India pioneers rainwater harvesting

By Frederick Noronha

GOA, India, October 7, 2004 (ENS): Rainwater harvesting means catching and holding rain where it falls and using it. It can be stored in tanks or used to recharge groundwater. From this seemingly simple idea, India is learning some great lessons.

If you search for the term on Google, the Internet throws up around 64,000 links. Out of these as many as 23,200 links are related to India in one way or another.

Citizens can harvest rain right in their own homes by making use of a dried up bore-well, a row of soak-pits or tanks hidden below the ground, or even a traditional well from which water is drawn. Open spaces, like rooftops and ground, can be used as the catchment surface - to catch the rain. Costs vary; but rainwater harvesting does not require major construction work.

The New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has worked on this for many years. "Our ancestors harvested rain just as naturally as they tilled the ground to grow crops," CSE says. "We lost touch with these local solutions. But now, as the taps dry up, more and more people are reviving this age-old system and practicing it very successfully."

In a country like India, where life is dependent on rainfall in large parts of the country, a lot of work is being done to raise public awareness of rainwater harvesting. Centers have been set up in places like Meerut and Chennai, formerly known as Madras.

Marches have been held around dry desert regions like Jodhpur to promote awareness of the importance of water. Pioneers who protected traditional water harvesting systems have been given recognition and respect. Seminars have been held on rainwater harvesting. Rainwater harvesting is also studied in urban housing apartments. rainwater harvesting traditions from diverse parts of the country are studied and appreciated.

New tools are being used to augment ancient skills. The Internet is proving to be a great place to spread and build awareness over rainwater harvesting.

People can go to www.rainwaterharvesting.org and calculate the "runoff" for specific localities in India - the water they could save if rainwater harvesting was in place.

India, like other countries in the Third World, is facing a serious water crisis. In Delhi, the groundwater level has fallen as much as 32 feet in the last decade. In North Gujarat, it has gone down down 1,500 feet; in Saurashtra western India it is 500 feet.

Six of India's federal states face severe drought. Even Cherrapunji - the spot in northeastern India, once called the wettest place in the world - with its annual 12,000 millimeters of rain - faces an acute water problem in summer.

The Malnad areas in South India with 3,000 mm have started experiencing drinking water problems. A study by the Sri Lanka based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) states that South India will be among the worst hit areas for water shortage by 2025.

Roofs are the biggest catchment opportunity for a city dweller, and roof-water harvesting can be deployed in urban areas.

A rural farmer has many other areas where he can harvest water. He can even afford to ignore the roof-water. But in smaller rural towns, houses or poor people's colonies, roofs are major sources for harvesting.

Farmer, writer, rain-taker

From the farm to the pen. That's the story of Shree Padre. He calls himself a farmer by profession, and journalist by obsession. He has authored five books on the subject of rainwater harvesting. Most are in the regional language of Kannada, while one is in English, "Rainwater Harvesting," Altermedia, Kerala, 2002.

For the last six years, Padre has been collecting success stories and information on rainwater harvesting from around the world. "Rainwater harvesting now is knocking out so much of my creative time that my farming gets a blow," he half-complains.

Before that, he worked to set up "Adike Patrike," a popular farm magazine that he edited for 12 years. This means Padre has become a pioneer in coastal South India for spreading farm-journalism, or farmer-to-farmer communication.

His slogan is "pen to the farmers." Through many workshops, his team has helped farmers to write for their fellow-farmers.

Padre has been instrumental in showing ordinary men a simple way by which they can increase their water supply. Using this information, hundreds of farmers in six districts of South India have been harvesting the rain.

Padre has built up a collection of slides and photographs, and has put up some 200 slideshows on rainwater harvesting, mainly for farmers and students.

He has done studies on surangas, man-made caves for water, a unique traditional water harvesting system of Kasaragod in South India's Kerala state. He has studied madakas, traditional percolation ponds, of coastal Karnataka and Kasaragod, which have by now almost vanished.

He emphasizes in-situ, low-cost methods of harvesting rain that can be implemented even without subsidies and external help. For example, in an urban house, if there is a dug well, the groundwater can be re-charged using the service well. Or even a dry, abandoned well," he says.

Over the years, Padre says has been able to use his communication skills in fighting the aerial spraying of endosulfan pesticides that foul water supplies.

"Farmers, city-dwellers and people from all walks of life have been experiencing worsening water shortages year after year," says Padre. "We, at the farm magazine 'Adike Patrike,' put the subject of rainwater harvesting on top priority in 1995."

From September 1996, they started a feature series in the subject. "Once we got in touch with the nongovernment sector, the small groups and messiahs of rainwater harvesting, we were lucky to gather a mountain of information," says Padre.

He believes in catering to the "information-needy." He points to experiments from across India undertaken by "rainwater harvesting achievers" like Shyamjibhai Antala and Rajender Singh from remote North India.

Rainwater harvesting is possible in most areas. "The principle is the same everywhere," says Padre. "But the methodology has to be applied to studying local geographical situations, soil type, rainfall, slope of land and many other aspects."

One of the best sites explaining what rainwater harvesting is all about is located at: http://www.rainwater-harvesting.org

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