People are willing to help themselves in a drought, but Metrowater is not doing enough to point them the right way

The long and hard summer in Chennai, coming after a year of poor rainfall, has been reminding the city of a long-forgotten mentor - rainwater harvesting.

In the years before copious rains dulled the collective memory of Chennaiites to drought, rainwater harvesting was a community buzzword. This newspaper can take credit for pursuing the topic with single-minded devotion, showcasing the benefits, the practitioners and even spurring official efforts to provide their endorsement.

Then came years of plentiful rainfall, and groundwater levels rose smartly to the point where water could be tapped even at 20 or 25 feet in the suburbs.

The windfall gains of this ancient technology have now all but evaporated, as the severe sun has parched the metro.

Along with the blissful citizenry, officialdom under both the DMK and the AIADMK in Chennai also took a long snooze. Some noises were indeed made about expanding reservoir capacity, but the three major water sources remain almost static in their ability to store more when the rains come. After all, as P. Sainath wrote, everyone loves a good drought, and more so those who have to give out those tanker contracts for street supply of Metrowater.

So now, as the taps slow to a trickle and water becomes more expensive, the fond memories of rainwater harvesting are coming back. Not just for citizens, but for Metrowater too. After all, Satyameva Jayate host Aamir Khan took note of the success of Chennai with harvesting, and a former IAS officer on the show decided to use the opportunity to claim credit on behalf of the ruling establishment for the success. But it was a community effort at the time, with the political class and the rulers quickly piggybacking on the social spirit.

Those who are in authority in India always talk down to the citizen, and Metrowater is no different. Recently, it conducted some checks, frowned and said those who had installed rainwater harvesting facilities should save and maintain them. We have no idea if all the government buildings in Chennai are doing well, when it comes to harvesting. As part of its PR efforts, though, the water agency has also been hosting 'awareness rallies' featuring students.

The point is that such rallies and inspections are superfluous, when people are ready to cooperate. What they need is help from experts on how to do it right. Can Metrowater set up a helpline for RWH, as it is commonly known, to assist those who want to augment their existing structures or put in new ones? After all, when one tanker of water costs Rs.1,700 for about 12,000 litres, would not apartment complexes be ready to create a harvesting pit that will serve them well into the future?

The least that Metrowater can do immediately is to prominently put up on its website, a list of agencies that can provide affordable turnkey RWH solutions and the rates they charge. It could be a fee for assessment as an alternative, with residents given freedom to choose their own implementing agency.

There is also a need to train more young workers, particularly those from the less affluent strata of society in RWH, as this would serve the dual objectives of boosting employment and augmenting the groundwater levels.

Finally, Metrowater should be pursuing a programme to expand Red Hills, Chembarambakkam and Poondi reservoirs, to increase its own harvesting performance.