We dug three wells.
Not narrow shafts into the ground, but broad, conical pits, converging to a point nine metres deep. In two of them we had to smash through a layer of rock using a hammer drill.
We had no idea if it would work. Isan was drought-afflicted and bone dry, with worsening drought predicted. We are far inland, but in the Khon Kaen District, as in Bangkok, the aquifers are so empty that salt water is beginning to seep in from the sea. You can taste it in the tap water in Khon Kaen city.
For a while, in December and January, fires were flaring up out of nowhere, and for two or three days we were running around with buckets and hoses and melting our boots. The farmer next to us lost a two-roomed wooden house. Australia was still on fire, Chiang Mai too, and I was wondering if Isan would be next.
The project of bringing the water-table back up really needs participants across the countryside, the more the better. Red and her groundwater consultant (the estimable Govid, who lives down by the Cambodian border and claims to remember being chief water architect to a Khmer emperor a thousand years ago) have persuaded the district administration to finance the digging of eighteen boreholes to coax water across the plain from the Phu Wiang plateau, but bureaucracies move slowly, and nothing has happened yet. There’s growing interest in this kind of farming, but we’re the first in this area to commit to it.
The field had been used for sugar monoculture. Once the machines had finished, it looked like an elaborately carved wasteland.
At the beginning of April we started getting thunderstorms and some rainfall. The pits started to collect muddy run-off, a brown-grey suspension of soil particles, dead-looking and opaque.
Nothing much to look at. But in undergound water-bank theory, wells don’t just work one way. Their first function is to take rainwater deeper into the ground, where it is not lost to evaporation. In this climate the rain doesn’t have much chance to sink in before the intense sunlight burns it all off. So you get a lot of surface water after rain, but no lasting rehydration of the land. Not enough gets through to the aquifers, which are drying up as people take water without putting it back.
So the first function of the well is to take some of the water out of the cycle, and ‘bank’ it in the ground. Then we wait.
We installed a small solar cell array, and as soon as the rig was up and running we used it to start pumping water into well #2, which is closest to the supply, to prime the system. Soon the well was filling up, the water clean and inviting.
And then, suddenly, the third well, furthest away from the house, took off all by itself. Like #1 it had only muddy rainwater run-off in it. Then one evening I walked up there and found it gleaming with beautiful blue-green water, and this was before the pumps had provided enough to even cover the beds of the connecting canals, so the wells weren’t communicating with each other.
Where did all that water come from?
Water attracts water. Water calls, and water answers the summons.
I’m beginning to believe. The system is responding.
And that was just the first amazement. A couple of days later, I noticed some black smudges here and there in the water and went to take a closer look. The smudges were moving, like tiny swarms of… fish?? Hundreds of them in each seething knot, the ones at the edges darting out and quickly returning to the mass.
How could that be? No, they must be tadpoles. Too small to see any detail, each creature just a head and a flicking tail. I couldn’t see any frogspawn anywhere, but that must be it. They seemed to move like fish, but what do I know? How would fish just appear from nowhere like that?
That was a few days ago. They come to the surface in the evenings. Sometimes the smudges combine together to form long streaks, going into the canals now, which are beginning to fill at that end of the field. We had to take some trees down to make the well, and we threw five or six of the stumps with their spiky tangled roots into the water to make habitat. We were looking into how much it would cost to stock the ponds with fish…
Tonight I went up there after dark. Full moon moving through clouds. The dogs came with me, quietly staring into the water just like me.
My attention was caught by something bigger. At first I thought it was a plant of some kind, a single strand rooted in the muddy ledge now a couple of feet below the surface. But it had a strange curl, S-shaped, and the top end kind of looked like a head. As I shone my light on it it seemed to wake up, disengaged its tail from the mud and started to swim around under the water. Slender, about twelve inches long, with a pale underside. It was a snake. It never came up for air, just did its plant impression and then snaked around underwater until I lost track of it. It was beautiful to watch.
The fish were still there. A little bigger now, and not in tight black knots, but spreading out, moving together in schools, coming up to the surface to feed, their eyes occasionally glinting in the light of my torch.
If they all turn into frogs that’s still good, I suppose.
But they move like fish.
How did they get there?
You tell me. One thing is certain though, this place is coming to life before my eyes.