“I started to do RWH in Chennai for very selfish reasons” – Sekhar Raghavan, Rain Centre

We catch up with Chennai’s rain man to understand how the city, India’s RWH success story, made it happen. And other little known water realities.

Sekhar Raghavan is a man with a purpose. For him, living an ecologically sensitive and equitable life is not a choice but an imperative. To many in Chennai he is the face of the campaign that ushered in rain-water harvesting (RWH) as a simple and logical method to fight rapidly depleting ground water levels. Contrary to what is accepted as a huge success story across India, Raghavan is quick to clarify that the ‘Chennai success story’ is not really there. “The figures reported may not be accurate. Only about 50% of those who implemented the system have done it in a manner that will be effective”, he says of the phenomenon in Chennai that saw RWH gain momentum owing to a policy drive, and an active awareness and media campaign.

It all began with a modest and somewhat selfish aim of his to continue enjoying water supply. “I live in Beasant Nagar which is close to the sea. The soil is such that it allows rainwater to percolate fast and enrich the ground water source. It was not being tapped though, and most of the rainwater was draining back into the sea. These facts were fairly obvious to someone who bothered to look. It struck me that the most logical thing to do was conserve rain water.” He tells me that 1995, which saw the seeds of the campaign being sowed, was also when his area in Chennai saw a huge migration drive, prompted by the belief that there was good water supply in the locality.

My journey with water

“Huge complexes came up with paved driveways, resulting in rain water draining into the roads. There was also excessive water being drawn from the ground, with no reciprocal recharging. At the same time, during the monsoon, streets were getting flooded. I decided that if I had to live in the area with sufficient water for the remaining years of my life, I would have to do something about it. In the beginning, I would go from one apartment to another hoping to explain the concept and its benefits.” Trust our middle-class consumerist minds to be cynical. Apartments would refuse to let Sekhar in, believing he was a salesman of some sort. “The others thought I was simply crazy”, he says with a laugh.

The first fillip to his drive came when the neighbourhood newspaper gave him space to explain RWH. The years 1999-2000 saw the state face severe drought, and a series of articles appearing in the Hindu that focussed on the problem. “That was a significant milestone. People began to realize that they could not take the water supply they enjoyed for granted. They began approaching me to understand the RWH concept, and for help with implementing it”. This, and generous support from a few IIT alumni saw the establishment of the Rain Centre in Chennai.

As I take a tour around the Centre, I feel like I am back in one of my science classrooms. Graphic images bring home the message of man’s assault on nature to you. The idea that there could be future water wars screams out to you. You come away with a sense of urgency, and a curiosity to find out how you can deal with nature’s most precious resource better.

How Chennai got the city to catch the rain

Following the law that was enacted in Tamilnadu in 2002 that made RWH mandatory, in line with the then (and present) Chief Minister’s election manifesto, all buildings and houses a year’s time from October 2002 to fall in line. Sekhar was part of a high-level committee consisting of mostly bureaucrats, whose deliberations led to the framing of the law. He sees the effort and the pace with which the law was pushed through as an example of what political will can achieve. A large part of translating that will to implementation he says, was due to the efforts of Shantha Sheela Nair, then Secretary, Water Supply and Municipal Administration, and popularly called the ‘water woman’. I ask him what the effect of passing such a law was? Did it increase people’s awareness? “It definitely put the issue of water in a fairly important place in the agenda. But for a lot of people, what followed was not so much a deep awareness that would endure, but an immediate need to comply with the law. When the Chief Minister reviewed the results sometime in June ’03, they were far from encouraging. This led to an ordinance advancing the deadline for compliance to August ’03.”

I wondered if this kind of urgent prioritising as opposed to a long consultative process creating awareness was wise. “It is worth thinking about. When I carried out a survey myself in October-December ’03 in one of the areas in Chennai, I realized that the implementation was far from effective and complete. People rushed through the process, some of the buildings did not even erect the systems properly.”

Ultimately, he says, it’s a process of overall sensitization. “There’s no point in someone conserving water, but cutting down trees. We must focus on enabling individuals to develop a wholesome sense of ecological consciousnesses.”

De-salination is mindless

Part of the problem, he believes, is the inability of the urban mind to entertain small and simple solutions. “They’re spending thousands of crores on a desalination plant. It’s totally unnecessary in a city like Chennai that receives enough rainfall in concentrated spells. Maybe it will be suitable to a completely dry country like Saudi Arabia. But no, we look at countries like Brazil, Bolivia, and tell ourselves we must adopt the same solutions irrespective of how suitable they may be.” Desalination, I learn, brings its own set of environmental concerns. The salts removed from the water supplied get concentrated in the remaining water whose salinity obviously becomes far higher. Where does this water go? Releasing it back into the sea may have serious consequences for the marine ecosystem.

What RWH brought to Chennai

In contrast, the benefits of RWH are there for all to see. Following the implementation of RWH systems, the city in 2005, saw a record annual rainfall of 250 cm. When surveys were carried out, they showed that the water table had gone up by 20 feet, a phenomenal increase! The results were particularly remarkable in the temple tanks, which had at one point become so dry that children used them as cricket fields! Sekhar says, “we surveyed nearly 39 temple tanks in January ’06. These tanks which had earlier been empty were now half full. The secret lies in the fact that surrounding houses had adopted RWH, and the water table all around improved significantly.”

No talk about water is complete without thinking about where the sewage goes

For Sekhar, talking about water is of little use without dealing with issues of sanitation. Eco-sanitation is one concept he’s been passionate about. He initiated it in a village in Kovalam (along the east coast of Tamilnadu). The villagers were made to understand that their water table being high, would very quickly get contaminated, if they continued with their existing methods of sanitation. Coupled with this was the progressive reduction of open spaces for defecation, caused by a spurt in construction. “Quite a few people saw the potential of a system like this and we’ve built a number of ecosan toilets with funding support from a company in Japan. There is however, even now, a lot of reluctance. People feel unclean about having such a toilet in their homes, and switch to traditional water-fed ones. I do however strongly feel that if we keep at it, we can change these perceptions. Ecosan toilets will be particularly suitable in agricultural villages where the compost can serve as manure”.

The challenges are many, and Sekhar keeps at his initiatives tirelessly. The Rain Centre is engaged in a host of initiatives involving awareness campaigns, implementation exercises, and surveys and studies. “We can’t give up can we?” he asks me with a smile. Certainly not. Processes of change are slow and difficult, but for people like him, the alternative of shutting your eyes is simply unthinkable.

Catch Every Drop is a campaign on sustainable water conservation by The Alternative, sponsored by Arghyam, with partners India Water Portal and Biome Environmental Solutions.

Whether it is the Cauvery river dispute, the unregulated proliferation of bore wells or the death of Bangalore’s beautiful lakes, everyone has a story, an opinion or a question on water. While most people understand and recognize the importance of saving water, not everyone knows how to do it, or even what exactly they can do.

‘Catch Every Drop’ is a showcase of stories of pioneering water conservation work done by corporates, lake restoration groups, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), and individuals in Bangalore. These stories, we hope, will inspire you to join this growing community of people who truly care about water, our planet’s most precious resource.

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