Preventing Soil Erosion

Erosion of soil is a very real problem that can crop up when we encounter sloping land on a site. In this article, I’ll outline the measures taken on two different sites where erosion needed to be controlled. The first was done entirely via plantation and the second (where the foundation of a building had to be supported) involved terracing of the land — in conjunction with plantation of course.

Slope Stabilisation with Vetiver

In the year 2003, a client of mine wanted to buy an 11 acre plot of land along the Narmada river. It was a lovely location but the soil was very soft and powdery and the land was scarred by deep fissures where rainwater flowed down to the main river. What made it downright dangerous was that these steep gullies were collapsing at points and something needed to be done before parts of the plot got cut off and became inaccessible.

At the time, I suggested reducing the angle of the slopes and planting local reeds that grew along the riverfront to hold the soil. The first part worked but the second did not. The wild plants refused to grow where we wanted them to and something else needed to be found. That’s when she decided to try growing Chrysopogon zizanioidesVetiver (also called Khus).

What happened next was almost miraculous. The Vetiver took hold of the soil and bound it in a way that not only stopped erosion but allowed rainwater to seep into the soil instead of letting it all run off to the river. As a result, even the trees growing in the gullies got healthier and what looked like an almost barren landscape then, is now a great example of how working with mother nature is far more productive than trying to fight her. And plantation costs a fraction of what it would if we used “man-made” solutions.

What makes Vetiver different from other grasses is the fact that it’s roots do not form a horizontal mat like the others but grow downwards as far as 4m (13 feet). Another good thing is that it propagates in a way that makes it easy to control – so it doesn’t become an invasive weed.

To know more about Vetiver and how to use it for erosion control, go to the Vetiver International Network Website and download their manuals, videos and presentations.

Terracing the Land

Now, while I’ve been extolling the benefits of natural solutions, there are times when we simply have to use brick and mortar solutions when structural demands have to be met. The [RaBV] bungalow at Nasrapur was built on steeply sloping land and we not only had to prevent erosion but also make sure that the building’s foundations had rock solid support even if an earthquake struck. In such a situation, simply planting Vetiver, or any other vegetation for that matter, would never have been sufficient.

The first thing to do in the design was to follow the slope of the land as closely as possible. The main floor level was split with the living room sunk by about 0.6m (2 feet) from the rest of the house. Then, the verandah which projected by 2.4m (8 feet) beyond the house line was almost 1.8m (6 feet) above surrounding ground level so instead of filling it up, a little earth was excavated and an extra level – like a basement – was created below the verandah. Not only did this reduce loading on the peripheral foundation wall in a big way but is also served as a space for garden implements, a separate room for rainwater harvesting tanks and parking for a motorcycle.

The verandah effectively then, became the first terrace. Then, to buttress the foundation, a second terrace was created just in front of the basement. Here, we planted only shrubs and bushes – nothing with strong roots that might weaken the stone wall at some future date. Finally, we built a retaining wall to support the second terrace.

Maybe it was unnecessary to go so far but, when there is going to be no second chance to correct a mistake, you tend to err on the side of caution. Around the bungalow, on non-critical slopes, local vegetation has been allowed to grow naturally and has taken root well enough to protect against erosion.