We dreaded those endless trips carrying heavy pots of water for two to three kms. What's more, be it sunset or dusk, heavy rain or scorching sun, we had to do it by foot or bicycle."
Living in Cheddikulam, Vavuniya, Safra's and Sarifa's families – along with hundreds of other village families – frequently faced extended periods without rain, which dried out their wells. Despite the dry spells, what was of utmost concern to them is the unsafe level of fluoride and calcium that contaminates the region's groundwater. Not only do Safra and Sarifa know several villagers who died of or are suffering from kidney disease after consuming well water, they have also spent time and money on medicine to treat their own family members suffering from infections caused by contaminated water. The burden of this eternal battle for water fell on 23-year-old Safra, the eldest daughter in a family of four, after the offspring lost their mother, years earlier. Before and after work, she and her younger sister joined other village women on their daily journey to fetch water. By contrast, Sarifa was one of the fortunate few; her husband rode his bicycle to fetch water. However, Sarifa added, "because we were unsure of the water quality, we still spent our hard- earned money, buying bottled water for drinking."
For these village families, displaced multiple times during the conflict and now resettled in their communities, these efforts have been an extra burden to bear – financially as well as on their time and health. Now both Safra and Sarifa, along with another 100 families in Cheddikulam, don't need to worry about finding safe drinking water every day thanks to 8,000-liter rainwater harvesting systems built on their compounds or within close proximity.
Best use of water
During the rains, the systems collect the water from the roofs, divert it into tanks, and provide the families with safe water. The rainwater harvesting systems are provided by a local organization, Lanka Rain Water Harvesting Forum (LRWHF) under a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the development arm of the US Government. LRWHF is bringing about a sea of change in the area and dramatically improving the lives of villagers by building 750 household rainwater harvesting tanks across the district, along with larger units in selected schools and hospitals.
The initiative not only trains masons to build these affordable cement tanks in households, but also trains families to maintain and clean the tanks that come with a 15-year guarantee.
Conserving rainwater for later use is a technology introduced by Sri Lanka's ancient kings and dates back as far as the 5th Century. Rising and falling in popularity over the centuries, the technology has made a comeback over the past decades, due to extended dry seasons, less rainfall during the rainy season, and fluoride, arsenic or salt -infiltrated groundwater.
These rainwater harvesting systems do much more than address water needs in drought-prone villages. For example, Sarifa and her husband also received vegetable seeds and plants under the initiative. "We not only have drinking water in our garden but we normally have enough water to irrigate and produce a lush home garden of eggplant, tomato and pepper," said Sarifa. Eventually, they plan to develop their home garden and move from subsistence to commercial agriculture. As for Safra, ever since she was relieved of her water fetching burden, she has more time to concentrate on her studies and care for her siblings.
Water fetching burden
"Today, as water resources are becoming scarcer, water needs are escalating, and climate change is a common topic of discussion. We are promoting the age old technology of rainwater harvesting as a feasible and financially viable alternative for access to quality water", says Tanuja Ariyananda, Director, LRWHF. The organization is also strengthening the capacity of government officials, enabling them lobby for policy change. For Safra and Sarifa the initiative does much more than provide them with safe water – it gives their families a whole new lease on life.