For Chennai-based Harsha, 50, and Prabha Koda, 49, the inspiration to start utilizing rainwater didn’t come from a drought but flooding. “During the Chennai floods, we saw all this rainwater going to waste and decided to do something to save and use it," said Harsha, who is the secretary of the residents’ association of Sabari Terrace, an apartment complex in Sholinganallur, Chennai. The apartment was recently in the news for collecting over 30,000 litres of rainwater in an hour in a city undergoing severe water crisis. The Kodas, who run a startup consultancy, set up a basic rainwater storage and groundwater recharging system in their apartment complex by channelling rain pipes from the terraces into an underground sump or reservoir with a storage capacity of 100,000 litres.

The government this year formed the new Jal Shakti (water power) ministry to tackle water issues with a holistic and integrated approach. While the government has laid out an ambitious plan to provide piped water connection to every rural household by 2024, even people in urban areas find themselves in the grip of a deepening water crisis and some citizens have decided to take matters into their own hands. Read on to find out how some residents are doing their bit to help conserve water and how you can do it too.

Start at home

According to Jyoti Sharma, founder and president of Force, an NGO that works in the area of water conservation, conservation can begin at the household level. “We have a five ‘R’s formula: Reduce wastage, reuse used water, recharge groundwater, respect water and recycle waste water. Except the last of these, every household can adopt these practices," she said.

There are simple ways to do these. To reduce wastage, Sharma suggests repairing any leaks in taps and pipelines. The water used in the last cycle of a washing machine is usually fairly clean and can be used to clean floors, etc. Groundwater can be recharged by simply directing rainwater from the roof to an open area so that water can percolate into the ground. You can also urge the local municipal body to revive water bodies around your area.

Moreover, “respecting water by reviving traditions and customs is a way to remind yourself that water is not an inexhaustible resource. It helps because you protect what you respect," said Sharma.

A rainwater harvesting system at Srinivasan’s residence
A rainwater harvesting system at Srinivasan’s residence

One significant way that water is wasted is through overflows from overhead tanks. To remedy this, Sharma recommends installing an overflow prevention system. You can prevent this through several mechanisms, including automatic sensors, alarms and floats. Floats automatically shut off flow into the tank once the water level reaches the top, while alarms alert you to the fact that the tank is full, so that you can turn off your pump. A sensor is an automatic system which switches on the pump when the water level in the tank is low, and switches it off when it is full. While floats and alarms will cost you between 200 and 500, sensors can cost more than 1,000.

Then, there are tools and systems to check your water usage. “You can install faucet aerators on your taps. If you use five litres of water for a shave, an aerator could help you use just a litre or so," said V. Srinivasan, 59, a civil rights activist who has been working in the area of water conservation and harvesting. Aerators appear to increase water pressure by infusing air into the stream, so that you don’t have to turn your tap on to full flow and end up using a lot less water. Aerators and special faucets can cost anywhere between 50 and 500. There are cheaper variants in the market, but go for quality, or you might have to replace them frequently.

Involve the community

Though conservation at the individual level is laudable, some think it’s too little, too late. According to Nityanand Jayraman, a social and environmental activist, “Small changes like turning the tap off when you’re not using it and using less bath water are just feel-good things. These changes won’t save the world, because we are past that point. If we as a society want to come out of a crisis, we need to stop talking about just doing ‘our bit’ for the environment," he said.

Srinivasan, too, believes larger initiatives are important. He has been working at the community level to revive local water bodies and temple tanks in Chennai in an effort to recharge groundwater and prevent salination of water from seawater percolation. He believes that recharging groundwater is the way to solve the water crisis. “Over the last 10-15 years, we have been able to ensure that the surface water is good by ensuring that aquifers, which form a barrier between the groundwater table and seawater, are not breached," he said.

Srinivasan also advocates getting the community involved and undertaking a larger initiative to drive awareness and push the government to take policy measures to remedy the problem.

Jayraman agrees that groundwater recharge is the key to solving the water crisis. “More than 60% of India’s water needs are met by groundwater. We are rapidly losing groundwater and we’ll be in trouble if it continues at this pace. But the good news is that with sensible and localized groundwater protection and management programmes, it is possible to revive groundwater tables. It is important to ensure we don’t take more than what is due to us. When we talk about rainwater harvesting, we automatically think of rooftops, but the key is to have open spaces and allow rainwater to percolate into the ground," he said.

Harsha and Prabha Koda initiated rainwater harvesting at their apartment complex in Chennai
Harsha and Prabha Koda initiated rainwater harvesting at their apartment complex in Chennai

A part of the rainwater the residents of Sabari Terrace harvest is allowed to percolate into the ground. Though the complex is not entirely immune to the water crisis unfolding in Chennai, it is better off. “Every time there is a crisis, we don’t have to buy tanker water. Since we have been recharging the groundwater, our water table has gone up. This year we have started digging a well, which we can rely on if our tanks aren’t full. Hopefully by next year we will be immune to the water crisis in the city," said Harsha.

Initially, the Kodas found it difficult to get all members of the residents’ association on board. “We live in ‘vertical villages’, so traditional methods of rainwater harvesting don’t apply. We had to tweak it a bit and it took some convincing of committee members because there was no precedent," said Harsha. But soon after they finished with the installation, it rained, and they were able to demonstrate the success of the system.

Save in the process

“Our return on investment was in terms of the tanker water we didn’t have to buy. We spent 2.5 lakh for the four blocks in our apartment. Last year was a drought year, and we saved around 75,000 by way of not ordering as much tanker water as we did earlier. We expect a normal monsoon to give us 3 million litres of water, which translates to a saving of 2.5 lakh. The day we collect that amount, we would break even, and every drop will then be free," said Harsha.

“For people living in water-stressed areas, we would say that a rainwater harvesting system is an investment, not an expense. People talk about doing it for the environment, I would say, if nothing else, do it for yourself and your water security," added Prabha.

With India’s water crisis reaching alarming levels, it is important to get conscious, at the personal as well as community levels.

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