A storm threatened, filling the skies with thick thunderclouds and raising hopes. But the cyclone passed over to Andhra Pradesh, leaving Tamilnadu to its blistering destiny of almost-perennial drought. The kathri season, when the summer peaks, is sweeping across Southern India now. The urban chaos of Chennai is further exacerbated as water lines lengthen and tankers run amock, supplying the colourless elixir to those who can afford to buy as much as they want. Rain Water Harvesting is again a topic of discussion, debate and desperation.

Once upon a time, it was more naturally ingrained into the psyche of the common man. A background paper from the Centre for Science and Environment on Managing Water explains how. Local communities managed and maintained a network of eris (tanks), ponds, temple tanks and shallow wells, connected to a single unit or shared by several households. Then, in 1772, water became public policy when a cluster of 10 wells in the British occupied Fort St.George began supplying 140,000 gallons of water per day. A hundred years later, the Sholavaram and Red Hills eris were connected to the municipal water works. Small and big projects and additional reservoirs were added on as the city’s thirst grew alongwith its burgeoning population.

By the 1970s, surface water could no longer cope with the exponentially expanding demands. Increasing the use of ground water was one of the salient features of government policy to augment supplies. But indiscriminate pumping has only widened the divide between conservation and consumption, the haves and have nots. A sign of the times were the larger number of To Let boards in the New Washermanpet area of Chennai last year, as opposed to any other part of the city - others were waiting for their children to complete their exams before leaving. The reason? Erratic or nonexistent water supply.

There are three key areas which need immediate implementation of RWH : households, Government and corporates. Says T. Anantha Narayanan, Executive Director of Ashok Leyland and Immediate Past Chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry, during whose tenure CII launched its RWH initiatives, "The corporate sector has to be informed of the actual cost benefits of RWH - once it is understood in clear budgetary terms, it will be possible to achieve 100% compliance - by this I mean not only the companies themselves but every employee of the company must harvest rainfall in his or her home."

The focus of the ongoing campaign, although quite effective in generating awareness and involving lay people, has not been able to do much in the other two segments that control large swathes of land. The administration has not been wholely blameworthy. It has been quite consistent in supporting the endeavour, incorporated the concept in several major government buildings and brought out comprehensive legislation (that has, among other things, made Chennai the first city in the country to make RWH mandatory). Implementation, however, is uncharted territory. RWH activists have put the figures at an estimated 5,000 homes, a negligible number to say the least. Shekhar Raghavan, a Founder-Member of the Akash Ganga Trust, a voluntary group of dedicated RWH activists, also qualifies, "RWH may not be relevant everywhere, particularly when the soil is clayey, the aquifer is shallow or the water is already getting discharged into tanks or rivers nearby. But, in most places, RWH is our only hope."

Contrary to popular belief, Chennai receives an annual rainfall of 1290mm every year, which is higher than the national average. Almost 95% of the rainfall is lost due to surface runoff and evaporation. The replenishment of ground water tables is under threat from large-scale concretization, both in public spaces, business districts and residential areas. Encroachments add to the chaos. Eagerly awaited rains finally end up only flooding the roads, as it happened in the recent North-East monsoons which inundated large sections of low-lying areas in the city. RWH actually offers much hope in this bleak scenario. With a percolation pit for 1,500 rupees, installation of drain pipes to take water from the roof to the nearby well for an additional 5,000 plus the construction of a sump to store water at Rs.50,000, RWH promises speedy and affordable returns.

Ram Krishnan of the Akash Ganga centre at Chennai has put together a 2-page presentation on RWH designs with pictures. Click here to open the PDF document. (164 KB, Acrobat reader needed)
But activists are only partly succeeding in convincing the people of the economics of self-help - presently, a middle-class family of four, in some parts of the city, spends an average of a Rs.1,000 per month to purchase water. It is the sort of economics that makes the RWH apparatus pay for itself in inside three years. Says Raghavan, "People do not mind spending tens of thousands of rupees on deepening their borewells in search of elusive water - often turning whatever is available saline by going too far. But, we have to constantly justify the expenditure involved in the scientific and rational - and successful - approach of RWH. It is the toughest job we face."

Says Ram Krishnan, a Minnesota based NRI who has invested his personal funds in the setting up of the country’s first Rain Centre, an interactive museum and one-stop answer to all RWH related questions, "There is always a mechanism against law - and that’s money. Legislation helps but then again, may not work as effectively as we need it to. What we need is a civic movement. Water wars are going to get worse and, hypothetically speaking, our cities can become ghost towns without water. We really need to ask ourselves what we are doing to help matters."

But anyone who knows India also knows that for every problem and its partially successful solution, there is always fresh hope and effort waiting to fight new battles. The latest to join the ranks is the Water Exnora, an extension of the 2,000 branches of Exnora International, an NGO dedicated to street cleaning and source segregation of garbage. At a recent meeting, welcomed by Metrowater, reports were sought from different residents associations on insufficient and irregular supply of water. The focus will not only be to harvest rainwater but also conserve and minimize its wastage. Architects and builders have been invited to develop water saving techniques (an area hitherto looked upon only as a statutory requirement rather than value-added service). So is there going to be any of the urgently needed infusion of self-discipline? Don’t give up hope. Those who are working at the grassroots haven’t. Just watch this space.