Harvesting rainwater: can we move from tokenism to pragmatism?

Stella Paul is an environment and development Journalist. Her blog is here.

Stella Paul

It’s been a painful week in Hyderabad. First, chunks of black clouds hovered around in the sky all day long, while the ground below remained parched. And then, on two evenings that it actually rained, every single drop went down the drain, literally. The very next day after a heavily rainy night, every house in my lane was calling a private water tanker, coughing up hundreds of rupees and buying their daily use of water.

You know the reason: not a single house here has a system to harvest the gallons of water that just poured from the sky and that could save them the cost of at least 2 tankers (each costing a minimum Rs 300). In fact nobody even has any visible inclination to build that system.

Now, amidst this painful scenario, I heard the news that Madhya Pradesh government is about to make rainwater harvesting mandatory for citizens in the capital city of Bhopal. The reason isn’t hard to imagine: Bhopal has alarmingly low level of groundwater and the administration is finding it almost impossible to meet the daily demand of water. So, now it’s thought of making it a legal obligation for every new house builder to harvest the rainwater.

When I first heard the news, my first reaction was “wow!” However, seconds later I realized that there was hardly anything wow factor to this. And here is why:

Bhopal, with its 2,368,145 population, is yet another typical, crowded Indian city. To say that only upcoming houses will have to have rainwater system, is saying that it will be business as usual for the existing ones. In other words, the apparently wonderful rule actually applies to an extremely minuscule percentage of people – the new home builders. So, in reality, the huge population – or houses – that waste the rain, will keep wasting it, just like it is happening in Hyderabad. Or in almost all the large  cities and towns.

In fact 18 states in India today has made water harvesting mandatory, says a Press Information Bureau communique. The truth is, none of them has made it a mandatory for all. Also, water is a state subject and so every state is free to make its own legislation, which also means, each on its own.

The funny thing is, when it comes to depleting ground water level and long line of thirsty people waiting for a water tanker, the level of severeness is the same everywhere.

The real wise act, therefore, would be to ask each and every house, regardless of its size, to harvest water in whichever way they can. Those with a sprawling garden can recharge their borewells, or open wells. Others, can build  a rooftop rainwater harvest system. And that’s what  should be  made mandatory.

Of course, it will help if the government owned buildings start setting an example for the citizens to follow. In this regard, I remember something that the late MP and speaker of the Parliament Somnath Chatterjee had said. Worried about the growing water war every summer, Chatterjee,had suggested that every MP took personal care to ensure that his constituency started harvesting water. And then, Chatterjee also suggested that the parliament building be equipped with its own rainwater harvesting system.

That was 2005.

Seven monsoons later, it still remains a word, not translated into a deed.

Back to Hyderabad, I have been pursuing my landlord to make arrangements for cacthing the rainwater. After a lot of persuasion, he bought me a long pipe. In a corner of the roof, the landlord has laid a PVC pipe to let the rain of the roof out (from where it fell outside, right on the road). I put one end of the new pipe to that PVC pipe and put the other end to the underground water storage. We have got rain only once since then and within 20 minutes, we actually filled up over 80% of our 2000-liter storage.Isn’t that great?

If only everyone in every neighborhood had done this rain-catching! But for that to happen, we will need a uniform, reformed law – one that would shift its focus from tokenism (only a handful of houses harvest rain) to  pragmatism like every single house harvests rainwater), including the ones like my landlord who just don’t care!

Only then we will have a reason to smile, or ‘wow’ about.

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