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Achinakom- A tale of Rainwater for a cause   
Elizabeth Thomas
 Story Dated: Friday, March 22, 2013 8:15 hrs IST 
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Kottayam: This tale is not merely about water conservation, rather how a community developed through water co-operation. The occurrence of story can be dated back to a discussion happened in 2009 when around 200 villagers was listening to a presentation on water conditions in their place. At the end of the presentation one woman stood up and asked, “Now we know that the water is dirty and it causes illness. We want clean water. What is the next step and what will you do?”. This question brought a sense of responsibility to researchers and a twist to the entire living condition of the society which had been struggling for clean water.

This development took place in Achinakom, a small village in Vechoor Gramapanchayat in Kuttanad of  Kottayam district.. A couple of years ago nearly eighty percent of citizens in Kuttanad had no access to clean water. They had to either depend upon public taps and canal water or to buy water from private sources. However, water supplied through public taps was irregular; canal water was contaminated and buying water from vendors was unaffordable.

It was during that time Christina Tang, a researcher from Brown University in the United States reached MG University to conduct a research here. In a community survey carried out by Christina to find out the feasibility of rainwater harvesting system in Kuttanad with the help of MG University School of Environmental Science detected that, in Kuttanad rigorous untreated human sewage and agricultural activities including use of pesticides have contaminated the surface water. Other sources were unreliable for drinking; ground water was acidic due to soil conditions and iron leaching; and buying water was beyond the financial capability of people.

The only credible resource was rainwater. Though there were traditional preserving systems such as cloth and plastic jars for storing rainwater, it lacked moderate storage capacity and water tightness. The non- watertight design was enough to expose water to contamination through various disease vectors such as mosquitoes, rats and bird droppings. The team collected water samples and studied it. After completion of the project, they returned to Achinakom to present the report before the villagers and the 'above said question' voiced then.

Realizing the significance of the responsibility bestowed on them, the surveyors met  concerned authorities and ensured assurance for a rainwater storage system. However, as nothing had taken shape even after one year, the surveyors themselves initiated a rainwater harvesting project in Achinakom with the help of 55 student volunteers, M G University, Brown University, Aiswarya Screwpine Society ( a Self Help Group), NGOs and the Rhode Island School of Design, in the name of Rainwater for Humanity.

The project aimed at reducing hardships confronted by women and children to fetch water from miles, improve community health, establish communal harmony, empower women through entrepreneurship and to provide extra time for childcare. However, the effort savoured success and garnered appreciation.

“It has brought development to our society. We have 12 tanks here. The first one which can store 1.25 lakh liter was donated by MG University using their fund. Initially 20 houses were included in the project. Now 75 houses are benefiting from this,” said Suma a local resident  and an activist of Aiswarya Screwpine Society. Currently the system is working on pay per use vending model and one tank is allotted for 4-5 houses. The water is distributed equally among households under the supervision of a manger during specific time periods (7 am-7.30 am). Twenty liters is given to each household per day for a meager amount. “This is profitable to everyone when compared to the high amount paid to water vendors. Moreover people have learned to use water cautiously as we have to share water. It has increased our social participation,” she added.

People opine that seeing the feasibility of the project, neighbouring villages have come forward to initiate the same project in their locality. Certain houses have requested independent tanks too . But, Achinakom villagers are reluctant to lose the communal nature of their venture by giving independent tanks to households in Panchayath.

They have their own measures to accumulate fund for the maintenance of the project. “Funds to meet the expenses of project are raised mainly through locally held competitions, and awareness campaigns carried out by student groups of Brown University. Now we get benefits from Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative,” said V. P. Sylas, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science who had been in the front array of this project since its beginning.

Our usual practice indicates that we seldom take feedback. But, here the evaluators are different in that case too. In a questionnaire survey conducted by researchers after the implementation of the project, majority of consumers expressed satisfaction on the projection and voiced suggestions to be included in the next level.

According to the R4H opinion survey in 2011, the project has increased the water quality, increased convenience, reduced physical constraints of women and children, empowered women by helping them to generate income through productive activities such as coir rope making and increased social interaction.

Learning lessons from existing project, the researchers are currently working on  re-engineering the model. “Water pressure and leaking are major problems here. Currently we are planning for a low cost long-term model that can be accomplished through locally available materials. Because meeting expenses is difficult as price of building ingredients is rising considerably,” opined Sylas. “We are doing reengineering under the guidance of Dr. Hari from St. Gits College of  Engineering and Prof. Christopher Bull from Brown University. Our aim is to make Achinakom a model village,” he added.

This project by Environmental Science department of MG University is an instance of  knowledge creation and its utility for society. It is running in accordance with the variables of  World Health Organization (WHO). The message Achinakom conveys is that rainwater is for harvesting, not for wasting away.

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