As of today, billions of people in the world still live without safe water – their households, schools, workplaces, farms and factories struggling to survive and thrive.
Marginalized groups including women, children, refugees, indigenous people, disabled and many others are often overlooked and discriminated as they try to access and manage the safe water they need. Although there is a day dedicated for water, World Water Day, falls on March 22 every year, still, this Day has not been deep-rooted in our hearts as we, Sri Lankans, have not hardly hit and fully aware about the escalating water crisis and effects of climate change.
Have you noticed?
Rainfall in Sri Lanka has multiple origins, monsoonal, convectional and depressional rains. The mean annual rainfall of the country varies from below 900mm in the driest parts to over 5,000mm in the wettest parts of the country, even the driest areas in the country receive rainfall three times higher than what Pakistan receives as average rainfall. However, 84% of land out of country’s total land area is covered with hard rock, allowing only 10% percolation. The rest, the runoff escapes into the sea mostly as floods or landslides. Lack of adequate water storage facilities is the major flaw of the country, which was figured out even at Kings Era, and have constructed more than 30,000 surface tanks targeting the dry zone. Regrettably, most of these tanks are currently silted or encroached by nearby villages, and do not provide the expected benefits.
World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that increased prevalence of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown etiology (CKDu) has observed in Sri Lanka over the past two decades. This has become a serious public health problem among rural poor, male farmers in hot climates. Although the role of heavy metals in drinking water as a causative factor for CKDu has not been established, ensuring access to safe drinking water in endemic areas was recommended at the International expert Consultation on CKDu held in Colombo in April 2019. In contrast, only 50% of the population, mostly living in cities, benefitted through pipe-borne water, distributed by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), which is stamped as safe for drinking.
As per the research undertaken by the Department of Agriculture and Plantation Engineering, Open University of Sri Lanka, the ground water and surface water of the country is widely contaminated with Nitrate (NO3) due to intensive farming and rapid urbanization. Although Nitrate is not a direct toxic to human body, the excessive consumption of nitrate is associated with the risk of Methaemoglobinaemia, which is ‘Blue Baby Syndrome’. Likewise, Eutrophication, water bodies enriched with high nutrients that favours certain plants threatening the bio diversity of the environment.
Sri Lanka National Report on Disaster Risk, Poverty, Human Development Relationship 2008 indicate, a total of 28 million people affected by natural disasters for last 34 years(1974-2008) in Sri Lanka, out of which 48% by floods and 44% by drought (Tsunami is not considered) while the next highest were landslides and extreme wind events.
World Water Day 2019: Water for All by 2030
World Water Day 2019 is about tackling the water crisis by addressing the reasons why so many people are being left behind. The theme ‘Leaving no one behind’ is an adaptation of the central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: as sustainable development progresses, everyone must benefit. Access to safe water also underpins public health and is therefore critical to sustainable development; but by leaving so many people without safe water we tend to hinder the development as a global society.
People left behind without safe water for various reasons; sex and gender; race, ethnicity, religion, birth, caste, language, and nationality; disability, age and health status and property, tenure, residence, economic and social status. Environmental degradation, climate change, rapid population growth, conflict, forced displacement and migration can be added to the list that doubles the burden of these marginalized groups.
To ‘leave no one behind’, we must focus our efforts to include the marginalized as they are the most ignored. Their voices must be heard in decision-making processes. Regulatory and legal frameworks must recognize the right to water for all, and sufficient funding must be fairly and effectively targeted at those who need it most.
King Parakramabahu (1153-86 AD) “Let’s not allow a single drop of water to flow into the sea without being used for the benefit of mankind”.
Rainwater Harvesting (RWH) is not a new concept – for centuries the world has relied on harvested rainwater as a source of water for household and for agriculture. Traditionally, rainwater has been collected from tree trunks using banana leaves and from rooftops into barrels or brick tanks. However, RWH became institutionalized in Sri Lanka in 1995, with the interdiction of Community Water Supply and Sanitation Project funded by the World Bank.
Benefits of RWH
Nearly 60% of which is around 60 billion m3 of rainwater, tend to run off finally ending in the sea. Instead, this runoff can be stored in small ponds “Pathahas” and can be used for cultivation during dry spells. Further, a considerable portion of run-off tend to erode the top soil resulting in degradation of lands and filling waterways with sediments. Suitable water conservation measures such as contour drains or tanks can retain water in the land and would enhance water infiltration resulting reduced run-off flow and velocity. RWH can be used as a precaution to strengthen the economy of the rural poor (nearly 90% of the rural population) whose income mainly depends on agriculture and animal husbandry.
Moreover, harvested rainwater is a better alternative source when piped water supply is insufficient against the demand and when ground water quality is low or changed during rainy season. The traditional water sources are usually available at a distance whereas the RWH water collecting tanks can be placed closer to the house reducing the time spent for fetching water. Rainwater collected from a well manage roof catchment is generally safe even for drinking without treatment, except in heavily urbanized and industrialized areas. RWH conserves energy as the energy input needed to operationalize a centralized water system. In other countries, collected water is being used during emergencies such as for fire-fighting and when the centralized water systems are broken.
RWH legal in Sri Lanka?
The Urban Development Authority (UDA) Act July 27, 2007 legalized the adoption of RWH in all the buildings. The Kandy Declaration by SAARC Ministers signed on September 28, 2006, embarked on joint action of making use of every possible method for RWH, in order to make a considerable contribution in solving poverty and water need of humankind, other living beings and the environment.
RWH for domestic use
RWH system consists of three basic components.
- Catchment or surface to collect water
- Delivery system to transport water from catchment to reservoir
- Storage reservoir or tanks to store water until it is used. This is equipped with an extraction device.
Most of the roofing materials used in Sri Lanka are acceptable for collecting water. However, it is not recommended to use thatched roofs as catchments if the water to be used for drinking. Galvanised, corrugated iron or plastic sheets and tiles make good catchment surfaces and undamaged asbestos sheets do not have a negative effect on water quality. For effective operation of RWH systems, a well designed highly maintained gutter system is crucial. As much as 90% or more of the rainwater can be drained to the storage tank if the gutter and the down pipe systems are properly fitted and maintained. Common materials used for gutters are made of PVC and G.I. Aluminum. The storage tank usually represent the biggest capital investment element of the domestic RWH systems. Depending on the availability and affordability, the owners can select the materials for tanks, either metal, plastic, fiberglass, bricks or ferro cement.
A major barrier of rooftop RWH technology is the high capital investment. Cost gets higher when the rainfall is low and there is longer dry periods, which results in the need for a larger cistern to store more water to ensure water availability for a longer period. As a way of avoiding this initial cost, some households started using barrels, open cement tanks, buckets and cans that reduces the keeping quality of water drastically, providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and contamination from external agents. Therefore, supportive mechanisms such as loans and subsidies can be introduces to effectively promote the RWH system among rural poor. However, full subsidy is not recommended in terms of sustainability – users should involve through unskilled labour and for acquiring locally available raw materials as a measure to create ownership.
Lack of awareness and training on RWH is the next factor that hinders the community acceptance on this unique system. ‘Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum’ extended training programme to practitioners and actual beneficiaries to ensure quality construction, proper operation and maintenance and management of harvested water. Through the training programme, they worked on changing the myths, wrong perceptions and community behaviour towards the new concept.
Rainwater can be contaminated through different sources; animal faeces, bird droppings or leaf debris collected on the catchment, small animals and insects drowned in water in the collection tank, mosquito breeding and dirty containers. Therefore, regular cleaning and inspection of the system is vital to ensure good quality water.
According to Han Heijnen, President, International Rainwater Management Alliance and lessons learn through the pilot projects conducted by ‘Lanka Rain Water harvesting Forum’, most of the physical, chemical and biological parameters of rainwater are scientifically impressive and acceptable to use as portable water in the household.
Regional examples on RWH
Global Water Partnership South Asia (GWP South Asia), a Regional Water Partnership of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) network, took the initiative to nurture the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in South Asia. GWP South Asia network is linked through Country Water Partnerships (CWPs) in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with nearly 700 strategic partners across the region.
Pakistan Water Partnership (PWP) and affiliate of GWP South Asia constructed RWH ponds in targeted locations by involving local communities in the deserts of Tharparkar and in Greater Cholistan in Pakistan. These small ponds “tobas” are well known to the desert communities as most of them live on agriculture and animal husbandry where the tobas are often the only source of water for their daily usage.
India Water Partnership (IWP) initialized a demonstration project on RWH, at a Senior Secondary Government School in Village Garhi Harsaru, Haryana. The unit consisted of both a storage and a groundwater recharge pit. They have proposed to establish another five RWH systems in five schools. Village, Garhi Harsaru is one out of the many water stressed peri-urban areas in Delhi NCR. Sri Lanka Water Partnership (SLWP) invested on water and sanitation facilities of some selected schools in the Central Province aligned with the Government school sanitation and hygiene promotion programme. They have collaborated with Provincial Department of Education and private sector to construct sixteen RWH systems for some selected schools in Aranayake and in Hatton, preceded by sanitation advocacy programme.
World Water Day 2019 is about tackling the water crisis by addressing the reasons why so many people are being left behind. UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his message said, “we must value water resources and ensure their inclusive management if we are to protect and use this vital resource sustainability for the benefit of all people”.
Therefore, with the onset of rains anticipated no later than in April, are we still going to fold our hands, enjoy the rain, wait until these heavy rains wash away our belongings, farmlands and even the lives of our brothers and sisters to the Ocean and later plead for recovery assistance? Or can we think about an alternative method to store this free flowing water for future use and to recharge ground water table as a complement?
The author is a Communications Coordinator, GWP South Asia
Special thanks to Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum