Free and pure | Sunday Observer

Free and pure

Samawathie (left) with her mother
Samawathie (left) with her mother

Rainwater, falling free from the sky is one of the purest forms of water. Defined as ‘a collection of run-off rainwater for domestic use, agriculture, soil conservation and environmental management,’ Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) had helped change lives of many families mainly in drought prone rural Sri Lankan villages. Now, RWH supplies safe drinking water, during floods as well as drought for those who consume hard disease prone water from shallow wells.

There is no household in the village which had not lost someone to the silent killer Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu), says a 62 year old Ayurvedic Physician, K. G. Widyarathne. Rambukyaya, his hamlet belonging to the Arawatthe Grama Sevaka Division in the Ridimaliyadda Divisional Secretariat in the Badulla district is one of the remotest areas, with minimal facilities and battered by drought nearly six months of the year.

Widyaratne lost his wife to CKDu a few years ago. “We used water from shallow wells for drinking. But, what happened was that the chemicals in pesticides, weedicides and fertiliser had leaked into them and had poisoned the water. Unbeknown to us, we have been drinking poison.”

It was about three years ago that they had found a solution for their problems with water. “When the project first came to our village even though over a 100 enlisted, many doubted the benefits. Out of the 40 households selected, 12 opted out but the rest of us (28 householders) decided that rainwater would be much better than the poisoned water we have been drinking and now we are proved correct,” Widyarathne says.

D.M. Samawathie, from Arawatte agrees. Her family had been using rainwater for drinking and cooking for the past two years and her 71 year old mother, who suffers from CKDu had shown much improvement since then. “Doctors at the CKDu clinic told us that her condition has improved. Though I do not suffer from CKDu, I was at risk as my father died from the condition as well. I do take regular check-ups and now the doctors confirmed that I am free of the condition,” she says. “We have enough safe water to drink and to share with neighbours at scarce times,” points out Samawathie, who utilises the water from the rainwater harvesting unit at her homestead to keep her home-garden and her dairy-cows thriving for five months from May to September.

Those who initially did not want to benefit from the rainwater harvesting project, now want the units to be constructed for their households as well.

It is a project of the Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum (LRWHF), a pioneer organisation promoting rain water harvesting in the country. They recently concluded a three year project, named ‘Providing safe, disaster-resilient drinking water to floods and drought prone areas in Sri Lanka’ aimed at building the capacity of officials, professionals and communities to provide safe, disaster-resilient drinking water to influence the policies and practices of flood and drought management.

The project funded by USAID was implemented in four districts, Killinochchi, Moneragala, Badulla and Batticaloa. The selected areas face water scarcity through drought as well as floods and a safe water supply is established through rainwater harvesting says Dr. Tanuja Ariyananda, Chief Executive Officer of LRWHF. Moneragala and Badulla districts had the added threat of health issues, as a result of drinking hard water from shallow wells. Further, access to water was difficult, with women and children having to travel as far as six kilometres to get water, at a cost of time and energy.

Now, with water available at their doorstep they have a new lease of life. The hardship of fetching water is almost eliminated. They spend that time in activities bringing socio-economic benefits. Children spend time in furthering their education and women, in small scale home gardening and animal rearing.

Where the LRWHF is directly implementing the project, in the Kilinochchi, Badulla, and Moneragala Districts, 391 households, 48 schools and 10 rural hospitals/clinics have been provided with rain water harvesting (RWH) units. In the Batticaloa District where the LRWHF collaborates with The PALM Foundation, a local organisation promoting health and sanitary facilities, 4200 families and 54 government schools had benefitted from the project.

Ariyananda says that RWH is not a new phenomenon in the country. “The very first proclamation on RWH was made by King Parakramabahu the Great who said not to let a single drop of rain water run to the sea without utilising for human consumption. The irrigation marvels of our ancient monarchs are living embodiments of this technique which still continues to feed agricultural land. What we are trying to do is to revisit this age old practice at a time when climate change is unprecedented and replicate it to the modern setting.” She highlights the benefit of rainwater in a world facing climate change. “Since of late with climate change we get long dry periods and short periods with high intense rain. Rainwater harvesting is very important in that aspect as the idea is to collect as much water as possible during the rainy season to be used during the dry period.”

Usually, a storage tank with a capacity of 8,000 litres would suffice drinking and cooking usage of a small family of four to six persons, for over five months with the household water requirement calculated at 50 litres per day. The storage capacity depends on the number of persons using the drinking water facility and the extent of the roof. While the rural hospitals/clinics have storage tanks ranging from 10,000 to 16,000 litre capacity, schools are installed with larger tanks holding 30,000 litres. Though the general view of floods is as a time where a large amount of water is available, scarcity of safe drinking water is heightened therein. “In fact, some of the schools where RWH units were installed are used as flood shelters. Now, they are assured of a safe drinking water supply,” she says.

Pursuant to Ariyananda, sixty percent of the rain which falls of the island is wasted without meeting any human requirement while many areas of the island suffer from water scarcity. With rainwater being freely available and a complete household RWH unit costing about Rs. 80,000, it is a viable solution for water requirements not only of the rural but the urban households as well. “Urban householders have to pay for pipe borne water. An RWH unit would help them reduce the cost, especially if the household water usage is high.”

In RWH, the rainwater is collected from the surfaces (usually roofs) on which it falls and subsequently stored for later use. Storage options range from reinforced concrete cement, masonry, Ferro Cement or plastic. The storage could be placed above ground, underground or partially underground. A 50 square metre surface, under minimal rain conditions would provide enough rain to fill up a household tank of 8,000 litres in about three days.

Perhaps, it would be the future solution for water scarcity. “Currently the country is rich in water but unfortunately if you don’t conserve the resource, it could lead to water scarcity, especially in the cities,” says Ariyananda. The existing water supply system in the cities depends on bringing in water from far away reservoirs which is costly in terms of construction, energy and water wastage.

From its inception in 1996, by a small group of people interested in rainwater harvesting for domestic use the organisation had grown to be an influencer instrumental in the National Policy on Rain Water Harvesting in 2005 and changes in regulations on urban building construction. LRWHF is also involved in conducting awareness programmes on RWH, socio-economic research studies, research and development of new designs, water quality testing and training programmes for masons and technical staff.