Rainwater Harvesting at home and in school

To celebrate World Water Day 2013, the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance (IRHA) is running an awareness raising campaign to demonstrate the uses and the benefits of rainwater harvesting.

Countless regions around the world are suffering from water shortages. Increasing populations and economic development are putting a strain on our water resources like never before. Direct consumption, agriculture, energy production and industry all compete for this same resource. As a result, many rivers never reach the sea and groundwater levels are falling. Added to this, climate change is affecting rainfall patterns, surface waters are becoming increasingly polluted and groundwater in many coastal areas is suffering from saline intrusion. This is why the IRHA campaigns for the increased use and management of rainwater – the forgotten water resource.

What is rainwater harvesting?

Rainwater harvesting is the management of rainwater as a water resource. It is not one single method, but a collection of techniques that can be used to suit various situations in differing locations. Rainwater harvesting has a long history, and its use in many regions can be traced back for centuries. However, the arrival of centralised water systems meant people no longer felt the need to collect the rain – the knowledge and practise of this ancient tradition was almost forgotten. The IRHA, along with many other rainwater harvesters around the world, are fighting to reverse this trend.

The uses of rainwater are extremely widespread: from providing a family with water to recharging falling groundwater levels; from increasing production in rain-fed agriculture to helping cities reduce their flood risk. In this article, we look at how rainwater harvesting can provide homes and schools with a sustainable supply of water, and some of the benefits this can bring.

Rainwater harvesting at home

Rainwater harvesting can provide a household with an onsite source of water – this could be the only source of water or an additional one. The concept is simple, the rain that falls on the roof of the house is directed via gutters and pipes into a storage container. The rainwater can then be kept safely until it is required. After simple treatment, such as boiling, solar radiation, high level filtration or chlorination, this water can be used for drinking, food preparation and washing. It can also be used for cleaning and watering plants. 

Having a supply of water at home means people are not reliant on centralised supplies that can be extremely erratic and subject to cuts. It removes the need to buy water from vendors, which is often very expensive and of poor quality. For some, it means women no longer have to walk long distances to fetch water every day, leaving them free to pursue other activities. For others, it is a way of reducing their consumption of mains water and therefore reducing their water bills.

Most rainwater harvesting systems are low cost, requiring local materials and techniques and only a little manual labour. For a simple system, all that is needed is a roof, gutters or pipes, a filter and a storage container. 

There is an extremely wide variety of storage containers that can be used at home – from large tanks down to a barrel or a jar. Tanks can be made of aluminium, brick, concrete and plastic, but it is important that they have a lid and are opaque so that no sunlight can enter. These measures help ensure the quality of the rainwater is preserved while it is being stored. 

To ensure the long term quality of the water, rainwater systems need to be maintained, but this does not need to be a lot of work. The most important task is to keep the catchment area – usually the roof – as clean as possible. It needs to be checked regularly to ensure there is no debris, such as leaves or droppings, and removing any that there is. This should also be done with the gutters. Before entering the container, the water should pass through a filter as an extra precaution against debris, insects and animals getting into the tank.

If these simple steps are followed, a household can provide itself with a clean and sustainable supply of water.

However, it is not only homes that need a safe supply of water. Fortunately, rainwater harvesting systems can be adapted to suit almost any situation…

Rainwater harvesting in schools

Many schools in the world do not have any access to water in their grounds. Children either have to bring water with them, leave school during the day to get water, or go without a drink for the whole school day. This has serious implications not only on their education, but also on their health.

However school buildings are ideal for rainwater harvesting as their large roofs provide an ample surface area to collect the water. This supply of water makes a huge difference to the learning conditions in schools. Not only can children have a drink during the day, there is also water available for sanitation, cleaning and food preparation. The simple act of washing hands with water and soap after going to the toilet can drastically reduce the incidence of diarrhoea-related diseases. Improved sanitation conditions also encourage girls to continue going to school once they have started menstruating. 

Due to the clear benefits of providing schools with water, the IRHA’s flagship Blue Schools Programme provides schools in developing countries with access to water and decent sanitation. Rainwater harvesting systems collect the rainwater that falls on the roofs of the schools, storing it in ferro-cement tanks. After treatment with chlorine to ensure its quality, this rainwater provides every child and teacher with at least 2.5 litres of water every day. Toilets, which are separate for girls and boys and have hand washing facilities, are provided to improve the sanitation conditions of the schools. Other activities such as vegetable gardens, reforestation and volleyball courts are also carried out. Finally, education is provided to the children, teachers and school management, to ensure the benefits of the project continue long after the implementation is finished.

World Water Day

This is just a short overview showing how rainwater harvesting can be used to provide a household or a school with a sustainable supply of water. The best news is that rainwater harvesting can be done easily by anyone, anywhere! It is not just one method, but a range of different techniques that can be chosen to suit the local situation. No matter your climate, circumstances or region, a form of rainwater harvesting can always be introduced!

This World Water Day (22nd March 2013) the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance is encouraging people from around the world to start harvesting their rain! Together, using a few simple techniques, we can improve provision of water while at the same timing reduce energy consumption. 

The International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance (IRHA) is an international NGO based in Geneva, Switzerland, working to increase the use of rainwater harvesting in order to improve access to water and sanitation, and to promote its implementation as a simple and low cost climate change adaptation strategy. Author is IRHA Communications Officer of IRHA

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