The Micro-dams of Kythera – restoring our cultural heritage for better water harvesting

The Micro-dams of Kythera – restoring our cultural heritage for better water harvesting

Following the trail of Karavas’ ravine, in the northern part of Kythera Island, one can experience an equally traditional and innovative approach to water resources management. The restoration of numerous old micro-dams along the stream materializes the revival of a cultural practice that dates back centuries.

Water supply in the Mediterranean islands is an enduring challenge. Some of these islands are already forced to transport water from other areas in order to meet not only the needs of the inhabitants, but also the rising demand during the hot and dry tourist period. Water resources are further stressed by climate change. Scarcity and salinization are expected to intensify in the coming years and urgent action is needed. The restoration of micro-dams is a solution, inextricably linked to traditional water management techniques. They enable greater aquifer recharge, thereby increasing freshwater reserves.

Micro-dams (“desis” is the local word) are bowed stone walls built vertically to the streamflow. These small barriers form a terraced riverbed, thereby reducing the slope and speed of the streamflow, while forming tiny pools of freshwater. In that way, water becomes readily available for farming, livestock and wild animals. It is a traditional practice of utilizing the scarce and precious water of the streams, which is a vital resource for the local communities and their activities.

At the same time, these stone micro-dams enrich the aquifer, since more water is infiltrated and stored in the underground layers. They enhance the natural function of the ravine, while encouraging the use not only of water, but also of the abandoned terraced farms at the banks of the stream.

The benefits for biodiversity are just as great. With this method tiny wetlands are formed, which are ideal for many species of plants, invertebrates and amphibians, as well as for the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through Kythera every Spring and Autumn.

The restoration of the traditional micro-dams system of the Karavas ravine, provides a practical and cultural means to improving the quality of life of the inhabitants. The micro-dams are also fully integrated in the enchanting trail of Karavas (with the code M49A and the title ‘Nature In Contrast’) and as such they are expected to contribute to increasing interest of potential visitors.

These dams were restored in their original form, according to the local architecture and by using the existing stones of the area. Fitting harmoniously with the natural and cultural landscape, they are a demonstrative work, which also provides the setting for educational and recreational experiences aimed at locals and visitors alike. Short stories about the micro-dams and local water management practices will be accessible via a smartphone app as well as the interactive online map. The micro-dams comprise another milestone in a series of projects and entrepreneurial activities, which have been gradually revitalizing the area.

Traditional micro-dams are a simple, affordable and no-regret solution, adapted to the small scale of Greek islands and their cultural landscapes. It is an example of “green infrastructure” which provides answers to today’s water management challenges, while highlighting our local knowledge and cultural heritage as a compass for sustainable development.

The study as well as the overall management of this project was led by the Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (MedINA) and the Kytherian Foundation for Culture & Development, which also funded the largest part. The project was made possible with the support of the Municipality of Kythera, the Domestic Estate Management Committee of Kythera and Antikythera, the local associations of Karavas (‘Portikalia Karava’, ‘Patrikios Agricultural School of Karava’ and ‘Omorfos Karavas’), the working group, the volunteers and the residents of Karavas. Materials were kindly provided by the companies Travasaros, Protopsaltis and Vas. Kasimatis.