The Ganga (or Ganges) is one of India’s mightiest rivers, flowing from the Himalayas in Uttarakhand to the Sunderbans in West Bengal. It is nowhere near the arid northern state of Rajasthan. It is equally remote from Guiyang Municipality in the People’s Republic of China. But Aakash Ganga – a rainwater harvesting project that literally means “river from the skies” — is making a mark in both places.

In Rajasthan, the project — backed by the World Bank — has already been implemented in six villages. A letter of intent has now been signed with the state government for its extension to 70 villages, to provide water security to 200,000 people. “Water is the most serious crisis of Independent India,” says B.P. Agrawal, the president of Sustainable Innovations (SI) and the moving spirit behind the project. In 2007, he founded SI as a non-profit corporation “to harness innovations for making safe drinking water available to rural villages and for delivery of healthcare to vulnerable populations”. (SI has won another World Bank award for its Arogya Ghar — whole health clinic — program.)

“A plethora of initiatives (water harvesting, water conservation, soil conservation, etc) exists across India, and many of them are very successful,” says S. Vishwanath a civil engineer and urban and regional planner, who runs Rainwater Club, a website dedicated to rainwater harvesting. “One needs to look at these initiatives not only technically but also in terms of water literacy and empowerment. It is about people’s understanding of water and how they go ahead to manage it.”

Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of Arghyam, a charitable foundation working in the water sector, notes: “We need a multi-pronged strategy to ensure safe, sustainable water for all and for key economic activities. Conservation is an important part of this strategy, as is demand management. There are many and diverse models of conservation and demand management across the country, especially in the drier regions in Western Gujarat and Rajasthan.”

Rajasthan was an appropriate choice for Agrawal for several reasons. It was a personal choice because he is a native of that state, but more significantly, Rajasthan is known as the Desert State since it rains only 45 days a year. The state has suffered through 40 droughts in the past 52 years. “It is the driest state in the country having only 1.16% of India’s surface water,” says Goutam Sadhu, associate professor at the Jaipur-based International Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR). Sadhu is the program director and team leader of the Aakash Ganga project.

“What is the measure of water scarcity?” asks Agrawal, and then answers the question himself: “The number of bachelors in the village.” When water is scarce, women have to walk long distances to collect it; as a result, families from other villages are reluctant to marry their daughters into such communities.

Not a Drop to Drink…

The scene is different in China’s Guiyang Municipality, where Aakash Ganga is now spreading. “The province is just like Darjeeling — hilly and green,” says Agrawal. “It rains 1,200 mm a year. (In contrast, the rainfall in Rajasthan could be as low as 150 mm.) Yet, there is no drinking water since the hills have been converted over the years into farm land. Pesticides and fertilizers have contaminated the water springs, the main source of drinking water. The contamination is so bad that the spring water is no longer drinkable.”

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is supporting an experiment aimed at exploring whether the Aakash Ganga approach can work in Guiyang. In March, the ADB approved a $50,000 pilot project and demonstration activities to “demonstrate the full potential of Aakash Ganga self-sustaining rainwater harvesting”. Agrawal, who has just returned from China, says that in some ways things are just the same as in the villages of Rajasthan. “Samu village has an old tree. Locals claim it to be 500 years old. Like in India, they tie colorful scarves to this tree. The villagers pray to this tree for good luck and rains.”

At Raila village in Rajasthan, they still pray for rains. But their good luck has already arrived. This was where the first pilot for Aakash Ganga was implemented. The design of the network, filters, construction methodology, water quality monitoring, technology development and the cost and revenue models were worked out at the neighboring campus of the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) at Pilani. BITS attracted Agrawal because it was from here that he graduated in electrical engineering, before moving on to the University of South Florida to complete his Ph.D. in 1974. Agrawal, a resident of Fairfax (Virginia), has worked with companies such as Alcatel, Verizon, General Dynamics and Hughes Network Systems. He also has two startups to his credit.

Going from starting new ventures for Fortune 500 companies to harvesting rainwater in remote Rajasthan may seem worlds apart, and Agrawal agrees it was a difficult switch. “But all along I felt I needed to do something socially relevant,” he says.

In hindsight, harvesting rainwater was an obvious choice. The idea got off the ground in 2003 when the Rajasthan Association of North America, a non-profit organization which aims to promote the culture and development of Rajasthan, hosted the 2003 New York convention of Rajasthan natives. The Aakash Ganga proposal was presented to Ashok Gehlot, then chief minister of the state. With his encouragement, the science behind the scheme was worked out at BITS Pilani. And a support structure was put in place.

The IIHMR, which is already involved in a project styled Aapni Yojana which supplies drinking water to 370 villages in collaboration with the German and Rajasthan governments, looks after Aakash Ganga’s implementation in the villages, procurement of materials and government liaisons. The BITS’ Center for Development of Desert Technologies leads the engineering team. The Bhoruka Charitable Trust is in charge of community mobilization and micro-financing. And there are several other non-governmental organizations involved. Sustainable Innovations, which gave a formal structure to the endeavor, was formed after these initial moves.

World Bank Award

The big boost to the project came in 2006, when Aakash Ganga won the World Bank’s Development Marketplace Award. A $200,000 grant allowed the project to expand operations to other villages. “The Development Marketplace is a competitive grant program of the World Bank that identifies and funds early-stage, innovative ideas that exhibit high potential for development impact,” says Sanjay Pradhan, vice-president of the World Bank Institute. “The Aakash Ganga project was selected as one of 30 winning proposals from more than 2,600 applicants for the 2006 competition.”

In 2007, the Indian Prime Minister’s Office encouraged Sustainable Innovations to submit a plan for implementing Aakash Ganga in the “dark zone” of Rajasthan. (Dark zone status means the groundwater table in the area is significantly below the minimum desired level, and the water quality in the area is substandard.)

Rainwater harvesting, while not technically complicated, needs careful coordination. Essentially, Aakash Ganga channels rooftop rainwater from every house, through gutters and pipes, to a network of multi-tier underground reservoirs. The project has the capacity to collect and store rainwater (with average rainfall) sufficient for an entire year. In terms of organizational structure, this is a public-private-community partnership which acquires rights from homeowners to harvest their rooftop rainwater for a fee or subsidy. The harvested rainwater is supplied to the village according to a socially equitable distribution policy. Part of the water is used for revenue generation and cost recovery.

Each village needs an investment of $100,000. The materials account for 60% to 65% of the total costs and labor expenses constitute 20% to 25%. Some 10% to 15% is absorbed by general and administrative costs. According to the extension proposal, the government will contribute 70% of the funds. The community will pay 15% and the other 15% will be raised from private sources. Revenues will be generated from the fees charged to the villagers for water, and horticulture. These are expected to yield a surplus of $6,000 to $8,000 a year from the third year. “The cost of harvested water is $0.002 a liter, based on 25 years of life,” says Agrawal. “By comparison, the lifetime cost of bore-well water is $0.04 a liter.”

“Aakash Ganga debunked the myth that people will not pay for water,” continues Agrawal. “It weaned people away from the free water entitlement mindset.” Says Sadhu of IIHMR: “This is a significant transition from the “water is free” mentality to a “water is an economic good” frame of mind.” According to Atul Jain, CEO and founder of the Fairfax-based TEOCO (The Employee Owned Company), which provides software consulting services to the communications and entertainment industry, “Rajasthan had elaborate rainwater harvesting systems for several centuries. These systems were abandoned. BP (Agrawal) researched local folklore to learn the ancient levy system that maintained the rainwater harvesting systems. A modern version of the ancient levy system became the basis of Aakash Ganga’s economic model.”

Tradition and Technology

While the levy system has its roots in history, the project marries technology to tradition. For instance, satellite images are used to set up a geographical information system. An IT network manages utilization and monitors water quality. (In China, they are planning to use IT for remote monitoring; it will be used to turn water taps on and off for individual houses or a cluster of houses.) Water quality is important, as the experience of Guiyang Municipality shows. “We have considerably improved the access to drinking water across India in terms of quantity,” says Nilekani of Arghyam. “The next challenge is to understand and deal with complex emerging quality issues — fluoride, arsenic, iron and nitrates in addition to bacteriological contamination.”

“Before Aakash Ganga, villagers depended solely on the government’s water supply schemes which were not adequate in either quality or quantity,” says Sadhu of IIHMR. “The fluoride and TDS (total dissolved salts) content were much higher than the tolerance level of WHO (World Health Organization) norms. During the dry season, households have to buy water from water vendors at a cost of $2 per camel cart (which on the average is the minimum daily consumption of a family). With support from Aakash Ganga, families now have a secure supply source of drinking water enough for 10-12 months of the year.”

“In term of coverage, the project is an enormous success, surpassing its planned objectives by almost doubling the number of houses included in the rainwater harvesting plan,” says Pradhan of the World Bank. “A total of 119 household tanks were constructed in three villages in the Alwar district in Rajasthan and an intermediate tank and a recharge well were built. The network stores rainwater sufficient to meet the drinking water needs of these villages. In broader terms, the project demonstrates an alternative to the typically inefficient and poor performing public works projects.”

Impact on Communities

Agrawal believes that the project has made a bigger contribution than just provision of drinking water. “Aakash Ganga has gone beyond meeting this basic need,” says India Abroad, a New York-based publication. “Reports from all three villages where Aakash Ganga was (first) implemented suggest that women have become economically more productive and girls have attended more classes as they now no longer have to spend a lot of time collecting water,” says Sadhu of IIHMR. “Almost all households with rainwater tanks have established kitchen gardens which in turn will improve household nutrition and health conditions.”

“As a community-driven initiative, the project was very careful in its design to develop a scheme that was culturally appropriate and attentive to important issues surrounding social caste, class and gender,” says Pradhan of the World Bank. “In that regard the project rates very well given that many other schemes disproportionately benefit upper class beneficiaries.”

Change has happened at several levels. What makes Agrawal proud, however, is that people of different castes are all participating in the rainwater harvesting scheme and the pooling of water resources. In some parts of India, different castes do not even drink water from the same well. “The qualitative measures are more expressive of Aakash Ganga’s social impact and success,” says Agrawal. Vishwanath of the Rainwater Club has a problem here. “I have some reservations about the notion of centralizing water management,” he says. “Traditionally people have been managing their own water and it is good to empower people to do their own water harvesting.” But he agrees that the problem has to be approached in multiple ways. “Water conservation alone is not the issue,” he says. “It is also about demand reduction, water reuse and recycling. It has to be a combination of all these three. And this is absolutely vital because of the sheer growth of the economy and the population.”

Aakash Ganga’s next challenge is to prove that it is scaleable. This is why the China experiment is so important. There are plans to explore the potential of sites in South Asia. But India will remain the focus of attention. “We have several initiatives at various stages with organizations such as HSBC, the Royal Bank of Canada, Google Foundation, Gates Foundation, Coca-Cola Foundation, and PepsiCo Foundation,” says Sadhu of IIHMR. “If one or more work out, the projects will be implemented in Rajasthan with the same partners and the same approach.”

“The entire world has become aware of the shortage of fresh water in some countries and regions,” notes Sadhu. “These include India, with 16% of humanity but less than 3% of global fresh water resources. The poor water availability is exacerbated by its uneven spread over regions and time of the year. Rajasthan is very much at a disadvantage even in the Indian context.

“Demand for domestic water use will increase continuously with the growth in population and greater attention to hygienic and sanitary requirements. A special feature in Rajasthan is its large livestock population, which will also increase over a period of time. It has had, and will continue to have, substantial claims on available water supply, between a quarter and a third of the demand for human consumption. Presently, irrigation accounts for the lion’s share of the demand for water. In the foreseeable future, however, demand for water for other uses (industry, tourism, and recreational and environmental purposes), which is currently about 3% of total water use, is also likely to increase along with that for human and livestock consumption,” says Sadhu.

Aakash Ganga may be a success, but it is really a drop in the ocean. India’s water problems are huge. According to Nilekani of Arghyam, “Per capita availability of fresh water continues to decline in the country. Many challenges remain, given the changing nature of the water situation, what with climate change-related issues, our economic growth, urbanization and the need to have food security over the next three decades for up to 1.5 billion people. We need to deepen an informed public discourse on these issues because, whether we like it or not, the situation calls for restraint on water use in the face of competing claims for a finite resource. We need perhaps to be guided by a water ethic to which we can all move, from which will derive improved policies and practices that take care not just of human needs, but also that of other living beings and of course the environmental systems which support life. This means clear prioritization across sectors and sophisticated water siting plans. Should one locate a new international airport in a dark water zone as Bengaluru (Bangalore) has done? Should one allow new mining leases where there is a precarious water balance? These are the tough questions we have to answer as a society.

“We also need to understand groundwater issues in this country, which remain little understood and ineffectively backed in the regulatory sense. More than 60% of our agriculture runs on the 20 million bore-wells around the country, in spite of the vast surface irrigation network we have created. If we manage this groundwater scientifically and with a spirit of accommodation, it will provide us a vast reservoir to bank upon during lean monsoons.

“There are solutions, of course and they have been demonstrated. Rainwater harvesting is key, when done properly,” Nilekani says. Agrawal, for one, is confident he can take rural India places under the Aakash Ganga umbrella.