[Round Three Winner: 2/8] Sekhar Raghavan—Promoting Rainwater Harvesting in Urban Areas and Ecological Sanitation in Peri-Urban and Rural Areas

Posted By: Rise Team|Dated: February 24, 2012

Learn how a group of citizens in partnership with the government raised Chennai’s groundwater levels to up to 8 meters, and made Chennai no longer water starved.

Basics

Describe yourself briefly. Who are you, what makes you tick, who are you working to become.

I am just an ordinary citizen of this country born, brought up, living and planning to live for the rest of my life in Chennai, one of the four metro cities in India. Being a little more sensitive than most of the people living in urban areas, I am deeply concerned about water availability in cities in general and the need to sustain its sources through Rainwater Harvesting in particular. I am also concerned about the large scale pollution of water sources by wrong sanitation practises in peri-urban and rural areas.

The urgent need is to sustain the groundwater source in urban areas through effective rainwater harvesting and preventing contamination of surface and groundwater sources in peri-urban and rural areas by popularising and promoting ecological sanitation.

Describe your venture in 200 words or less.

Chennai being a coastal city with sandy beaches, the quality and exploitable quantity of groundwater was good till about twenty years back. This was primarily due to the natural recharge that was taking place during monsoon. Rapid urbanisation led to shrinking of open spaces and indiscriminate paving activity that we are all fond of. This resulted in the depletion of the water table and saline intrusion in some of the coastal suburbs. In order to sensitise the residents about the dangers of all these, I started a door to door campaign in 1995 to popularise and promote rainwater harvesting. In 2001, the government of Tamil Nadu also got involved in rainwater harvesting and I was inducted into a high-level committee formed by them. To spread our activity to the entire city of Chennai and other important towns in the country a few like-minded citizens formed the Akash Ganga Trust, which in turn set up a Rain centre in Chennai in August 2002. We do not charge any fee for any of the activities carried out by the centre.

While water availability per se was good in peri-urban and rural areas, it was wrong sanitation practises that were contaminating both the surface and sub-soil water sources particularly in the coastal areas. Since 2005, our organisation has been involved in creating awareness among the people of a coastal fishermen’s village, about the need and relevance of ecological sanitation.

Our idea of harvesting rainwater to sustain the groundwater source is purely based on common sense and a little bit of observation, which is probably lacking among a large majority of people living in urban areas.

Team

Describe your relevant experience (especially entrepreneurial).

Our team has exhibited its managerial skills to popularise and promote an environmental cause and this is what social entrepreneurship is all about. We did not want to use our skills to create a business empire. We not only thought of innovative ideas to create awareness but also to harvest rainwater in a scientific manner. Our Rain centre is the first of its kind in the entire country to not only create awareness about the need and relevance of RWH but also to help the residents implement RWH in their respective homes. The poster panels and exhibits put up inside the centre and the resource material in the form of booklets, manuals and posters were conceived by us over the years. We have also been instrumental in convincing the neighbouring country of Sri Lanka to set up a Rain centre in Colombo and also mandate RWH.

Why is your team uniquely qualified to run this venture?

We will not claim to be uniquely qualified to carry out this project. Anyone who is sensitive and passionate about issues related to water is equally qualified to start and run this kind of venture. We sincerely dedicate all our accomplishments to our ancestors and forefathers who had thought of these ventures several centuries back.

Venture

What is the urgent social or environmental need you’re addressing?

The urgent need is to sustain the groundwater source in urban areas through effective rainwater harvesting and preventing contamination of surface and groundwater sources in peri-urban and rural areas by popularising and promoting ecological sanitation.

What is your solution to this need?

Our solution in urban areas is to make the residents put every drop of rainwater into the soil so that the quality and quantity of groundwater in the immediate neighbourhood improves. In peri-urban and rural areas our solution is to convince the people living there of the need to choose the right sanitation practice, which is ecological sanitation. This is the ultimate in sanitation, which is not only eco-friendly but also retains the food cycle by converting human waste into useful manure. All our activities are not-for-profit and service in nature. However, they may lead to income generation for the resource people namely the plumbers and masons.

How did you come up with the idea of your venture?

Our idea of harvesting rainwater to sustain the groundwater source is purely based on common sense and a little bit of observation, which is probably lacking among a large majority of people living in urban areas. A visit to any rural area anywhere in India will help us to realise that Indians, without any formal education, were the world leaders in rainwater harvesting. When they can do such a wonderful job why not we the educated lot?

We will not claim to be uniquely qualified to carry out this project. Anyone who is sensitive and passionate about issues related to water is equally qualified to start and run this kind of venture.

What challenges did you face starting out? How about now?

To sensitise the educated urban people was the greatest challenge that I faced when I started my campaign. People were not even willing to let me inside their houses/flat complexes. Thanks to the print media to start with and the visual media later, I was able to penetrate not only into their houses but also their minds. It took me almost three years to achieve this. Now RWH is almost a household name and people are fully aware that groundwater is nothing but rainwater.

On the other hand, in rural areas it was their mind set that posed a serious challenge. It was difficult to make them use a toilet in the first place and that too an ecosan toilet. It took me almost two years to convince them of the need for not only a toilet but an ecosan one. Even now I feel I have achieved only 40% success and there is still a long way to go. So far as there is going to open spaces and so far there are going to be bushes in them it is very difficult to eliminate open defecation.

Tell us a story of someone who has benefited from your venture.

The entire city of Chennai has been benefited from our (which includes the role played by the state) venture. The groundwater levels have gone up by a minimum of 6 metres and a maximum of 8 metres. Chennai is no longer water starved and it was never rain starved. Thanks to the joint efforts of our organisation as well as the government. I am happy and proud to say that Chennai is a success story worth replicating in the entire country.

Convince us it will work. What milestones have you achieved?

There is no need to convince anyone that rain is the predominant source of all fresh water on Earth and harvesting rain is the only way to sustain the surface and sub-soil sources. This is becoming increasingly relevant in urban areas since rain has been prevented from getting harvested without human intervention. It is also not very difficult to convince people that human waste if not removed properly will lead to contamination of water sources and that ecological sanitation is the only way to avoid that.

Milestones

  1. I was appointed as the Director of the Rain Centre set up by the Trust. The Centre was inaugurated by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in August 2002.
  2. In January 2003, I was selected as an Ashoka Fellow by a U.S. based non-profit organization called Ashoka Innovators for the public in appreciation of my efforts to promote rainwater harvesting in Chennai city.
  3. In June 2004 I was invited to Sri Lanka to present a paper on Rainwater Harvesting in a seminar. I was asked to advise the Sri Lankan government on the need to set up a Rain centre in Colombo and to legislate rainwater harvesting.
  4. In August 2005, I was invited to Japan as the only participant from India, to present two papers in the Tokyo Asia Pacific Skywater Forum held in Sumida city, Tokyo.
  5.  I was selected for the Harmony Silver award 2010, by The Harmony for Silvers Foundation, a non-government organisation founded in 2004 by Tina Anil Ambani.  Since 2007 this Foundation has been selecting ten Silver achievers from across the country and felicitating them with a cash award and citation.
  6. In December 2011 our project was selected by the Jury as their choice for an award in the third round of Spark The Rise.

Links to Newspaper articles

If you would like to learn more about rainwater harvesting in Chennai, check out their page at http://www.sparktherise.com/projectdetail.php?pid=4944

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