Ichsani Wheeler and Lenka Danilovic – How to make water our friend again thanks to hippies with satellites and indigenous water management

A conversation with Ichsani Wheeler and Lenka Danilovic. Ichsani is a scientist, co-founder of OpenGeoHub and EnvirometriX, while Lenka is an hydrologist and intern at OpenGeoHub. In this conversation, we talk about the world of remote sensing, and we unpack what the eyes in the sky can help us learn about indigenous land and water management.


This episode is part of the Water Cycles series, supported by The Nest, where we interview the dreamers and doers who are using the latest technology to figure out where to intervene first. They are making or trying to make the investment and return calculations. so what is missing, what is holding us back? Maybe we lack the imagination to back them and try regeneration at scale.

How far back can we look at arid landscapes that used to be managed to produce abundance? How did they manage extreme weather events like El Niño, or did they see them as extreme abundance events? With a wealth of practical science knowledge between Ichsani and Lenka and the absolute cutting edge of open-source remote sensing, this is a rare treat to understand how to make water our friend again.


Lenka argues that we can look at trends in natural processes that have been going on for more than decades because nature is very old. And they can see that very well in sediment tracing, and they try to understand this management.

”Arid landscapes are the ones that are really hard to model. They’re the ones that have these hydrographs that we don’t know how to respond to; they’re changing. […] Luckily, there’s knowledge that has been there for 1000s of years that we trace with multiple signals, but we will be working on is trying to distinguish sediment pathways. So whether they have been transported by humans or by a tree, And this is something that we can read from the luminescence of sediments. And we can test it in regions where we know how old geomorphology is.” – Lenka Danilovic

”So, it gives a very good way to date things that can go a lot further back than the traditional measurement of carbon dating.” – Ichsani Wheeler

”With carbon, you have to look for places where there is carbon. So, where there is organic material preserved, and for arid landscapes we use quartz, we use sand and silt, which is the kind of new thing in luminescence. So, you have to use different signatures for different landscapes, and it works well.” – Lenka Danilovic

”It can go back to 500,000 years. And, of course, the further back in time you go, you have a higher error margin. So, it’s about a 5–10% error margin. […] And that’s why this technique is useful because it’s actually quite accurate and goes way back in time. Because the sediments accumulate, it’s based on the radioactivity of elements in the crystal structure of sediments. So, if something goes further away from all the organic material.” – Lenka Danilovic


According to Lenka, nowadays, wherever there are fires, we’re putting water on and trying to put the fires down. But maybe fires want to restore the ecosystem, and they gave us an opportunity for the rejuvenation of landscapes. Today they are considered catastrophic, but maybe we just have to give that time to nature to restore itself and trust it.

”Agriculture in the desert… they routed sediments in these very narrow channels further away from this main stream, let’s say, and that way, they expanded the floodplains and made the land more fertile further away from the stream itself. And we’re putting age on all these channels that they used to route the sediments and water, essentially. And we also want to link it to how they experienced big floods and big droughts, because not only did they have fertile lands in a desert, that’s basically on the sand and very little water. But they also had a kind of mitigation strategy when these events would occur. So, they were actually not seeing them as enemies; as a catastrophe, they saw these huge flood events that brought in sediments and water during a period of abundance. And then they would completely change their way of thinking. In the coming years, we will have floods. But we need to preserve this for the next, let’s say, 10 years of dry climates.” – Lenka Danilovic

”The design process… it looks like a quite different style of thinking than, I guess, current modern thinking about how to deal with water and agriculture. I mean, currently, water is gated away, floods are bad, they destroy things. It’s not seen as an abundance and an opportunity, it’s seen as an enemy, and something to be gotten away as quickly as possible. And this has caused other problems such as dehydration of the landscape and the degradation of the fluvial geomorphological structure of the catchment, which is essentially the shape of the catchment in response to the water that comes.” – Ichsani Wheeler


According to Ichsani, especially Western engineering and science have assumed that the place has no agency essentially, and nature is the enemy.

”Our engineering is very powerful, but, in most cases, it’s not observing the design, I guess the physical design of how nature flows and functions. And it doesn’t mean it can’t; it absolutely could. And there are good examples of it, like water-sensitive urban design, which is a perfectly good example. You’re using planted gardens, which are sandy gardens with plants in them, to clean your stormwater. Because it turns out that putting plants in a sand filter causes that sand filter to actually be soil and clean the water for longer. Whereas if you just put it into straight sand, it clogs in 6–12 months; you have to change it again. So that’s the kind of, I guess, shift in thinking: we don’t have to reinvent engineering; we have excellent tools, but we need to examine closely our relationship with natural systems. Are we really in command and control? Because this is not looking like it’s the case. So that’s why we’re saying, how to be friends with water again. I don’t know why… it seems like trying to fight the wind.” – Ichsani Wheeler


Lenka’s message to the financial world is 

”to invest in open-access knowledge. Just allow people to build data on top of data and make it available to everyone. Because we’re not storing data, we’re making data that’s readily usable. So, we create products that people can immediately put into models, or that immediately tell a story about whether the landscape had a drought or flood. So, I really believe in this, and I think this has to change also in academia and education. We need to make people good at open-source coding and data usage. Because this is pushed upon us, we need to be good data analysts and we need to know how to program, but how we share what we gain from this process is not what we are taught. So, putting out all the codes, to give a particular example, and putting all our codes and documentation online so that people can reproduce the exact same product if they just follow the steps that we do. If you support this sort of networks, I think that really will get us closer to making management changes.” – Lenka Danilovic


Koen and Ichsani and Lenka also talked about:

  • Indigenous water management practices in South America
  • Hydrology, ecosystem services, and software development
  • Using models to predict flood and drought impacts




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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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