When this article appears in print, rain might have already come and public anxieties about water shortages and water cuts might have already receded into the background. Yet, droughts are not going to disappear for good. If at all, they might come more frequently and even become more severe in the future. So it is worth worrying about water and exploring the various possibilities on how to deal with possible shortages of water.
Rainfall and drought are natural phenomena that climate scientists investigate to identify their spatial and temporal patterns. These phenomena are also closely connected to climate change that has become a major concern for climate scientists, policy makers and the general public around the world. Yet, unlike many other issues, climate change cannot be dealt with by a single Government or by a few countries, but there is a need for a concerted global effort to address the issue. As I pointed out in this column earlier, there is no readiness on the part of global leaders to concentrate on this issue as more urgent economic issues take precedence in political decision making. Faced with macro-economic crises resulting in unemployment, budget deficits and mounting debts, they tend to do everything that is necessary to get their economies on track even if it means going back on their earlier commitments to deal with issues of climate change. On the other hand, countries that face serious problems like major floods, droughts and natural disasters cannot ignore them. The leaders and citizens have to find ways of coping with such calamitous situations.
About fifteen years ago, when I was the Dean of the Colombo University Faculty of Arts, I proposed to the authorities to use the large Arts Faculty building for a model rainwater harvesting project. Given its prime location in the heart of Colombo City, it would have served as a demonstration project to educate and sensitize the general public about the potential of harnessing rainwater for various purposes other than drinking. The direct benefit of the project to the university would have also been considerable as the building at that time accommodated more than 2,500 students and staff and used a large quantity of water drawn from the main supply. I contacted Practical Action, an NGO (a taboo word in this country these days), specialising in appropriate technology solutions and the experts there assured me they could help us with the technology required for the project. When the university authorities were contacted with the project idea, the response was that there were no resources for a project of this nature. Then I contacted the Water Supply and Drainage Board and their response was that this kind of project did not come under their purview and that they were not in a position to support it financially. That was the end of the rainwater harvesting project at the University of Colombo. But, as a country, we continue to face intermittent droughts and many people are anxious about the prospects of a serious water shortage even for domestic purposes, let alone water for irrigating parched farm lands. Rainwater harvesting is not rocket science. It can be done in any part of the country with a minimal investment. We could just design our roofs in such a way as to capture most of the rainwater that usually flows down the drains towards low-lying areas. We could do this with minimal investment of technical input, labour and construction material. Once installed, the water collected can be used for bathing, washing and gardening. In fact, these are the purposes for which much of our tap water is used today. If we supplement our domestic water supply with harvested rainwater at a household level, water supply agencies could easily extend their schemes to cover most of the households in the country without much difficulty.
Some problems that we face are so complex that they demand complex and expensive solutions. But, in this country, we are faced with certain large issues that can be easily solved if we resort to simple solutions. Sometime back, I proposed to the Kotte Mayor that the Municipal Council should supply compost bins to all households in the area as it had the potential to reduce household garbage at least by 50%. The direct benefit of this to the Council can be enormous as the collection and safe disposal of garbage constitute a major problem that costs a considerable part of its revenue. This plan is being slowly implemented there now and it is working well in my own neighbourhood. Rainwater harvesting is an equally simple idea that has an enormous potential to address a major issue faced by people. But, for this idea to have a major impact on a national scale, it needs to be adopted as a national strategy by the Government or at least by the Provincial Councils. There are of course, several national agencies dealing with water and one of these can be identified as the leading implementing agency. Some of these agencies are maintained at an enormous cost to the public partly due to over-staffing, the latter thanks to some of our patriotic politicians. There is no doubt that technical issues such as those connected with financing, technical design and health need to be sorted out, but there is no dearth of technical expertise in this country.
If the rain does not come soon, many people would be enthusiastic about rainwater harvesting. But, the danger is that, with the first few showers, the chances of the idea remaining in the foreground are very slim indeed
If rains do not come soon, many people would be enthusiastic about rainwater harvesting. But, the danger is that, with the first few showers, the chances of the idea remaining in the foreground are very slim indeed. On the other hand, we are living in a country where there is a functioning state that is entrusted with the responsibility of resolving not only issues faced by us today but also those that can come up in the future as well. It is true that droughts usually come and go but they do not recede to the background for good. So, we continue to contribute to the sustenance of scientists, public institutions and governments hoping that they would solve our problems as and when they crop up, including their prevention where possible. When governments and state institutions fail, hapless masses often turn to archaic religious rituals hoping for divine intervention. In modern societies, political leaders are expected to mobilize the relevant institutions and expertise to find solutions to various problems the citizens face such as water shortages, rather than to join the hapless masses to perform archaic religious rituals hoping for divine intervention.