For Clean Water, Villagers in Sri Lanka Look to an Ancient Solution to an Age-Old Problem

On World Water Day in March 2017, students and teachers from Keselpotha Maha Vidyalaya joined USAID representatives to inaugurate a rainwater harvesting system at their school, providing clean drinking water year-round. Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Sri Lanka

For nearly 30 years, communities in Alankerny in northern Sri Lanka suffered the consequences of conflict and displacement. In 2009, the conflict ended and communities in the region returned home to face a host of challenges, including the lack of clean water. Salinity of groundwater in this predominantly agro-based village is so high that it can neither be used for drinking nor for agriculture. The water problem has been exacerbated by extended droughts over the past several years.

Ravichandram is a farmer in Alankerny, but the drought pushed Ravichandram and many others in his village to look for alternative incomes as a day laborer. Struggling with illness from contaminated water, Ravichandram said, “We were left with two options, to pay exorbitant amounts from our already meager incomes and buy water, or make long trips, multiple times a day to fetch water from wells in other villages.”

Many of these wells could not meet the demand of multiple villages, and on some days they would return home without a drop of water. Often the villagers clashed in their competition for water and several wells in the area went completely dry.

All that has changed, thanks to a USAID initiative to build rainwater harvesting systems for communities in flood- and drought-prone regions of Sri Lanka. The initiative, implemented by the Lanka Rainwater Harvesting Forum (LRWHF), has helped thousands of families receive a rainwater system for their gardens, providing families with clean water year-round. Ravichandram and his family no longer struggle for access to water.

“Now there is no waking up at 3 o’clock to walk endlessly in the scorching sun or heavy rain to join water queues or spending my hard-earned money to buy water. There is also enough water to maintain a home garden,” Ravichandram said.

The program involves building household and community rainwater harvesting tanks, training communities to maintain and operate these systems, raising awareness among stakeholders of the technology, and conducting research and development. USAID and LRWHF have implemented the initiative since 2012, but these systems mimic a technology introduced by Sri Lanka's ancient kings to collect, conserve, and manage rainwater for both domestic and agricultural use.

For rural villagers like Ravichandram, the USAID-LRWHF initiative has done much more than provide safe drinking water. It has given their families a whole new lease on life, relieving them from their water burden to focus on cultivation and spend time with their families.

By Passanna Gunasekera, USAID/Sri Lanka Program and Outreach Specialist and Gender Point of Contact


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