The permaculture principles – alias the permaculture heuristic

One of the principal themes of this blog is how to manage water resources without adequate managerial capacity in terms of staff, data, models, time, understanding, budget, infrastructure, etc. Unfortunately, this situation is the reality in most of the world. The permaculture principles can play a role in managing complex natural systems within those constraints.

Permaculture, in essence, is about positioning design elements in a manner that creates beneficial relations among those elements, while making optimal use of the natural resource base. This thinking is represented by the permaculture principles. The aim is to create a web of beneficial relations among diverse elements—big and small; hard and soft; natural and man-made; varied; across the landscape—that are integrated in some sort of pattern. This cluster of relations should correlate with the environmental potential and conditions, and facilitates the emergence of a sustainable, decentralized, and productive system. It is referred to as a ‘beneficial assembly’. The layout of these clusters is not random—but neither does it follow a fixed design. Rather, the layout emerges in support of the key attributes that determine whether this system can survive and thrive. These, of course, differ per socio-economic and natural environment and are a function of the external context. The emergent nature of the ensemble of beneficial assemblies implies a bottom-up process. It can almost never be dictated—or designed—from above. While this admittedly concerns a time-consuming and iterative process, it is more resilient in the long-term.

An excellent explanation of permaculture principles is presented by Andrew Millison in a video presented at the end of this post.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts—or rules of thumb—that aim to simplify decision making. These abbreviated strategies are generalizations with the aim to reduce cognitive load and speed up decision processes under uncertainty. Heuristics typically ignore a lot of contextual information.

I think that the permaculture principles represent a heuristic when used ‘as a set’. Individually, the respective principles are probably too general. By contrast, collectively they provide a roadmap towards a sustainable, resilient, and productive agro-ecosystem that is fully aligned with the local environment and natural resource base. Creating these systems has been—all too often—among the intractable problems in land and water management. Note that such systems are at the core of climate resilience.

A key merit of a heuristic is that it does not require a comprehensive analysis of all environmental and socio-economic factors impacting on the decision under consideration. Rather, heuristics perform well in an environment that is characterized by ‘bounded rationality’—where information and understanding are incomplete. This is reality for most farmers and landscape managers, who typically do not have the time and resources for a full analysis required for an optimal design. Besides, many would argue that ‘an optimal design’ is an illusion. The same applies to the concept of ‘full understanding’ of the hydrologic and landscape parameters.

As discussed above, the permaculture principles must be used as a set. None deserves preference; all are equally important.

With that firmly in mind, I would nevertheless like to mention some permaculture principles that have special relevance for water resources management.

  • Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy

In the water sector this translates into “catch and store rainfall”, and centers around slowing the flow of water through the landscape by storing it in the soil, groundwater, wetlands, or in a diverse and distributed set of retention infrastructure of all sizes—at plot, farm, and catchment scale. Nature-based solutions play a principal role in this endeavor. Attenuating the hydrologic regime carries widespread and multiple benefits ranging from flood damage mitigation to increasing drought resilience.

Moreover, catching and storing rainfall (and runoff) and concentrating it for use in productive systems makes it possible to develop these systems irrespective of the climate conditions—in water scarce or water abundant regions alike. The former will just require larger catchment areas. Hence the permaculture principles are applicable in a wide range of climate zones.

  • Principle 3: Obtain a Yield

A key premise of permaculture is that the beneficial assemblies should generate a long-term sustainable yield. In this thinking, the system should be independent of external funding as relying on it is risky. It usually dries up at some point in time, which would jeopardize the very existence of the assemblies. By contrast, a yield ensures that the system is maintained and will be preserved. This is of relevance for water resources management, where funds are (almost) always inadequate.

Permaculture envisages a distributed ensemble of small-scale ‘beneficial assemblies’ across the landscape that are self-sustained and that would perform a wide array of water resources management functions—such as water and soil conservation and attenuating hydrologic extremes—at no costs. Which would greatly assist the water agency in its core function of sustainable water resources and environmental management.

Unfortunately, this (i.e. obtain a yield) is easier said than done. Farmers across the world struggle to make a living, specifically smallholders. Nevertheless, I do think it is possible, although it will require a fundamental change in the food model and agricultural-trade system. The food model needs to shift towards (more) locally produced food of much higher nutritional value. Whereas this will be more expensive, the middle class should be able to afford it while simultaneously gaining very substantial health benefits. This topic has been covered in a previous post (“Crisis? What Crisis?” – A Food Fix for the World Water Crisis).

Remarkably, food that is good for you is also good for the environment, our depleted soils, our scarce water resources, and the biodiversity of plants, animals, and pollinators, and it helps reverse climate change (Mark Hymans, Food Fix, p55)

Heuristics are domain specific. They are not applicable in every environment. The permaculture heuristic is no exception to this rule.

In my thinking, the permaculture heuristic is useful for small-scale and local water resources issues. At this scale, needs for collective-action and the inevitable allocation/resource conflicts can be addressed through local structures and do not require (central) government intervention.

By contrast, the permaculture heuristic has less utility at larger scales. Some constraining factors—such as large-scale inundations, equitable water allocation at basin level, or creating an enabling environment for agricultural modernization that includes economically viable farm-gate prices—can no longer be addressed by private actors or by individual farmers (or communities). Those issues require collective action and coordination mechanisms at a higher level, probably by some government agency. They need sophisticated water management tools based on reliable water data, permanent fora for stakeholder coordination, formal law enforcement systems, etc. Thumb rules no longer suffice in this context.

This is illustrated in the below figure—which is based on a schematic introduced in a previous post “A fast and frugal heuristic in water resources management’.

This figure presents a ‘solution space’ that comprises of two axes: 1) type of intervention (ranging from nature-based to technical), and 2) type of management (on a spectrum from central to distributed). However, solutions must also be feasible. The latter is a function of sustainability (in terms of financial and managerial resources required) and effectiveness. Solutions that meet both criteria are located within the circle. Obviously, the circle is just an approximation. It will have ‘blurry boundaries’ in practice. In this figure, the orange-shaded area represents (an approximation of) the application area of the permaculture heuristic.


The Self-Made Tapestry, Pattern Formation in Nature; Philip Ball; Oxford University Press; 1999

The Intelligence of Intuition; Gerd Gigerenzer; Cambridge University Press; 2023

Food Fix, How to Save our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet—One Bite at a Time; Mark Hymans, 2020

An excellent explanation of permaculture principles is presented by Andrew Millison in this video