August 20, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Shobha Warrier

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa is set to inaugurate the Akash Ganga Rain Centre in Chennai on August 21. The centre, the first of its kind in India, aims at educating the city on the necessity and benefits of harvesting the water from the rains that falls on the city every year. This is the story of the Akash Ganga project.

Coloured plastic pots lined up in front of dry water taps, and women shouting at each other much before the water starts trickling down from the taps are scenes that can be witnessed quite regularly in Chennai, the largest city in south India.

Although the city is not rain starved, it is water starved. The city depends solely on the two-month-long northeast monsoons for its water needs. When the rain gods bless the city in the months of October and November, the three reservoirs (Red Hills, Poondi, and Sholavaram) fill up and the excess water flows into the sea. Yet, the three reservoirs cannot meet the city's vast and growing water needs. And year after year, excess rainwater simply flowed into the sea.

Chennai has an average annual rainfall of 1290 mm, and in 2001, the city received 1670 mm rain, higher than the national average. It is estimated that almost 90 per cent of the rainfall in the city is lost due to surface runoff and evaporation.

The reason: most of the city's surface is cemented, leaving very little open space to absorb the rainwater that could in turn replenish the depleting groundwater that feed the wells and the hand pumps that dot the city.

It was against this background that a physics professor, Dr Sekhar Raghavan, started a door-to-door campaign in some of the residential areas in Chennai to spread the concept of "rainwater harvesting". Through his patient and consistent efforts, he could convince more than 500 residences, industries, and charitable institutions to implement rainwater-harvesting programmes.

Enter Ram Krishnan, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, who migrated to the United States around 30 years ago, and settled in St Paul, Minnesota, with his family. Ram Krishnan nostalgically states, "No matter where Indians go and settle down, they always have India in their hearts and often we remember India the way it was when we left. It takes some effort to discover the current India."

When he came to know about the efforts of people like Dr Sekhar Raghavan, he felt that if he could harness their skills and commitment, they could make a significant impact on the drinking water problem in Chennai. Ram Krishnan got in touch with Dr Sekhar Raghavan when he was in Chennai and the duo got together to first form an e-group called [If you wish to join this group, click here].

Next, the Akash Ganga Trust was formed, and then a citizens' action group consisting of around 10 persons who harvested rainwater in Chennai. Ram Krishnan, who is also the President of North America IIT Alumni Association, became the overseas-based coordinator and investor and put up an initial investment of Rs 400,000 to set up a model house called 'Akash Ganga Rain Centre'.

Dr Sekhar and the others in Chennai have hailed Ram Krishnan's contribution. "Even though none of his family members is here in Chennai, Ram Krishnan wanted to do something for the residents of Chennai," said Dr Sekhar, "He was extremely appreciative of our efforts and felt that he should support us in some way."

Ram Krishnan said he started the project in Chennai because he has some affinity with that city. "I could not have started this in Patna or Chandigarh because I hardly know anyone there. However, after succeeding in our Chennai project, we will share our knowledge and skills free of charge with the people of say, Patna and Chandigarh. Plus, Chennai is a large metropolitan city with 5 million plus population, it gets lots of rain every year and wastes all of it into the Bay of Bengal," he said.

He pointed out that the people of Chennai drill bore wells 200 to 400 feet to get water but do not replenish the water. "The various administrations in Chennai have envisioned grand projects to bring water to Chennai from just about every river in India. The net result: zero new source of water for Chennai. I know of some apartment buildings in the Thiruvanmiyur area where the tenants have packed their belongings and walked out of their apartments because there is no water. If the water problem gets severe, people will leave Chennai," he warned.

Ram Krishnan remembers how his mother woke up at 3 am in the morning in the 1950s to collect the limited water supplied by the municipal corporation. "If we slept till 6 am, then there was no drinking water for that day."

The Akash Ganga Rain Centre aims at educating the city on the project. "It is our desire that a resident not versed in rainwater harvesting walks into our rain centre and leaves with full knowledge of the benefits of rainwater harvesting, cost estimates, and whom to contact in their locality to install the system. We want all the residents, builders, school and college students, corporate employees, and all others to benefit from this model house."

The rain centre, which is already open to the public before its formal inauguration, has rainwater harvesting exhibits, facility to organize seminars for residents, builders, industrialists and others, list of resource persons to execute RWH systems, library, etc.

On hearing about the project, the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-governmental organization in New Delhi, decided to join hands with the group and set up the interiors with posters, panels and presentations. The rain centre also receives active support from the Tamil Nadu government.

The Akash Ganga Chennai project, which began last year, is to run for four years. after which, the members will take a decision regarding its future. "We have no magic wand but we know that there is a lack of awareness about the importance of rainwater harvesting. Theoretically, rainwater harvesting can almost solve the water problem in Chennai considering the amount of rain that the city gets but it is not happening. We are confident that we can solve at least 80 per cent of the city's water problem if the residents follow rainwater harvesting. We feel Akash Ganga Rain Centre can play a major role because our main problem is lack of awareness," Sekhar said.

Ram Krishnan also admits to the lack of awareness. "My goal is to take rainwater harvesting, at present available in less than one per cent of the plots, to about 20 per cent in four years. When you collect the rainwater and charge the underground water in one house or plot, some of the water will find its way to the neighbouring plots also. This will indirectly increase the 20 per cent figure to about 50 per cent."

Incidentally, rainwater harvesting as a technique is used all over the world wherever there is a water shortage -- Germany, southern US, South Africa, Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are promoting RWH. In most places, the rainwater harvesting efforts are about two to five years old, not very different from Chennai's experience.

In the US, Ram Krishnan joined the American Rainwater Catchments Systems Association in Texas. Last February, made a presentation about the Chennai project at the association's state office in Austin, Texas.

The International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association has selected India as the venue for their September 2005 conference and Ram Krishnan is promoting Chennai as the venue.

The Akash Ganga Rain Centre can be contacted at +91-44-4616134.

Design: Lynette Menezes

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