I have been incredibly lucky. Every day, I have the pleasure of working with engaged community members around the world to use available resources to meet pressing needs (Figure 1). This book highlights just a few of those projects, the ones that focused on catching the rain. Community-based design creates the lens through which this book is written, and it provides the basis for the examples and stories included.
In 2005, shortly after starting to teach at Humboldt State University, I co-created a university summer abroad program in Northern Mexico called Practivistas. Actually, the program remained nameless for years, until a fateful meeting with a new community partner finally gave us a name (more on that later). This program eventually moved to the Dominican Republic and became the Practivistas Dominicana program. In the Practivistas Dominicana program, students primarily from the US travel to the Dominican Republic, where they live with a family of their own and study at Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) with local students. Together the local and foreign students work in financially poor communities to design, build, learn, and implement appropriate technologies. The students come not as tourists, but as co-conspirators. The students come not with solutions, but with an earnest desire to discover solutions together. Everyone brings the resources and know-how they have to bear; for example, a student may come with internet access and research skills, whereas a community member may come with building skills. The students come with fresh eyes, and the community members come with a profound knowledge of the existing systems.
Together we start with an open community process, prioritizing needs and discovering resources. We start with no idea what we are building, besides friendship and trust, and work our way from idea to a finished product, all in just six weeks. In this way, we have built renewable energy systems and workshops, plastic bottle (ecoladrillo) schoolrooms, waste material blocks (hullkrete), waste plastic extruders, bamboo community structures, and, the subject of this book, rainwater catchment systems (Figure 2).
In 2006, I founded Appropedia.org as a place for community members, students, and practitioners to share solutions and failures related to sustainability, appropriate technology, international development, and poverty reduction projects. Quickly, our community grew, and with a few deeply engaged colleagues such as Chris Watkins, Curt Beckmann, and Cat Laine, we co-founded The Appropedia Foundation as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
In the eleven years following, Appropedia grew to thousands of pages and developed a reputation for the nitty-gritty content that could not be found anywhere else. As of this writing, Appropedia has drawn over 75 million views from all around the world. Even more inspiring to me is that we have had over 350,000 edits from our engaged members.
I find a special joy when I am making a site visit for an appropriate technology project and find out that they used Appropedia to learn how to make it. In 2009, I was checking out a well-built rainwater catchment system in Nicaragua that had a first-flush. A firstflush is a vital, but not often known to be needed, component of a catchment system (more on this later). I asked how they knew to build a first-flush, and they replied that they found it on the internet. Hiding my excitement, I asked where on the internet... and they said Appropedia!
Those little moments highlight the importance of sharing. What keeps me excited and optimistic is remembering how much knowledge we all hold to share with each other. Instead of rebuilding the same proverbial wheel, we can build better wheels and advance real solutions. Although there is no panacea for our problems, there are countless solutions all around the world ready to be implemented, innovated, and improved.
I also have the honor of teaching sustainable design, energy, and appropriate technology at Humboldt State University (HSU). Humboldt State University is located in Northern California and is home to many appropriate technology endeavors, such as the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, the Arcata Marsh, the Schatz Energy Research Center, and Potawot Health Village. Surrounded by six rivers and the Pacific Ocean, we give water a prevalent role in our curriculum.
My classes at HSU are service-learning classes, working with local, domestic, and international partners to tackle real problems. Together, we have built hundreds of solutions. Most of these solutions are still having an impact and are documented on Appropedia with how-to details and follow-ups years after implementation. Appropedia saves us from reinventing the wheel and service-learning saves us from just spinning our wheels. Students have real impact and all of the learning has immediate context.
Fourteen years of rainwater projects developed with students and communities fill the following pages with hands-on, practical experience of rainwater catchment components, systems, mathematics, and real stories. I hope you enjoy, learn, and share.