needs. Leaders in the regenerative agricultural community need to step up and take a role of shining the spotlight on individuals, organizations, and projects like these to spread the word of the saving graces offered by regen. ag.

How do you actively engage your community in education for regenerative mindset and practices?


Written by Kris Taylor

Learn more about our living soils mission at the Living Soils Symposium website!