In 2003 I wrote that “Rainwater harvesting (RWH) represents people-oriented technology that is an aspect of household water security. Thus, it requires an intense participatory and also an interdisciplinary approach. The role of the household has to be recognised, emphasis has to be on the post-construction phase and in capacitating the community members in maintaining what essentially belongs to them.“ I was a young water professional and an eager Field Specialist of Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Support Project Phase III (RWSSSP, also known as 'Finnida' project and 'Lumibini project').
In 2002 I had collected the following comments from the women (Field Report by Rautanen 2002):
"The RWH jar has already made a difference in our lives. Even if we are not using the water from the RWH jar for the drinking yet, it is a great relief. We used to have to walk nearly an hour to collect water. That is one trip only. And that is not including the waiting time at the spring." "We used to wake up at 4 am to start fetching water before going to work on the fields. In the evenings when we came back, we had to start carrying water again. We used to go to sleep very late. Now we do not have to do that anymore. We can also rest." "No more backache." "Even if the RWH jar would be only of seasonal help, it is exactly the right season. This rainy season is the most busy agricultural time for us. We spend long days at the field. Now we can concentrate on that as nobody has to spend time carrying water." "The personal hygiene in this household has definitely improved. We wash ourselves and our hands much more than we did before when we had to carry all the water." "I would like us to have more RWH jars. We know now how to do it and I think that we will." "I have no space in my yard, as you can see, but I really wanted to have a RWH jar. I now have made an arrangement with my neighbour so that that the jar can be on that land. That is not my land. I would also like to have a latrine, but where can I build it?" "I just cleaned the jar. There were plenty of water in the there. I invited the neighbours to wash their clothes here. Look at those. They are not all mine!" "We used to collect rainwater to that plastic tank over there. Now it has been circulated in the village to provide water wherever the RWH jar has been constructed. It takes a lot of water to prepare the jar and then to cure it. We will save the tank for the future. When you have a wedding or some other party, you do need a lot of water in the house."
RWSSSP supported total 5,592 rainwater harvesting (RWH) jars within three years of Phase III. We promoted RWH as safe drinking water but started having our doubts: the quality was not necessarily up to the national drinking water quality standards given that the rainwater was collected from the roof tops. We worked on such improvements as first flush systems and advocating the regular cleaning of the jars. On the other hand, we assumed that the quality is not necessarily a problem as water is a useful asset for many other purposes. Even if drinking water was still carried from the previous water sources, the sometimes very long water fetching trips could be reduced to one or two trips per day. Sanitation, hygiene, home gardens and also animals benefited: because of the steep hills, the bigger animals cannot be taken to the water, the water has to be taken to them.
More than a decade later I was in this neighbourhood again. In 2016 we are supporting Jhepakhola Khursanikhet electric lift water supply scheme in Baletaksar VDC Ward number 4, Gulmi district. This scheme, that will soon be serving 504 people, includes 22 households with ‘Finnida’ RWH jars. In total RWSSSP supported 473 people with the RWH system in Baletaksar VDC. I was curious to know whether the RWH jars were still maintained and used, even when the winter rains are largely missing? In September 29, 2016 I visited 18 of these, see the Photo 1. This water scarce hill top had encouraged the community to invest in various other structures as well, see Photo 2.
Photo 1. Rainwater harvesting jars after more than a decade
This is what I found during the visit with regards to the 'Finnida RWH jars':
Out of 18 households, there were only three cases where the RWH jars were not used, all for a reason: one RWH jar belonged to a derelict house where the owner had died and nobody had claimed the property thereafter; one RWH jar had remained higher than the new house and hence, was not getting water; while the third belonged to a very poor household where a single elderly lady was living alone: this house was struggling to manage anything, and the community had constructed a new private tapstand for this lady.
15 RWH jar households with their total present population of 70 were actively using their RWH jars for a range of uses except for drinking.
Drinking water is still carried from other sources. Depending on the location of the household in the cluster, it takes in between 20 – 45 minutes round trip to collect this water. When there is no rainwater, all water is carried from these locations.
In ten cases the first flush system was still used, and all those who used their jars, also cleaned it. Majority cleaned it once per year, only one reported ‘every three months’ and another one ‘every 6 months’. All jars had a lid, more or less fully covering the top, but none had the mosquito net that we promoted at the end of RWSSSP Phase III. The jars, their taps and covers were were fully functional.
Water was available from 2-8 months, depending on the number of users and purposes of use. In several cases the RWH jar pipe was connected directly to the toilet, and/or a separate connection was made for the animal sheds and garden.
In five cases a larger 8 m3 RWH jar was observed, bigger than the standard 2.5 or 6 m3 models. Reportedly these households had invested more construction materials from their side during the construction. In the case of 8m3 jars, there was usually only one of these, while there were usually two of the smaller jars.
Photo 2. Other ways of harvesting rainwater
Rainwater harvesting may not be a popular option for safe drinking water, but it does serve its purpose. Sanitation, hygiene, home gardens, livestock, various rural livelihoods, these all need water. We should keep this option in our agenda. Even where the new lift water supply schemes will be or are already now providing safe drinking water and water that is available around the year, we must encourage people to keep maintaining their rainwater harvesting systems as a back up and for additional (non-metered!) water uses!
In 2003 I wrote: “Collecting rainwater for various household uses is a very old practice all over the world. Examples of rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems can be found in all the great civilisations throughout history. It has been adopted in many areas of the world where conventional water supply systems cannot meet people's needs, both in developed and developing countries. For instance, in big modern cities that are efficiently served by centralised water supply networks, individual houses or blocks of houses, even industries, have adapted RWH systems to reduce their water bills.” This is still valid.