Community-Scale Water Sovereignty: Part III
As part of a series examining best practices in water resilience at the home and community level, this post looks into simple and practical household- and community-scale water filtration and storage systems.
Community water resilience encompasses purification systems for drinking water; household water collection and storage; and stewardship of shared water resources such as aquifers and rivers. Together, the stories in this piece point the way towards a vision of water management that is resilient, replicable, and human-scale — one that combines new ideas with age-old place-based solutions.
Community and Household Water Filtration
Whether captured and stored from rainwater, drawn from a well, or supplied by the government, reliable potable water is a necessary component of any resilient water system.
Aqueous Solutions, a nonprofit based in Thailand and the USA, promotes the research and construction of three-stage filters using gravel, sand, and activated charcoal. In March 2016, the organization installed a filtration system for a women’s rural development center in Weligepola, Sri Lanka. Making use of sand and gravel from a nearby river along with charcoal made from fast-growing gliricidia trees on a black pepper farm, a dozen people built the system in just a couple of days with roughly US$100 of purchased materials.
One of the women remarked that families in the area once used a similar system with gravel and sand for filtering water, which fell out of use after the government began to supply water through pipes. For her, the filter’s construction validated the merit of the community’s traditional potable water solution. Throughout Southeast Asia, the three-filter system is now spreading from village to village through word of mouth and peer-to-peer teaching.
In other parts of the world, locally manufactured clay pots are being turned into water filters. Fired with colloidal silver and sawdust or rice husks — which create small pockets of activated carbon — this human-scale technology is becoming increasingly common. Ecofiltro in Guatemala and Pure Home Water in Ghana both operate in rural areas and sell pots at affordable rates. Tri Hita Karana Bali in Indonesia promotes a wholly handmade water filtration system constructed of locally made terracotta pots and activated charcoal. Approaches are as diverse as the needs and the cultures of the people who employ them.
Household Water Storage
At the Bali Appropriate Technology Institute (BATI) in the lush mountains of Tabanan in Indonesia, water wheels, ram pumps, and canals circulate water throughout the property without using electricity. Rus Alit, the founder of BATI, has brought water to communities throughout Indonesia and all over the world, and teaches biannual workshops at the Institute.
In September 2016, Rus Alit ran a 5-day course for farmers from Lombok, where most residents relied on water from trucks. He taught them how to construct above- and below-ground ferrocement water tanks, handmade pumps that don’t require electricity, and several types of filters. The tanks can be used with rainwater harvested from roofs or from other sources on the land itself. The 2,500-gallon tanks are relatively light, made with materials and tools found at any local hardware store, and can be built in a few days for less than US$150. Plastic tanks of the same size cost upwards of US$1,000, require more frequent cleaning, and are rarely available in the region. For some of the farmers, a BATI-designed tank pays for itself after filling with rainwater just a few times.
Local water collection and storage allows farmers to keep kitchen gardens throughout the dry season, which lessens the strain of seasonal spikes in commodity food prices while providing a buffer against the increasingly irregular rainfall in the region — a consequence of climate change. The participants in BATI’s course also quickly grasped how a localized water supply can support land-based livelihoods: some planned to create new market gardens and orchards, others saw opportunities to create businesses building ferrocement tanks, and one made plans to run his homestay using 100% rainwater.
With adaptations for locally-available hardware and tools, this kind of technology can work as well in Africa and South America as it does in Bali. Within one year of hosting a training workshop in Kigali, Rwanda in 2009, rooftop water harvesting tanks had spread through local schools, and more than 79,000 people gained access to clean water.  Localized water storage systems have also spread throughout the Brazilian state of Paraíba. The Polo da Borborema, a network of 14 rural workers’ unions — including more than 5,000 women farmers — has constructed 1,200 cisterns to provide the region with a reliable water supply. Local women no longer walk long distances to fetch water, and can continue to grow food for their families during even the most severe droughts. 
Community Aquifer Replenishment
The most resilient water systems go beyond providing for immediate household needs: they involve caring for the entire local ecosystem on which people depend.
In the early 1980s, the community of Alwar in semi-arid Rajasthan, India, was in crisis. As far back as 1500 BC, local residents had shared johads, crescent-shaped dams that captured rainfall runoff. These johads created communal ponds for livestock, from which water slowly seeped into aquifers to feed wells throughout the year.
Under British colonial rule, forests were logged, traditional village governance systems were dismantled, and common lands were divided. In the 1950s, the government brought deep wells with diesel-powered pumps to the region; the water table dropped, necessitating ever-deeper wells. Trees died from lack of water, erosion increased, rivers dried up, and men abandoned farming and left for cities in search of work.
In 1985, Rajendra Singh and three others from the University of Rajasthan worked with the community of Alwar to dig out an old johad. In the following monsoon season, the pond filled with water, and long-dry wells had water once more. Over the next ten years, village residents worked together to build a large irrigation dam and restore nine more johads, raising the water table by 23 feet. They restored the traditional community council, the gram sabha, to care for this shared resource, and reforested the area around the village to protect the water supply.
By 2005, guided by Singh’s organization Tarun Bharat Sangh, the practice had spread across Rajasthan, with more than 5000 johads providing water to 750 villages. Dry rivers began to flow year-round. Gram sabha councils in villages across the region now work together to protect their water and forests from extractive corporations and their allies in state government. 
Similar stories of water stewardship can be found in other semi-arid environments around the world. In 1976, in Zimbabwe’s Zvishavane district, farmer Bouwas Mawara’s well ran dry. He realized that he had to increase the volume of groundwater available, and independent experiments led him to the concept of ‘dead-level contours’, similar to johads. Over a few decades, he and his wife Nyengeterai built nine channels six feet wide, six feet deep, and up to 1,000 feet long. The channels capture and store rainwater on the land, where it slowly percolates into the soil and irrigates fields through locally-made clay pipes. Once barely able to coax one harvest per year from the soil, he now gets two to three harvests of diverse crops per year, has enough water for aquaculture and a fruit orchard, and generates surplus food even during droughts. In 1989, he and another farmer set up the Hupenyu Ivhu Farmer Innovators’ Group, and shared their knowledge and spirit of innovation with farmers across the region. 
In Bali, structures like johads and dead-level contours are not feasible due to the dense population and small parcels of land. There, IDEP Foundation is addressing the rapidly falling water tables with recharge wells — abandoned or new deep wells that are used to return water to an aquifer rather than drawing from it. Wells are located downhill from floodplains, roadsides, and other areas where water naturally pools; channels are dug to connect them, with gravel filters to prevent debris and excess silt from entering the aquifers. In urban areas, water is piped in directly from rooftops.  Similar systems can be implemented anywhere in the world.
In each of these cases, local water resilience depends on remembering and honoring place-based relationships between people, water, and the land. It involves reclaiming water purification, storage, and management solutions that have been in use for millennia, and updating them to account for higher quality standards, locally-available materials, and the problem of modern contaminants. In this way, local water sovereignty is a shining example of how combining global knowledge exchange with local adaptation and initiative can provide for vibrant, flourishing livelihoods on the land.
1. Rus Alit, in a presentation held at the Bali Appropriate Technology Institute in Tabanan, Indonesia, Sept 19, 2016.
2. Galvão Freire, Adriana, “Cisterns transform lives in the Brazilian semi-arid”, Farming Matters (formerly known as LEISA Magazine), Sept 2015, https://upgro.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/farming-matters_03_web.pdf
3. Suutari, Amanda, and Gerry Marten, “Water Warriors: Rainwater Harvesting to Replenish Underground Water (Rajasthan, India)”, EcoTippingPoints.org, June 2005.
4. Mukute, Mutizwa, “Water harvesting: nourishing the land, body and mind”, Farming Matters (formerly known as LEISA Magazine), Sept 2015, https://upgro.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/farming-matters_03_web.pdf
5. “Bali Water Protection Program”, IDEP Foundation, 2015. http://www.idepfoundation.org/en/bwp See Annex 2 for diagrams and case studies of gravity-fed recharge wells.
Additional resources and examples of community-managed water systems:
- An encyclopedia of traditional water collection and storage systems throughout India at rainwaterharvesting.org.
- The Mandacaru Awards, a collection of outstanding water management and filtration innovations in Brazil.
- Oasis Design publications, which cover a broad range of options for water collection, storage, filtration, and management; metrics for choosing appropriate designs and materials; and detailed building instructions.