Monsoon showers wash away rainwater harvesting initiatives

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

With the start of a good monsoon, everyone seems to have forgotten about water harvesting as a means to ensure healthy supplies of water even after the rains

The rain gods have finally smiled. For the inhabitants of Laporiya, a village 85 km from the tourist capital of Jaipur, Rajasthan, this translates into water security for the next five years. “We have had excellent infiltration of monsoon waters into the soil. Our drinking and irrigation needs will be comfortably met for the next five years, rain or no rain,” says an upbeat Jagveer Singh. Having seen how a large irrigation tank and two small percolation tanks harvested less than 100 mm of rain during the past five lean seasons, the 189 households here have every reason to believe Singh.

Although many towns and cities across the country are experiencing heavy showers this monsoon, none has had the foresight of Laporiya. In fact, to some, the advent of the first rains proved to be a curse, with flooded streets, overflowing drains and traffic chaos.

Until very recently, rainwater harvesting was at the top of every municipality’s agenda. The prime minister gave the clarion call to conserve “every drop of water”. And government agencies began chanting the rainwater harvesting mantra just before the onset of the monsoons.

If the all-India area-weighted rainfall of 260 mm till the beginning of July is any indication, all our innovative measures to harvest rainwater have been cosmetic, indeed futile. Let alone a `significant harvest’, the hype surrounding rainwater harvesting has not managed to survive even the first few showers.

Estimates indicate that stored rainwater can meet over 40% of a city’s daily drinking water supply. That’s enough to bail out water-stressed cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. These cities have all enacted laws -- they have also made special budgetary provisions -- to promote rainwater harvesting. But, thanks to the lack of preparation with respect to cleaning and creating spaces to store rainwater, including traditional ponds and rooftop harvesting structures, the laws and provisions have remained on paper.

Even a Delhi High Court directive ordering land-owning agencies to remove encroachments around or on water bodies in Delhi has had little impact. A committee appointed by the court in August 2001 identified the renovation and revival of 508 water bodies in Delhi for upgrading the city’s water supply as well as recharging fast-depleting groundwater levels. The lack of seriousness with which the government pursues such court orders is evident from the fact that it has sought to ignore the issue of drinking water in Delhi’s Master Plan 2021.

Paradoxically, a similar directive from the Supreme Court late last year led to the setting up of a task force to examine linking the Himalayan rivers with the peninsular rivers, at a phenomenal cost of Rs 560,000 crore. Unlike the high court directive, the apex court set a timeline for executing the biggest-ever project in the country’s history. Surprisingly, the easier and cheaper option of reviving Delhi’s water bodies was neither given a timeline nor was a task force set up to oversee its execution. This exposes the duality with which the State approaches the two related issues!

Court orders have been ignored elsewhere as well. On directions from the high court, the Ahmedabad collector listed 137 lakes in the city. It also stated that over 65 had already been built over. Bangalore too has lost 252 of its 262 lakes over the past 40 years.

The plight of Delhi’s 508 water bodies is reflected in the city’s failure to meet its daily water needs. Having ignored their vital sponges, most big cities now import water from far-off places. Ironically, the judiciary views the inter-basin transfer of water seriously but takes a rather relaxed stance on in situ measures.

Given the role of judicial activism in shaping government policy, a relaxed approach to rainwater harvesting means that a vital opportunity to ensure future water security has been missed. In terms of quantity, the Delhi Jal Board has failed to capitalise on the opportunity to enhance its daily supply of 650 millon gallons by another 675 million litres, through stored rainwater. Despite a clear stand by the Delhi High Court that costs should not be a consideration in such initiatives, the Delhi Jal Board has ignored the cheaper option.

The real tragedy is that a few months from now, when the rains are over, and the waterlogging disappears, the rainwater harvesting mantra will be chanted all over again. Thirsty cities will begin poaching on the surrounding rural areas for water. And with memories of an `exceptionally good monsoon’ behind it, the government will get back to its business of making electoral promises of making water available in every corner of India. In a country where people still believe that water is an electoral gift, the manipulation of water supplies becomes an effective political tool.

Unless people begin to believe that they can gift water to themselves, as the villagers of Laporiya have done, they will only strengthen the government’s hand in selling the idea that river linking is the panacea to all our water-related problems.

(Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert attached to the Ecological Foundation in New Delhi. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2003