Sustainable Water Supply Solution in Pakistan’s Mountainous Areas?
The areas affected by the 2005 earthquake comprise some of the most idyllic places in Pakistan. However, life in these areas is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly in recent years due to the increasing scarcity of water. This has forced several people to even abandon their ancestral villages – something previously unimaginable for them.
The earthquake further deteriorated the water supply situation, destroying over four thousand existing water supply schemes and affecting yields of water sources. It is estimated that the yields of these sources decreased by 40 percent due to the earthquake.
The Earthquake Rehabilitation/Reconstruction Authority (ERRA) took up the responsibility of reconstruction and rehabilitation of the affected water supply schemes. And the herculean task was undertaken on war footings in collaboration with development partners and affected communities.
Sustainable Solution to Water Scarcity
ERRA realizes that rebuilding the affected water supply schemes, even when new structures surpass the old structures in terms of quality and reliability, is not the solution to the acute water scarcity in this region. What are needed are innovative structures that ensure a sustainable supply of water. As more than 90 percent people live in scattered rural hamlets, huge projects relying on lifting water from large water bodies lying thousands of feet below in a valley or water sources high on the mountain tops provide neither viable nor cost-effective solutions.
Huge promise lies in rainwater. The earthquake affected areas receive an average rainfall of 1,500 millimetres, higher than in any other part of Pakistan. Even if a small fraction of this rainfall is harvested, this can significantly help overcome the problem of water scarcity. The rooftops of the new houses, constructed under ERRA’s Rural Housing programme, are made of CGI sheets. Rainwater flowing down these sheets is clean and safe for human use after harvesting.
The residents here are familiar with the concept of rainwater harvesting (RWH). Till twenty years ago, each household in these areas would have a small pond at its disposal. These small reservoirs, which stored rainwater, were an important pillar in the livelihood of the farming families as they provided water for irrigation and for the drinking needs of farm animals. However, water stored in these ponds was not considered fit for human consumption.
RWH in Northern Pakistan provides a plausible alternative and supplementary source of water in this situation: where existing water sources are fast depleting. ERRA has decided to provide a sustainable and alternative solution by reviving and developing the age old practice of rainwater harvesting. The WatSan Programme at ERRA estimates that no less than 90,000 litres of water (20,000 gallons) can easily be collected every year from a small house of roof-size 30 feet by 11 feet.
RWH Success Pillars
There are three basic components to rainwater harvesting: catchment, gutters and pipes and a storage system. The CGI sheet roof serves as an effective catchment surface. Rainwater flushes quickly and the accumulated water is quite clean, compared to other roofing systems. It can then be stored in water storage containers or can even be charged into aquifers through any structure like dug well, percolation well, boreholes, recharge trenches or water ponds.
Proper care while collecting water through sloping roofs yields high benefits. It is estimated by ERRA that around 10 to 15 percent of the water is utilized as drinking water while 85 to 90 percent is used for daily washing, bathing and other activities.
RWH benefits include:
- Supplementing the existing water schemes and providing water facilities in the most decentralized manner.
- The provision of an ample water supply for domestic use will promote better sanitation-related practices.
Plans to Extend RWH for Domestic, Agri Uses
In accordance with its Build-Back-Better Policy, ERRA has prepared a plan to popularize rainwater harvesting for domestic as well as agricultural purposes. Under this programme, 50 union councils facing acute water shortage will be supported to set up rainwater harvesting structures. A comprehensive project worth Rs. 761 million has been prepared for this purpose. Having received approval from the ERRA board, project papers have been forwarded to the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) for approval, and the project has passed the first tier of approval. The Planning Division of Pakistan has greatly appreciated this initiative and assured mobilization of resources for timely implementation of the project. ERRA has shared this idea with all its partner organizations in the WATSAN sector. Donors and doers both appear quite keen on supporting ERRA in transforming this dream into reality.
Springs on Rooftops
Situated on the top of a mountain, the idyllic village of Chitrah Topi is located 17 kilometres from the city of Bagh in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). As residents of this village testify, living on a mountain top comes at a price. “A mountain top is not an easy place to live, because water flows downstream and you do not find many springs or streams flowing down your way,” explains a resident.
Until a few months ago, two thousand residents of Chitrah Topi, particularly women, faced a difficult situation. As gendered division of labour ordains, almost the entire burden of ensuring domestic water supply fell on the shoulders of women, or, literally speaking, on their necks. Women had to walk four to five kilometres every day to fetch water, an ordeal that could take up to eight hours, everyday. Some donkey carts brought water to the village, charging Rs. 30 to 40 for a 5-gallon container. But buying water was not an option for most residents of this low-income mountain village.
This situation worsened as a result of the October 2005 earthquake, as most water sources in the area dried up or changed their course, making it even harder to attain water for domestic consumption. It appeared that there was no end to this problem, until ERRA introduced the rainwater harvesting project in the village through its partner organization, the Maqsood Welfare society. As a result of ERRA’s initiative to promote RWH in earthquake affected areas, the society was able to obtain funding from Oxfam GB for a pilot project in Chitrah Topi village.
Apart from two schools and a large mosque, a list of 25 houses was drawn for supporting construction of rooftop rainwater harvesting facilities. The project, which started about four months back, benefits apart from residents of these houses, more than 470 children and teachers of two schools and a large section of community visiting the Jamia Mosque for prayers.
Soon after completion of the project, the heavy monsoon rains poured down from the skies. Residents of the village discovered that there were springs flowing from the rooftops.
Once harnessed, these springs ensure safe and clean water. As a result of the project, women have been freed from the drudgery of carrying water everyday and people are growing kitchen gardens in their homes. For the school children, toilets have been made useable for the first time.
“Life has changed for the 200 girls studying at our schools. The lack of toilet facilities discouraged girl children from studying and it made life miserable for the teachers as well. Thanks to the new RWH facility, we now have safe and fresh water available for all of our needs,” says Haleema, a teacher at Government Girls High School at Chitrah Topi.
Water Scarcity: A Problem of The Past
Hullar Syedan, a picturesque village in district Bagh, AJK is one of the places where the practice of rooftop RWH emerged and evolved, in response to people’s needs. Fifteen years ago, the villagers faced severe water shortages. The village had some communal
wells, which were kept locked and elderly women were made custodians of these keys to ensure equal distribution of water among the village residents. The villagers also had four ponds built, generations ago.
These ponds were used to store rainwater and were cleaned every year. However, these ponds and wells used to dry up if it did not rain for a month or so. When this happened, the villagers had to take their cattle to distant places for grazing and watering. The women used to carry water from streams located miles away.
In the 1970′s, many people from these villages moved to the Middle East for better employment. This resulted in improved economic situation by 1980 and people built houses with sloping roofs. Upon their own initiative, villagers started collecting water coming down from the rooftops in cans and pots. In a few years, all houses with a sloping roof had a water tank and toilet. These tanks could store a large volume of water. Periods of drought saw them using their water carefully so that supply could last till the next rainy season. In 1996, with the collaboration of the local government of Azad Kashmir, a large water pumping scheme was completed with the capacity to provide water to 2,500 people. The residents are running the water supply scheme on a self-help basis. They have set up a committee for the maintenance of the water supply schemes. Every household makes a monthly contribution to keep the system running. Along with this scheme, people are still using RWH to augment their water supplies. During the months of rain, pressure on the water supply decreases as people switch to the water collected through RWH. Water scarcity is now a problem of the past.