Webinar: Rainwater harvesting for disaster risk reduction in flood and drought crises

GWP SAS, in collaboration with South Asia Rainwater Network (SARNET), Lanka Rainwater Harvesting Forum (LRWHF) and Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) jointly organised a webinar on Rainwater harvesting for disaster risk reduction in flood and drought crises on 3 August 2023. This is part of the “Signposts to Bali” initiative, a deliberation of WfWP for the preparation for the 10th World Water Forum.

Experiencing heavy rains in the northern states of India during the early weeks of July 2023 have triggered flash floods and landslides in Northern India causing a heavy toll on people’s lives, livelihoods and businesses. The same part of the country experienced a heatwave a few months ago (in April), which had its temperatures going beyond 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) causing deaths, heat-related illness and crop damage across the state. The unprecedented floods in Pakistan in 2022 destroyed the livelihoods of rural people and kept the croplands and villages underwater. The consequences still exist; people live near contaminated and stagnant flood waters, risking their survival and quality of life. Although heavy rains and heat waves are common in the region, these conditions seem more aggravated, intensified and become more prolonged than usual in recent years. The inability to manage short-term, seasonal, and interannual precipitation variability by the countries leads to climate-induced disasters creating challenges to the socioeconomic development of the countries.

With the given backdrop, and in line with the first anchor area of GWP Strategy 2020-2025, water solutions for the SDGs, GWP SAS initiated a dialogue with WfWP, SARNET and the LRWHF to find solutions and bring change for disaster risk reduction (DRR) through raising awareness. The first webinar was held on 3 August 2023 with the aim to strengthen the regional rainwater network as well as underline the role of RWH in flood and drought risk mitigation and management.

The objectives of the webinar were to share lessons learnt and best practices with evidence from RWH programmes implemented in the region and to discuss the importance and best practices of RWH technologies for DRR and mitigation. More than 220 stakeholders representing South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa regions registered for the webinar and GWP SAS successfully livestreamed the event on GWP SAS Facebook Page to minimise unexpected technical difficulties.

Kusum Athukorala, Chair, GWP SAS welcomed the participants and Dhanushi Senanyaka, the Regional Coordinator, SARNET gave a brief introduction to the organisation and their respective responsibilities in the collaboration. Mariet Verhoef-Cohen, WfWP was invited as a guest speaker to set the scene. She recollected the long-standing partnership of WfWP with GWP, and the role played by WFWP in formulating GWP’s gender strategy and its later role during the analysis of key gaps for gender mainstreaming in water-related policies and investment programmes conducted by GWP. She highlighted that “the gender mainstreaming and getting the communities involvement in advocacy on climate is still a priority”. She further said that “climate change has an incredible impact on women, especially the women in the South. Although floods, droughts and earthquakes are gender-neutral, women are mostly impacted by the disasters both during and after. Therefore, we should ensure no one forgets to involve women and their communities in designing alternatives”.

After introduction to the meeting, the four country-level experts on water management shared their experiences with the participants. First was Sanjida Yeasmin Shefa, Project Manager from Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS), who shared the Banojibi – safe drinking water service, which is a renewable and sustainable initiative for the coastal people of Bangladesh, especially in Sundarbans. She explained the mechanisms undertaken to ensure safe and sustainable drinking water facilities such as using the reverse osmosis system, rainwater harvesting, and solar energy as a renewable energy source and the Water ATM Facility introduced as a social business model to empower the deprived women in the coastal areas.

The second presentation was by Manoj P. Samuel (PhD), the Executive Director of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (KSCSTE-CWRDM) in India. He explained different strategies are being used for the RWH systems placed in rural compared to urban areas that depend mainly on their purpose. The urban RWH is mainly targeted to achieve immediate, short, or medium-term water security measures whereas the rural is to ensure sustainable water security. He further introduced traditional, natural, and man-made RWH techniques and materials that are being used to filter the water harvested in different parts of the country before utilisation.

Syed Zaheer Hussain Gardezi, Former Director General of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), Government of Pakistan was the next presenter who shared his experience on restoring access to water to the people living in the mountains range after the earthquake in 2005 in Pakistan. The devastating earthquake impacted the lives of 3.5 million people and damaged the infrastructure in the region. In 2008, the WatSan Sector of ERRA proposed to promote RWH as an alternative to store water under the slogan “Build Back Better” and piloted a rooftop RWH valued at USD 6.2 million. The project included awareness raising, training development and developing technical guidelines for RWH targeting to build more than 40,000 RWH Systems on private houses and 1,300 public institutions. Towards the end of the project, an external evaluation was conducted that was shown positive impacts such as saving women’s time allocation for fetching water, improving home gardening and a remarkable reduction of open defecation among the targeted population. In concluding his presentation, Gardezi said “RWH is equally beneficial for addressing water issues whether it is during droughts or floods. It is the most cost-effective solution for the hills with high average but erratic rainfall (more than 1500 mm) and having scattered population”.

Tanuja Ariyananda (PhD), CEO of LRWHF shared the Sri Lanka experience and stated that sadly, more than 65 per cent of the surface run-off in the country escapes to the sea. Moreover, the people in the North Central Province suffer from water quality issues such as chronic kidney disease (CKDu) and mostly women and children are directly impacted by lack of access to water and poor water quality. Therefore, water harvested through RWH could be the best possible solution for emerging challenges to access safe water. Dr Ariyananda highlighted the ongoing RWH project in Northern, North Central and Uva provinces in Sri Lanka maaged by LRWHF which constructed 110 RWH systems in rural schools, 10 in rural hospitals and over 1000 domestic RWH systems in houses. Through the project, LRWHR is also building the capacity of government officials, professionals and communities on rainwater harvesting technology. She expressed that there is evidence that the water collected through RWH was the major safe drinking water source for the communities during either floods or droughts especially when the other water sources got contaminated.

With the completion of these excellent country presentations, Rajindra Ariyabandu (PhD), the former Chair of LRWHF invited the participants for the discussion. There was a question on methods that can be used to avoid contamination for both roof-top and surface water harvesting. The experts suggested various methods such as using biological filters and natural fibres, using absorbents and purifying drinking water through boiling and chlorinating. An Expert suggested that since only 10 per cent of the drinking water demand is being covered through RWH and the rest is being used for other purposes including gardening, cleaning and flushing, the households with RWH facilities in-house should only worry about access to safe drinking water – for only 10 per cent of their requirement. A participant shared his experience and explained about bio-sand water filters that are being distributed in Thar Desert in Pakistan that are being used to filter the biological contaminants of drinking water. He further informed that they have established more than 5,000 seepage wells and ponds in the desert to harvest the runoff water during heavy rains. There was a question on not having adequate minerals in collected rainwater where the experts informed that humans mainly absorb minerals from their food but not from water. Therefore, there is no specific requirement to add minerals to the collected water before drinking. A participant had clarification on the parameters being used by LRWHF to measure well water quality after the recharge which was answered - mainly through pH and dissolved solid since they are the most cost-effective available methods in the country.

Finally, Diluka Piyasena, Communications Coordinator, GWP SAS in her closing remarks highlighted that the GWP SAS is looking forward to strengthening the partnership with SARNET through an MOU, especially for knowledge sharing on RWH as a solution for disaster risk reduction. She thanked all the presenters and participants, especially WfWP, SARNET and LRWHF, for the support given to organise the webinar successfully.