Can Thirsty India Bottle The Monsoon?
By Aubrey BelfordJuly 12, 2012
India is pioneering efforts to overcome water shortages by catching — and keeping — more of its annual rain. But in this sprawling country, even the simplest and cheapest solutions can be hard to pull off.
Tuesday, July 3 was another dry, dusty day of summer in Dakshinpuri, a crowded cluster of tenements in the south of Delhi. Even at the best of times, the inhabitants of India's capital are a notoriously ornery lot, prone to shoving, screaming matches and fistfights. But in the hot months before the monsoon, when temperatures grind up and over 40 degrees, day in day out, things easily get out of hand.
The annual monsoon, and the relief it brings, was four days late … and counting. In the shade of one of Dakshinpuri's alleys, a crowd of about two dozen had gathered to tell us of their water troubles. The supply from the city is intermittent and brackish, they complained; every time the taps come on, there is a mad dash to fill up. Locals conduct nighttime raids, to steal water from other neighbourhoods, or they scrounge from each other.
While other neighbourhoods buy water from pricey tanker trucks, that is not an option here. And the fights among local women are just too nasty.
"Everyone just busts each other's heads open," says Shakila Khatun, a local housewife, who sits braiding a girl's hair.
Water, and the lack of it, had become an obsession. "From 11 in the morning my exercise [of gathering water] starts and doesn't end until six in the evening," says Vaijayanti Koli, a mother of three. "I don't have time for anything else because in the back of my head, there's always water."
On Friday, the black clouds rolled in and, with a swirl of dust, brought the first pre-monsoon rains. But the arriving monsoon will do little for Dakshinpuri. The water simply rushes down the alleyways into overflowing drains, polluted canals and flooded streets. Taps will stay dry.
These days, the huge monsoon that has nourished much of the Indian subcontinent for millennia just isn't doing the trick. Across the country, water tables have dropped dramatically and turned salty under the strain of one billion thirsting people and their industries. India's great rivers, too, are suffering from pollution and overuse.
Faced with crisis, India has over the last decade and a half become a key laboratory for the revival and adaptation of an ancient system of overcoming water shortages: rain harvesting.
On paper, the country is undertaking the largest ongoing experiment in testing technology that could help solve water crises around the world, including in Australia. But putting the experiment and its successes into widespread practice, has proved complicated.
Rainwater harvesting involves catching the rain, storing it, and reusing it in ways that ensure a year-round supply of fresh water, explains Lalit Sharma, the head of natural resource management at the Institute of Rural Research and Development, or IRRAD. This philanthropically funded organisation is based in the city of Gurgaon, outside Delhi. A massive boomtown of more than 1.5 million people, Gurgaon has sprung up from next to nothing in the past two decades.
In private homes, harvesting involves collecting rain on rooftops and channelling it into either above- or below-ground tanks; the water is then filtered before use. On a larger scale, harvesting involves excavating reservoirs, so the water can be used to irrigate fields; or building check dams to collect the rain, which is then allowed to seep into the earth and recharge groundwater tables.
Some of this sounds familiar. In Australia, for example, simple rainwater tanks have long been in use, and are now mandatory in some states and council areas for collecting water for limited purposes, such as for outdoor use, flushing toilets, or washing.
India's plans are far more ambitious.
"Whatever rain we get in a particular area, if we conserve that, it is more than enough," Sharma says. "Even if we take agriculture, which is the largest consumer of water, the crops adopted in these areas need much less water than the water coming from the rains."
Such systems have a long history in India. In the dry western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, homes have traditionally collected rooftop water for drinking. In India's south, Hindu temples have for centuries incorporated large above-ground rainwater ponds.
Using the rain to recharge groundwater, however, is a much newer idea.
Under British rule, and after independence, India's traditional rainwater harvesting systems fell into disuse, as centralised irrigation and drinking-water supply systems were built, Sharma says. This worked for a while. But now India's water supply has hit a wall.
"The consequences? They've just started showing," Sharma says. "[The water in] Gurgaon has turned brackish because the level is dipping down, and once you go deeper, the quality deteriorates and salinity increases. More than 40 per cent of Delhi has turned saline, which was not the case 10, 15 years back."
Most of India's states and many of its major cities have, over the past decade, passed rules mandating rainwater harvesting in homes and commercial buildings, with some notable successes. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the capital Chennai enacted rules in 2003 requiring all buildings to implement rainwater harvesting for both drinking and groundwater recharge. Within five years, much of the city's saline water table became fresh again, while groundwater levels in many areas rose between three to six metres. In patches around the country, mostly in the south, there have been other successes. In most of the rest of the country, however, rules have largely gone unenforced.
To see experiments with rainwater harvesting in the field, The Global Mail travelled with Sharma and another of his colleagues, Salahuddin Saiphy, to Mewat, a hardscrabble district in Haryana state. The lay of the land is vastly different here from the glass towers of Gurgaon. Or as, Sharma puts it: "We've travelled 100 kilometres, and it's as if we've travelled back 100 years."
Mewat is home to 1.2 million people. It is a flat, dusty zone, where the water has turned salty, except in the surrounding rocky hills. Over recent decades, most local wells have become useless.
In the mud-brick village of Khanpur Nuh, we come across Mohammed Tahir, squatting in the shade having his head shaved with a dry razor that is being unsettlingly, and loudly, scraped across his head. The temperature today is 47 degrees and, stating the obvious, Tahir says he's adopting the shaved style "because it's so hot".
"In the '70s, we had a well, but that dried up," explains Tahir's father, Mohammed Ismail, who is 62. "Then we were getting water from the government, but that stopped."
Now villager Ismail and his family of 15 get their water from tanker trucks, a set-up he calls the "mafia". Each month, he pays more than 600 rupees, or about AUD10.50, for 7,000 litres of water. But he says he expects a big change this year, as his is one of 14 families that has had 20,000-litre rainwater tanks installed by IRRAD. Once the monsoon has filled this tank, it should be enough water to provide for drinking and cooking for a year.
IRRAD's mission in Mewat is to build working models of rainwater-harvesting systems that governments can then adopt on a larger scale. Across the region, we visit check dams, tanks and pools the institute has built. So far, they appear to be showing patchy success.
At one primary school in the village of Paat Khoori, a system was set up in 2010 to harvest monsoon water from the school's roof and store it in four 25,000-litre tanks. The cost of the whole project, which is maintained by the school, was 228,000 rupees, or about AUD4,000. Previously, with no water for drinking or toilets available at the school, children were forced to walk home to the village at lunchtime to have a drink, and many would not return. Within one year, the new system saw enrolments in the school jump from 350 to 480 students, according to Saiphy. Working toilets have been key to boosting the attendance of girls.
Seeing this success, the Haryana government has reached an in-principle agreement with IRRAD to build 500 similar school systems. Negotiations now centre around who will pay for them, who will build them and who will maintain them.
As we traverse villages with little water or sanitation we pass beneath new high-tension power lines that deliver electricity to the boomtown of Gurgaon. In India, governments have long tended to prioritise large-scale infrastructure projects over small community-based solutions or inexpensive rural developments. For rainwater harvesting to work, it needs widespread government adoption, but the cheapness of such initiatives is, ironically, one aspect that makes them unappealing to governments, explains Saiphy.
"[Big] infrastructure projects have a lot of interests. They get commissions and everything. And all these small things like toilets, drinking-water wells, and all these things, they don't get you anything," he says.
Back in Delhi, water shortages have recently exploded into a major political headache. The capital's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, announced in early June that she would privatise the city's water supply in an effort to increase efficiency of use. She has also regularly exhorted residents to conserve water, claiming that she bathes with only half a bucket of water a day. The city's rivers and canals are polluted and much of the green space previously used to recharge groundwater has been built over; some claim that more than 40 per cent of the city's water is lost in leaky old pipes.
Since 2001 Delhi has also had rules on the books mandating rainwater harvesting in new buildings on plots of 100 square metres or larger. But this and other measures in Delhi have failed to take off, largely because incentives have been minimal and punishment for noncompliance nonexistent, says Nitiya Jacob, the head of the water program at Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment.
At most, around 500 rainwater harvesting projects have been implemented in the capital: "Just a drop in the bucket —Sheila Dikshit's bucket," Jacob says.
He is a champion of rainwater harvesting as a promising technology, but is frank about its limits. We can't harvest enough rain to provide for heavy industry, intensive large-scale farming or mining, he says. And in high-density cities like Delhi, limited space on which to place tanks means many apartment blocks would not be able to accommodate them.
"You could take houses off the [water-supply] grid. But that's provided everybody does it and there's technical help available for people, and the government gives some kind of tax incentive or subsidy or something," Jacob says.
India's southern states have done better at enforcing water self-sufficiency in domestic residences, simply because they are better governed, he says. And, he adds, the rest of India could fix a lot of its water troubles, if only it could leave behind its long tradition of government inefficiency and non-compliance.
"We're famous for not following laws," Jacob says. "This is not a law that's been enforced."