Ancient Water Scheme Gives Sri Lankans New Lease on Life

Sarifa and Khalideen in front of a rainwater harvesting tank that they painted
Sarifa and Khalideen in front of a rainwater harvesting tank that they painted
Rehana Cuttilan/USAID
Local group revives rainwater harvesting tanks in drought-prone village
“The program not only provided us with a tank, but a whole new lease on life.”

For many families displaced multiple times during Sri Lanka’s 26-year conflict, they have only recently resettled and restarted their lives. Frequent water scarcity is an extra burden to bear.

Sarifa Fathima is a 56-year-old mother of four and grandmother of three. She lives with her husband and daughter while her son lives with his wife and three children in an adjoining house. Their main income comes from rice farming.

Fathima lives in Cheddikulam, a rural, drought-prone village in Sri Lanka’s former northern war zone. During the long, dry months, roughly May to September, her family struggles to survive.

Though Sri Lanka receives on average 1,800 mm of rainfall annually (Washington State has 976 mm on average), levels are inconsistent. Fathima’s village generally reports low rainfall totals, even during monsoons. When wells go dry, buying water or travelling long distances for it were once the villagers’ only options. 

“Every drop came from a common well 2 to 3 kilometers away. We made multiple trips a day by foot or on bicycle, carrying heavy loads of water,” says Fathima.

The region is also known for fluoride- and calcium-contaminated groundwater. 

“We know villagers who died of, or are suffering from, kidney disease after consuming well water. Our family also suffered from infections after consuming well water and we spent a lot of money on hospital visits and medicine.”

In 2012, USAID awarded a $483,000 grant to Lanka Rainwater Harvesting Forum (LRWHF), a local NGO that focuses on reviving the ancient technology of collecting rainwater for household and community use. 

LRWHF is training masons to build 750 rainwater harvesting tanks in households throughout the district (with larger units in selected schools and hospitals). These 8,000-liter household tanks collect rain water from a family’s roof and divert it into a tank on the side of a house. After going through a flush device to take out dust and debris, the water is further sent through a filter consisting of pebble charcoal and mesh. Safe drinking water is taken out of the tank through a tap connected to the base of the tank.

The project mimics a technology introduced by Sri Lanka’s ancient kings, dating back to the 5th century. Rising and falling in popularity over the centuries, the technology 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. Arsenic is suspected to be in pesticides that have been used for agriculture.

Around 100 families in Fathima’s village received rainwater harvesting systems under the grant, part of a larger USAID program that funds Sri Lankan organizations to extend much-needed services to vulnerable communities. “During monsoon rains, the tank fills and all of us, five adults and three children, use the stored water for drinking and cooking during the dry season," says Fathima. 

Fathima provided materials such as wooden planks, meals and labor support for the masons during the construction phase, and the family was trained to maintain and clean the cement tank. 

The initiative is also addressing livelihood, food security and sanitation needs while contributing to climate change mitigation. Most of the villagers now have drinking water on their own premises, with extra to irrigate and produce lush home gardens. Along with the rainwater harvesting systems, the families received vegetable seeds and plants.

Fathima and her husband have time to toil in their vegetable and rice cultivations and are even considering moving from subsistence to commercial agriculture.

The USAID initiative incorporates an active community awareness and training focus to educate people on the benefits of rainwater harvesting. Awareness activities include public exhibitions and efforts to strengthen local government officials’ ability to enact effective policies. 

As water resources become scarcer, water needs escalate and climate change is a common topic of discussion, rainwater harvesting is the most feasible and financially viable alternative for access to quality water. “The program not only provided us with a tank, but a whole new lease on life,” says Fathima.