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Tamera water retention landscape to restore the water cycle and reduce vulnerability to droughts

Tamera water retention landscape to restore the water cycle and reduce vulnerability to droughts (2015)

Tamera, a farm of 154 ha, is located in the most arid region of Portugal (Alentejo). This area has shown significant trends of increasing erosion and desertification and climate change will most probably exacerbate these issues. Tamera has managed to counteract such trends of increasing erosion and desertification through the creation of a “Water Retention Landscape” (WRL) comprised of a system of lakes and of other retention systems, and also including other structures such as terraces, swales and rotational grazing ponds. This approach to water management has created a regenerative basis for autonomous water supply, the regeneration of topsoil, forest, pasture and food production, and greater diversity of wild species.

Case Study Description


Progressive desertification is currently one of the biggest problems in southern EU countries. In the Iberian Peninsula, especially in the south, decades of incorrect water and land use management have triggered a dramatic desertification process. The Alentejo region of Portugal, is considered an arid region: the erosion process has progressed so rapidly and extensively in this area that the humus topsoil has disappeared. This humus soil layer, which was shaded and rooted by plants, is fundamental to soak up the rainwater and thus to give the water time to seep into the deeper ground layers and fill up the underground aquifers. Moreover, it acts as a buffer contributing to prevent floods and to increased water quality in streams and aquifers.

Climate change is expected to further increase desertification in this area. The Mediterranean drylands have been identified as one of the most prominent regions affected by climate change projections (temperature rise) larger than any other European region. Increase in heat waves, together with a decrease in precipitation, envision a future of increased risk of desertification and biodiversity loss for most of southern Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece.

The projected increases in frequency and severity of drought events can strongly affect soil erosion, loss of top soil and nutrients flow and availability. These issues are directly connected with the capability of ecosystems to deliver key services, such as water purification, and with agriculture productivity and human habitability of such regions.


The creation of a water retention landscape had the goal of counteract the increasing trends of erosion, desertification and droughts observed in the area. This in turn allows Tamera to become self-sufficient in terms of water and food and to reduce its vulnerability to climate change and water-related extreme events such as droughts, water scarcity and floods. Another goal is to use Tamera example to demonstrate a model that can be implemented in other Mediterranean areas prone to desertification.


Water Retention Landscapes (WRL) are systems for the restoration of the full water cycle by retaining the water in the areas where it falls as rain. A WRL is a landscape with no rainwater run-off, where only fresh springwater leaves the land. The rain which falls on such an area is taken up by the vegetation or the water-bodies and recharges the groundwater. The retention areas act in place of the fragile humus layer and, through their high water absorbing capacity, they also help to prevent fatal landslides and floods, which nowadays are caused more and more often by intense rainfall. There are many measures that can be used in various combinations to create WRLs (several of them have been used in Tamera as well):

  • The construction of water retention spaces in the form of decentralized lakes and ponds;
  • Reforestation and the planting of mixed-culture ground cover vegetation;
  • Holistic grazing management;
  • Keyline design: a planning technique for maximizing beneficial use of water resources that considers topography and landscape features such as ridges, valleys and natural water courses, seeking optimum water storage sites and potential interconnecting channels;
  • Terracing;
  • Swales: low tracts of land, usually moist or marshy. Artificial swales are often designed to manage water runoff, filter pollutants, and increase rainwater infiltration;
  • Infiltration of road and roof runoff water by different means.

Four principles are particularly important for the shaping of such water retention spaces:

  • The vertical sealing layer of the dam (of a water retention space) consists of fine materials (ideally clay), usually using the material excavated from the deep zones. It is connected to a watertight layer of subsoil that sometimes lies a few metres below the surface. The sealing layer is compacted and built-up layer by layer with fine, earth-moist material. Then it is piled up from both sides with mixed earth-material, covered with humus or topsoil, and can then be landscaped and planted on. Through this natural construction method the water retention spaces fit in with the landscape and do not become incongruous with their surroundings.
  • The longer side of the retention space is, if possible, laid out in the same direction as that of the prevailing wind. The wind then blows over a long surface, thereby forming waves which oxygenate the water: oxygen is an important element for the purification of water. Wind and waves carry particles of debris to the shores where they are trapped by aquatic plants and eventually absorbed by them.
  • Banks are never artificially straightened or reinforced, but created in meandering forms with both steep and gently sloping parts so that the water can roll and swirl. At least one part of the shore is planted with aquatic and waterside plants.

Deep and shallow zones are created. In this way different temperature zones emerge providing healthy thermodynamics in the water. Shaded shore areas support this process. Thus a diversity of habitats allow for a high diversity of aquatic organisms to be established.

In Tamera, the creation of lakes has proven to be a faster and more effective method to reduce erosion than reforestation which is a much slower process. It was used as a first step to allow for reforestation to be done in the most eroded areas. A series of interconnected retention areas (from swale sized to pond-sized to lake-sized) were created using the local earth and stone material. The construction of the first water retention space, “Lake 1”, located in the centre of the Tamera site, was realised in 2007. “Lake 1”, with a total capacity of 6.400 square meters, was totally filled during the second winter after its’ creation. Already within the first year a new seepage spring arose which since then has flowed continuously throughout the year from Tamera to the nearby farms. In 2011, another retention area, with about three times the capacity of “Lake 1”, was built.

From 2006 to 2015, 29 lakes and retention spaces were created and the area of water bodies was increased from 0,62 ha in 2006 to about 8,32 ha. Tamera is now prepared to fully absorb even strong continuous rainfall. This large retention area is located at the highest point of the valley. The water pressure is therefore high enough to irrigate all of the land, without additional energy needs for pumping. This highest-situated retention space can then provide enough water to maintain stable all year round the water level of the further down retention spaces.

The water retention landscape creates space for riverside forest plants and fruit trees; in Tamera, chestnut, alder, ash and elder tree were planted. Forest corridors offer a protected path for wild animals to reach the lakes and ponds. Also, further away from the water bodies, olive trees, cork oaks and a huge variety of native trees were planted to increase diversity and productivity.


Case mainly developed and implemented because of other policy objectives, but with significant consideration of CCA aspects

Additional Details

Stakeholder Participation

The project was opened and discussed with the population of the region. Cooperation from neighbours has been important in several of the building stages.

Success and Limiting Factors

One of the main obstacles for these type of projects is the financial investment needed to build the Water Retention Landscapes, since this investment is about half a million euros. Regarding this obstacle, the ecovillage of Tamera used its communication and publicity capacity to raise private funding and donors to sponsor its vision.

The other main obstacle has been represented by the legal and regulatory framework. For ex-ample, in Portugal it is forbidden to cut cork trees, even if this is done to build a lake and plant more cork trees in another place. Furthermore any private or public initiative can take months or years to receive permissions for land use changes or never receive these permissions. Tamera chose to illegally implement the innovative adaptation measure and ask for permissions after-wards. They are presently in the process of resolving all the legal obstacles, namely by making a special rural spatial plan, an instrument of spatial planning that allows for the creation of spe-cial spatial management for specific territories.

Two success factors were considered particularly relevant for the adoption of the Water Retention Landscapes approach and the implementation of related actions:

  • the knowledge and information of the people responsible for designing the WRL, in particular to create landscapes adapted to the local climate;
  • the capacity to convince and mobilize the ecovillage of Tamera to take on this multi-functional investment.
Costs and Benefits

The criteria used to assess the overall social welfare impact of the WRL in Tamera is the Net Present Value (NPV), which accounts for the sum of all discounted benefits for the analysis period minus the sum of all discounted costs in a single monetary common unit – the euro (€). The time period 2015-2050 and a discount rate of 3% were used in the analysis.

The calculation of the total costs included: construction costs, licensing, fees and taxes. Other costs involved such as wellbeing reduction and pollution during the construction phases could not be accounted for. Identified benefits of the implementation of the WRL included:

  • Increased carbon storage;
  • Improved water quality;
  • Benefits from increased number of visitors/water-related events;
  • Reduced irrigation needs because the soil is saturated with water and the aquifers are filled;
  • Social benefits (e.g. recreation value of the lakes; increase of the quality of life in the ecovillage);
  • Agricultural benefits, including increased productivity, diversification of products and increased income;
  • Reduced vulnerability to climate change effects, such as those related to increased drought frequency and intensity and reduced annual precipitation, as lakes provide good quality water to crops and livestock and reduce losses due to long droughts;
  • Increased biodiversity, since the WRL creates a diverse habitat where wildlife species can live. It also acts in controlling pests and enhancing pollination;
  • Stabilization of the groundwater table. Since 2011 the community of Tamera supplies all of its drinking water needs from wells that are fed by the Water Retention Landscape. Soon after “Lake 1” was created, a new spring appeared, feeding a small stream which flows from Tamera to the neighbouring land all year round. Thus, the lakes also support neighbours and fireman in times of drought or fire.

The economic assessment was done only for some of these benefits as some others could not be quantified. The quantified benefits were:

  • Transitional woodlands increased from 9,34 ha to 19,50 ha mainly in areas previously occupied by natural grasslands. This lead to an overall increase in carbon storage of 9.4 %/year between 2006 and 2014.
  • Estimated net income for 2014-2050 in tourism and water-related events such as the Water Symposium and the Permaculture Seminars is 810.000 €.
  • The role of water in the landscape as a crucial element for social and environmental well-being and a thriving society, especially in semi-arid regions, was internalized by taking into account that the market valuation of land and the price elasticity of rural property is tightly connected with water availability, storage and water quality. Benefits were estimated between 150.000 € to 400.000 €.

The NPV regarding the variables and proxy’s considered resulted being negative (- 261.551 €), meaning that the high costs involved in the construction of the lakes are not overtaken by the discounted benefits, which would be a strong argument against the development of this type of projects. However, it must be acknowledged that slight changes in the discounting of benefits would have a major impact in the NPV.

Furthermore, and even more important, it must be taken into consideration the fact that many of the benefits could not be quantified. One important variable which was excluded from the cost-benefits analysis due to lack of reliable data was the increased agriculture production which is expected to be very high. Also, the price of water is expected to increase over the next years and the value of resilient ecosystems will be much valued in such semi-arid regions. Because such projections are uncertain these have not been quantified.

Legal Aspects

Several directives and laws limited the implementation of WRLs. The EU Directive No. 2000/60/CE (also transposed to national legislation) considers that all uses of water are obliged not only to map, identify and name their water sources and uses but also to pay a tax on the use of water resources. This means that Tamera had an extra cost for legalizing it’s lakes. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is also a big condition for adopting climate adaptation measures as it limits several management practices (e.g. the types of trees and crops that can be cut and that can be planted).

Implementation Time

From 2006 to 2014.

Life Time

20 years or more, depending on the management capacity of the area.

Reference Information


Christoph Ulbig
Coordinator of Education and Research
Tamera - Peace Research Center
Monte do Cerro, Portugal, 7630-303 Colos

Generic e-mail:

Circle 2 Inspiration Book; BASE Project


Biodiversity conservation, desertification, ecological restoration, erosion, water retention landscapes


Agriculture, Biodiversity, Forestry, Water management

Climate impacts

Droughts, Flooding, Water Scarcity

Governance level

Local (e.g. city or municipal level)

Geographic characterization


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