Knowledge for life: Harvesting rainwater to escape drought

Sumithra, 52 has a flourishing home garden; quite surprising given she lives in sun-baked Thanamalvila in the deep south of Sri Lanka.  

“I grow ginger, coconut, oranges, guava, mango, and pepper, all because of our rainwater pond,” she explains. 

During most months of the year, Thanamalvila experiences dry climatic conditions. Rainfall occurs between October and December. The rest of the time, the area experiences drought-like conditions. 

Bringing history to life

Rainwater harvesting for agriculture is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. It’s history goes as far back as the third Century BC, when ancient kings constructed sophisticated reservoirs and rainwater tanks to irrigate dry zones of the country. It’s rich heritage has been passed down for generations, where modern irrigation combines with the ancient networks, carrying water for paddy cultivation and other field crops. 

“My father taught me that even in severe drought, the community managed if there was a water tank system that was in place,” recalls Sumithra. 

Sadly, many of the old, smaller tanks and rainwater ponds have been lost in time, neglected and swallowed by overgrown jungles. Although tanks and irrigation schemes have been provided to the region, the community still lacks sufficient water for agriculture as well as drinking water. 

Partnering to end persistent drought

When World Vision re-introduced the concept of smaller rainwater ponds in 2001, the community was happy to be part of the project, with World Vision funding part of the cost of construction and the community shouldering the other costs.

Water from the ponds is usually drawn through a pump and pipe been laid underneath. In areas where electricity is not available, solar panels are used for energy. 

Ariyasena, 55, from the village of Vijayapura is one farmer who uses the solar panel to generate energy to the water pump. 

“We can cultivate all year round without fear,” says Ariyasena’s beaming wife, Wimala, 53. “For most people in our community, the ponds provide sufficient water and now it’s rare that we have to buy vegetables from the market. We even have our own paddy.”

“In previous time there was no proper irrigation system in place, so people relied a lot on rainwater for cultivation,” Kusumawathi, 66, says. 

“Our parents have told us that when they could not cultivate, they had to travel to neighbouring villages to seek paid work.” Wimala adds, “During drought, people would get paid in rice instead of money.” 

Using wisdom to see warning signs

“My grandmother used to tell us that they always kept an eye out for signs of drought.  From the way the spotted dove cries, the way the leaves of the ‘Ehela’ tree sway in the wind, or if the setting sun is very red, they said they could predict the onset of severe drought. Another sign was if fire ran along a single twig during the chena (slash and burn) cultivation,” Wilmala tells. 

To prepare for a drought, families would get together and dig a well in the vicinity of the large tanks, to draw ground water up to the surface before it completely dried up. The community would use this water sparsely for bathing and also sometimes, for drinking. 

Laughing, Wimala says, “We still observe nature for signs, just like our grandparents did. This time, it looks like we will have a good amount of rain in the Maha season (one of two seasons for cultivation in Sri Lanka) because the wood apple trees and tamarind trees are bearing lots of fruit,” she says. 

There are more than 600 rainwater ponds constructed in 48 villages through World Vision, benefiting more than 4,000 families

The rainwater ponds are not just a precious source of irrigation but also a source of income generation, as some community members also use the water for profitable brick making. In turn, the bricks are also used to further expand the rainwater ponds. 

At present there are over 600 rainwater ponds constructed in 48 villages through World Vision, benefiting more than 4,000 families. Studies have shown that the ponds contribute to increasing water levels in wells, reducing the brackishness of the water and lessening the general aridity of the area to an extent.