Progress: Construct and optimize rainwater harvesting system
In the first two years of operation, Rainwater for Humanity focused on optimizing the design of traditional system through various construction methods. This learning process ensures the system’s performance given the unique soil conditions and climate of our project site in Kuttanad.
We have built four prototype tanks in Achinakom Village before settling on a preliminary system design. The first sub-surface tank in the region was completed in December 2009 and supplies drinking and cooking water to nineteen households. As of August 2010, three above-ground family tanks were also completed. One of the tanks was built with rebar reinforced ring construction, one with brick-and-mortar construction, and one was cast out of a mold structure. After evaluating the construction processes and performances of various tanks in field, we decided to further develop the mold structure and built four more tanks using similar construction method in 2011. This brings the total number of operational tanks in Achinakom to 8. We are still working on the design; a new construction material made out of vegetable fibers has the potential to significantly lower the cost of the tanks, thus making clean water more affordable.
Moving Forward: Lower construction cost and Launch vending model
The key to our ongoing success is a sustainable economic model created by a partnership between the water user groups and Rainwater for Humanity. In cooperation with the village residents, Rainwater for Humanity has developed payback plans so that we can provide clean and affordable water to as many families as possible in Achinakom and other villages in Kuttanad.
We have begun to implement a payback model to ensure this sustainability. Users of the first four tanks pay a monthly fee toward their water user groups. This monthly fee is significantly less than what they would otherwise spend on vendor water during the same month. Using the accumulated fund, the water user groups are able to manage and maintain the tanks. In our second phase, the new water user groups adopt a vending model. In this vending model, users of the tanks pay on per-liter basis at a rate that is below the private vendor price. Each water user group elects a manager, usually a female member, who manages the tank and oversees water distribution. At the same time, Rainwater for Humanity provides the managers with administration support, compensation and tank maintenance service. We also track our impacts closely through regular water quality test and users survey. Going forward, Rainwater for Humanity will continue to refine the economic model as well as the tank design to bring clean and affordable water to as many Kuttanad households as possible.
Along with our partners at Mahatma Gandhi University School of Environmental Sciences, Rainwater for Humanity has been collaborating with the Asparawa Screwpine Society, an 8000-members strong women’s self-help group, local engineers, masons, the village residents and the water users groups established, ensuring community participation in and ownership of the project.
The system has been completed and the first drop of rainwater has trickled down the catchment area, sped along the gutter, squeezed through gravels sand and charcoal, rolled into the PVC pipe and entered the ferrocement tank.
The journey of this raindrop is made possible by the perspirations, brain juice and hard-earned income of people across the world. It will be used by 20 families, bringing clean water to about 80 villagers. However, we are not in the position to celebrate yet. This is the beginning of trillions more of raindrops that need to be harvested.
With that note, the following tasks are yet to be accomplished in the coming months-
Reiterations of rainwater harvesting prototypes
Hiring of a full time local Program Director
Building an organization structure to ensure accountability on the impacts we held ourselves against
Clarifying Rainwater’s visions and strategies
Aligning stakeholders’ values with Rainwater’s
There’s a saying “spectators can see the race clearly, but the athletes’ views are clouded.” We appreciate any thoughts especially on appropriate technology design, hydrology & engineering, and setting up the organization structure of a start-up social enterprise.
Yesterday morning, we drove Achinakom village, the project site, with Mr. Sylas, Dr. Thomas (former director of MGU School of Environmental Science), Prof. John, and Dr. Ramasamy (current School director). We sat in on a general body meeting (all in Malayalam; we were pretty lost but had some translation) with the future system users, local committee members, and us from the university. Although construction deadlines are approaching, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed, with plenty of joking and smiling.
This was followed by a local committee meeting with the two Panchayath (local government body) members from Achinakom, four village representatives, and Suma (the women's self-help group secretary). They set out a construction schedule for the system over the next three weeks, with material delivery later this week and building beginning on the ninth. It is expected to take twelve days to finish construction and allow all concrete to cure. They also agreed to open a bank account for project expenses in the name of “Rainwater for Humanity – Achinakom.” Suma and a Panchayath member will be signatories.
We all walked over to the system site. Taking advantage of local conditions, it is situated in an abandoned canal, approximately 2m deep, 5m wide, and 20m long. They have divided it in half to use one side for the storage tank and the other for drainage. Local engineers have advised that a silpaulin membrane tank will be unable to withstand existing hydrostatic pressure from the (very high) water table, so a rigid tank lining is required. They plan to mortar the sides of the canal (simultaneously pumping out groundwater) and then build a reinforced concrete shell. As per our proposal, there will be an elevated wall around the outside of the system (sloped 5°) and corrugated sheet metal roof (most likely galvanized iron).
When completed, the system will store about 120,000 liters of water (entirely contained within the subsurface canal). This will provide 16 neighboring families (approximately 72 people) with water over the course of the year. The primary desire is to have 20 liters a day available per family during the dry season (from December to April, about 38,400 liters). The current estimated cost is Rs. 135,000 (about US$2,700), and local masons estimate a lifetime of 50 years. Compared to Rs. 0.2 per liter of drinking water from private vendors (a common source during dry months, when well water is unusable), this is a factor of ten savings over the system lifetime.
Before building begins, we plan on gathering first-person background information on the social and technical impact of the system. We will interview villagers, visit the local health clinic, and test water samples from current sources to learn about current water use practices and issues. This baseline information will be crucial to measure Rainwater for Humanity's impact on concrete health metrics. We also plan to meet with consulting engineers at MGU and the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) and local masons in order to understand how local construction techniques have adapted to deal with difficult building conditions.
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