Habitat Observatory

    Rainwater harvesting in Sri Lanka
  Background For two years southern Sri Lanka suffered a prolonged drought, described by locals as "the worst in 50 years". Some areas didn't see a successful crop for four or five consecutive seasons. Livestock died, water in wells dropped to dangerously low levels, children were increasingly malnourished and school attendance has fallen. An estimated 1.6 million people were affected.

Muthukandiya is a village in Moneragala district, one of the drought-stricken areas in the "dry zone" of southern Sri Lanka, where half the country's population of 18 million lives. The drought devastated supplies of rice and freshwater fish, the staple diet of inland villages. Many local industries closed down and villagers headed for the towns in search of work. Women and children usually spend several hours every day and walking up to three miles (five kilometer’s) to fetch water for drinking, washing and cooking.

A bottom-up approach In 1998, communities in the district discussed water problems with Practical Action South Asia. What followed was a drought mitigation initiative based on a low-cost "rainwater harvesting" technology already used in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region. It uses tanks to collect and store rain channeled by gutters and pipes as it runs off the roofs of houses. Practical Action South Asia's project took a different approach, aiming to build up a local skills base among builders and users of the tanks, and to create structures and systems so that communities can manage their own rainwater harvesting schemes.

The community of Muthukandiya was involved throughout. Two meetings were held where villagers analysed their water problems, developed a mitigation plan and selected the rainwater harvesting technology. Two local masons received several days' on-the-job training in building the 5,000 litre household storage tanks: surface tanks out of ferro-cement and underground tanks out of brick. Each system, including tank, pipes, gutters and filters, cost US$195 - equivalent to a month's income for an average village family. Just over half the cost was provided by the community, in the form of materials and unskilled labour. Practical Action South Asia contributed the rest, including cement, transport and payment for the skilled labour. Households learned how to use and maintain the tanks, and the whole community was trained to keep domestic water supplies clean. A village rainwater harvesting society was set up to run the project.

Till date, 37 families in and around Muthukandiya have storage tanks. Evaluations show clearly that households with rainwater storage tanks have considerably more water for domestic needs than households relying entirely on wells and ponds. During the driest months, households with tanks may have up to twice as much water available.

The challenge and the replicability potential In the short term, and on a small scale, the project has clearly been a success. The challenge lies in making such initiatives sustainable, and expanding their coverage. At a purely technical level, rainwater harvesting is evidently sustainable. In Muthukandiya, the skills required to build and maintain storage tanks were taught fairly easily, and can be shared by the two trained masons, who are now finding work with other development agencies in the district.

The non-structural elements of the work, especially its financial and organisational sustainability, present a bigger challenge. A revolving fund was set up, with households that had already benefited agreeing to contribute a small monthly amount to pay for maintenance, repairs and new tanks. However, it appears that the revolving fund concept was not fully understood and it has proved difficult to get households to contribute. Recovering costs from interventions that do not generate income directly will always be a difficult proposition, although this can be overcome if the process is explained more fully at the outset.

The Muthukandiya initiative was planned as a demonstration project, to show that community-based drought mitigation through rainwater harvesting was feasible. Several other organizations have begun their own projects using the same approach. The feasibility of introducing larger tanks is being investigated.

However, a lot of effort and patience are needed to generate the interest, develop the skills and organise the management structures needed to implement sustainable community-based projects. It will probably be some time before rainwater harvesting technologies can spread rapidly and spontaneously across the district's villages, without external support.

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