Sistemas Efímeros:

an arts led water resource research project / Simon Beckmann.

Trans-disciplinary and collaborative, Simon Beckmann’s research project seeks different ways to express ideas which will augment the perception of the natural value of arid landscapes.

Simultaneously Sistemas Efímeros will promote sustainable and transferable adaptations to land use and water resources at a time of rapid environmental change.


White poplar – Populous alba – Sp. Alamo. An indicator of ground water.


  • Introduction
  • Location
  • Research
  • Collaboration
  • Observation + Anecdote
  • Conclusions 1 and 2 + Responses
  • Simon Beckmann / work in progress



The project focuses on the headwaters of the ‘Rambla del Cajar’, a traditional water catchment system, which 50 years ago had a functioning water harvesting and soil conservation system that in the late 1950’s fell out of use. This ‘rambla’ provides a unique opportunity to conduct a landscape scale ‘experimental’ restoration programme that has the potential to be up scaled and transferred to similar dryland environments worldwide that exist under the same climatic, water and demographic stress. As such the project must be considered as a microcosm protected by cultural and creative interventions. The project is at the home of Joya: arte + ecología, Cortijada Los Gázquez and is protected under the laws governing the Parque Natural Sierra María-Los Vélez. Nevertheless whilst this legal protection limits the project areas susceptibility to damage, it is still sensitive to external influences including climate and economic change.



View of the water catchment system known as the ‘headwater’ of the Rambla de Cajar.



“I want to realise this concept by bringing together  a complementary group of research disciplines that have the expertise and experience in delivering ambitious projects such as this. The project will evaluate the viability, appropriateness and value of restoring this system considering the consequences of environmental change. Simultaneously I want the project to research the location creatively and experientially, engaging people affectively and giving us values that foster sensitivity to this system, to this cultural landscape, to the world around us. The project’s trans-disciplinary contributors will benefit from the properties of parallel investigation, uniting the value of research and acquired knowledge”. Simon Beckmann


map part 1

(above) the ‘cañada’, upper reaches of the water catchment system emphasised by the kink in the road and reaching down through the image.  (below) the ‘boquera’ where accumulated rainwater is distributed to grow food on flat terraces.

map part 2



“My intention is to invite artists internationally, who have an interest in being associated with this project, to propose and produce ephemeral works, in any medium. I am inviting those from the sciences to bring their skill sets to evaluate the catchment and hydrological network and consider the appropriate actions necessary to holistically protect, restore or augment the effectiveness of the system, and as a consequence help us develop a sustainable water source”. Simon Beckmann


Observation + Anecdote:

“Awareness of this water catchment system has slowly developed in my consciousness over the few years we have been living at Cortijada Los Gázquez. We asked Juana why the well was dry and we were told it had stopped raining. Old boys, sporting at least one ‘apellido’ Gázquez came to visit the old farm, the place of their birth. Rumour had it that ‘outsiders’ were renovating the house and during fiesta times they just had to come and see. They told us stories of giant boulders buried behind the well and that if they were taken out and cleaned, on their return to the ground, the water would once more flow”.




At the same time we had an increasing interest in permaculture, a branch of ecological design and ecological engineering that develops sustainable human settlements and self maintained agricultural systems modelled from natural ecosystems. Our interest was particularly around mechanical means to trap and yield water in arid landscapes”.




Observation clearly told me that at one point in time the well fed the ‘balsa’ or dam, a container that held in the region of 20,000 Lt of water. The retaining wall even had a washboard built into its surface”.




From here I observed old ‘acequias’, canals that would have taken water from the dam to irrigate land at slightly lower elevations. At these lower elevations I noticed trees and plants that didn’t grow anywhere else on our land. White poplar I knew were indicators of water and ours seemed to have self-seeded in the ‘acequia’ but there was nothing unusual in that. But in this location I found a wealth of fruiting trees such as walnut and apricot, quince and service tree, pomegranate and fig, olives and grapes”.




“Clearly in this arid landscape water fed these trees and they were productive. Now the system is completely dry. Is it as a result of climate change”?

“To one side of the well and stretching up the narrow valley behind is the remnants of an old track, now eroded and partly washed away. Strangely, the track is disconnected from other ‘caminos’ and ends an abrupt stop. Here there are huge earth works, indeed there are sixteen terraces of increasing height and volume, starting below the ‘balsa’, or dam, and raising themselves up to an ultimate height of five meters half way up the mountain behind the well. Clearly the track was the access route for mules and men to build these huge earthworks by hand. But to what purpose, simply to level areas for cultivation”?



“Very recent events in Almería and Murcia have demonstrated the effects on the earth from very hot and summer dry Mediterranean climates such as these. The earth is baked dry and is as hard as stone”.




“Massive weather events like the recent rainfall, send rainwater from an enormous catchment area in the mountains hurtling down the ‘barrancos’ and ‘ramblas’ towards urbanisations at lower altitudes causing devastation”.




‘Barrancos’ and ‘ramblas’ are the dry river systems that characterise this environment. They are the ephemeral systems that cut and define this landscape. ‘Barrancos and ‘ramblas’ are the escape valves for cyclical weather events once dissipated across the lower desert planes, now bottle necked through cities and beneath transport systems. Memories are short and the ever-increased covetousness for land either for agriculture or housing inevitably makes people vulnerable to disaster”.

“I observed that the small valley ahead of our well might be a ‘barranco’ but of lesser character, more of a linear depression. Satellite images seemed to indicate a subterranean river observed by increased plant growth above ground. Clearly this line of increased verdancy ran down our system and beyond connecting to the Rambla del Cajar. So, our system was one of a few ‘headwaters’ to the Rambla del Cajar, in fact a ‘barranco’ “.




“Clearly our well tapped into subterranean waters in the ‘barranco’ bottom. Is the solution to dig the well deeper to access deeper subterranean waters”?

“Observation of the well told me that within a few meters, as little as three in fact, the well hits bedrock. Maybe the theory that it had stopped raining so much was true”.

“However, further observation tied all this scrutiny together. I don’t know exactly when the farm was abandoned by the people who lived here. Was it sudden or a slow progressive move? Certainly those who so enthusiastically revisited Los Gázquez had nothing but fond memories of life here. Some were reduced to tears, so keenly felt was their nostalgia. But life was hard as a subsistence farmer and maybe external political interjection helped these people to move on to the factories in Barcelona and Tarragona and beyond to the vineyards of France”.




“I observed the terraces in the ‘barranco’ above the well. I admired their engineering, the physical effort to build such structures and then I realised…

Crucially, at least six of the terraces above the well had been breached by old weather events. Rainwater, following storms, had cut fissures through some of the larger terraces so no longer did earthworks support that water. This was it, this was an old permaculture system. Neglect had rendered the system inoperable but basically the terraces interrupted the passage of rainwater across hard clay and built a subterranean reservoir suspended above impermeable bedrock. The fact that the terraces were breached meant that the water escaped as surface water”.





“I thought I might try and draw the system to illustrate how it might work. I first I tried something technical but I soon realised that it would not be technical enough with the survey equipment I had. So I though of how the old farmer might have designed the system in the first place. I made small paces (accounting for small Spanish legs of old) between each terrace to measure. Each one was 40 or 60 paces apart. I was walking in the footsteps of the systems designer…

I made the decision to sketch the system on a cigarette packet…”


fags#2 copy


“Here you can see an elevation of the well (pozo), the rocks that reduce the friction of water passing through earth. The bedrock beneath”.




“Here is a cross section and elevation of the westerly facing catchment system. Our location is dry in part due to being in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. Significant rain comes in the form of strong weather fronts from the Atlantic, from the west. Rainfall naturally falls down the mountain side and is arrested by the terraces. Note the almond trees planted on the rim of each terrace, their roots stabilising the soil beneath. Rainfall that has had breaks applied sinks into the amalgam of rock, gravel and clay but flows above the bedrock or ‘rock madre‘. This in turn is then released into the well and dam (embalsa)”.



Finally, everything fitted into place when visitor Mark Macklin, Professor of Physical Geography and Director of the Centre for Catchment and Coastal Research, Aberystwyth University, located a paper published in the late 1980’s. In the journal Agricultural Water Management the paper describes from a hydrological point of view how these systems work. ‘Water Harvesting Strategies in the Semiarid Climate of Southeastern Spain’ by Giráldez, Ayuso, García, López and Roldán. The paper clearly describes everything we had heard and observed. The upper part of the catchment is called ‘cañada’ and the earth terraces below are called ‘boqueras’. They are designed to capture rainwater ‘run-off’ and redistribute water to terraces for agriculture. They noted that these systems worked in areas where the ‘bronze age’ civilisations flourished and that they were maintained since prehistoric times. Here is an extract of their conclusions…

‘The water harvesting techniques developed by semiarid and arid region farmers allow a better exploitation of the otherwise scarce water resources. There are a wide variety of devices depending on the position in the watershed. Simple hydrologic models may help the optimal design of these water-harvesting systems’.




I was quietly pleased, I’m an artist not a geographer or scientist. I have always been a visual artist, it has been my roll to observe and somehow represent. In this instance I have observed, over time, and my observations have been technically correct. However a simple representation would not be an adequate response. I consider my ‘research’ to be my creative reply to my examination of this system. I asked myself how or why should a representational counterpoint be the only means an artist can express ideas inspired by his or her surroundings? Mapping, photographic documentation and or text based accounts such as this are an intrinsic part of my work.

I have always liked a line from the author Richard Ford, ‘the unseen exists and has qualities’ and it occurred to me that an accumulation of ‘works’ that tease out the ‘unseen’ constituent parts of this mechanism might be how I could weave my study of this system into my creative practice.

The men and women who built this system, who inherited this technology over generations, built a co-evolutive structure. Capturing water (sustainably) from the sky, concentrating it’s value to a specific place, did not just benefit themselves but also the wild flora and fauna surrounding them. The systems neglect over the last fifty years has rendered it dry but the ideas contained within it offer us hope to develop new ecological and politically balanced ideas on the shoulders of our ancestors. Is it not wholly appropriate that the scrutiny of this system by an artist should become an inherent part of it’s evolutionary history? Is it not the artists insight into deep ecology that makes the bridge between comprehension and acting appropriately”?

‘Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape – he is a shaper of the landscape. In body and in mind he is the explorer of nature, the ubiquitous animal who did not find but has made his home in every continent’.

Jacob Bronowski. The Ascent of Man. 1973



“This is a cultural landscape and I find it of profound fascination that the first peoples who developed these water catchment systems learned, by observation of their specific environment, how to adapt their landscape to sustainably service their needs. It is interesting to observe how the principles of more modern conceptions of sustainable practice, notably permaculture and biomimicry, were accomplished in antiquity.

However, having made the adaption to the environment here, people left the land. Why? What caused them to abandon such systems? Had the capacity of these people to survive here been exceeded? Was it cultural and political or was it climate related? Anecdotally it would appear that local knowledge of these systems and how they worked has already been forgotten by a younger generation.

It occurred to me that we, along with all ‘dry land’ parts of the world, are in particular need to adapt our water resources more sustainably than we do with our current practice. In April 2011 the city of Lorca, in Murcia, 45km (28 miles) from our location, experienced a magnitude 5.1 earthquake at a depth of 3km. Subsequent research by Pablo González from the University of Western Ontario…


using detailed satellite maps, indicated ‘slippage’ positions correlated to sites of previous ground water extraction for intensive farming. His team went on to study potential reasons for the slippage, finding that the water table in the adjacent Alto Guadalentin basin had dropped by some 250m over the last 50 years as water was drained for irrigation in the region. Their calculations show that this created stresses on the fault that initially triggered the earthquake and defined its eventual magnitude.

Spain Man Made Quake




Unlike the farmers who adapted the landscape to their own needs here in the mountains, it would appear that the industrialised character of food production in the desert landscape, whilst capitalising on the sun and temperature, has failed to adapt sustainably. The depletion of subterranean water resources has ultimately damaged ecological systems. Was it attraction to greater financial wealth credited to intensive farming that drew people away from our very rural environment? Did the ‘short term’ attraction of easily available and abundant water beneath the ground in Murcia lure subsistence farmers to the potential of greater wealth?

In October 2013 this same region, including our own, experienced some of the biggest ‘flash fooding’ in 15 years. Whilst this flooding is part of the character of this landscape the damage, which this one created, can be attributed to the sometimes contrary nature of climate change. The size of the flood correlates to the increased summer heat and the length of drought experienced prior to the weather event. This event dropped 240Lt of rainwater per square meter in less than an hour.




However, we at Los Gázquez, with the aid of our water harvesting system captured in excess of 70,000 Lt of rainwater, enough to domestically last us a year. Viewed as a ‘microcosm’ for sustainable water resources would not a water system designed to benefit localised communities rather than city economies and industrialised farming techniques be preferable?

I have seen the migration away from our location. However, could the creative interpretation of sustainable land use and manifestation of contemporary art, in all its formats, bring about a cultural rebirth to these mountains now so empty of people? As humans control and adapt the world to suit their needs could not a more creative and intellectual perception of this landscape reap rewards for everyone? Could art, equipped and working together with science allow us to re-interpret our value systems and profit those who engage with such a project?

I ask myself, do we have the means and skills to readapt this environment? What challenges shall we face in restoring and preserving this system? If the economic value of our ‘marginalised’ landscape is low how do we attribute value in order to preserve ecology systems and live sustainably? How do we adapt in a contemporary context this land to our community needs and materially attribute significance”.


“We need an engineered response to restoring the water catchment system. We have to consider, in relation to climate change and changing rainfall patterns, the appropriate means to restore the terraces in order for their function to once more yield sufficient water for our community.

Simultaneously, we must, through applied knowledge of this specific ecosystem, restore or ameliorate the existing flora and therefore fauna. We have observed the negative response of the terrain to the absence of native plant species. Therefore, we must encourage the existing adaption of plant species to utilise the terrain in the service of augmenting the water catchment system.

We must also build in resilience to future change via scientific prediction, research and the application of cultural endeavour. We must, through the application of knowledge, the rigour of research and the utilisation of creativity attribute value to this system. The goal is to make a rigorously resilient programme that is reproducible and transferrable to other marginalised landscapes.

The scientific research of this system will provide the empirical backbone allowing us to adapt ‘up’ to the future challenges to water resources and how they are distributed. The art will engage us affectively, fostering sensitivity and awareness, attributing contemporary thought to the way in which we perceive art whilst culturally adapting non-centralist conceptions of value. Both shall attract the attention of the local community and the wider public through engagements with schools, universities and other organisations on an international scale.

We are using the geographical term of ‘ephemeral systems’ as, firstly, this is a term used to describe the transient nature of our subject.

However, metaphorically, the character of an ephemeral system allows our programme to have built in longevity. It suggests impermanence to art and scientific research in the face of profound ‘change’. This will consistently allow for creative and scientific adaptation and new thought”.

Simon Beckmann


Simon Beckmann presenting ‘Sistemas Efímeros’ in the Ondaatje Theatre of The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London.

 mapa físico


SIMON BECKMANN / works in progress:


‘un mapa del viento frío de invierno que viene del norte’  photographic ink on paper 594 x 841 mm, one of a continuing series of drawings.


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