Water Conservation – Community based practices

Global Water Scenario

Use of water has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. Although there is no global water shortage as such but there is an increase in number of regions which are chronically short of water. By 2025, 1800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions (UN-Water, 2006). The situation will worsen as the rapidly growing urban areas place heavy pressure on the adjoining water resources.

According to the analysis done by WaterAid, many low and middle income countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Southern Madagascar, Southern Mozambique etc. are facing acute water scarcity. However, in some countries, the whole country might not be facing the issue of water scarcity and only few of its cities are on the verge of water extinction suitable for drinking. As per the BBC reports, cities like Cape Town, São Paulo, Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Jakarta etc. are the top cities which are most likely to run out of drinking water.

Global water

One of the reasons responsible for this can be that these economies are predominantly agricultural and industrial driven which are highly water intensive in nature. Water has got the most critical role to play in social and economic development of a country. Due to availability of limited fiscal resources, the focus of LMIC remains on economic growth which takes place at the cost of environmental degradation, including water resource exploitation since water forms the primary need of both the activities. Till the time economy grows and natural resources have been exploited to their fullest, the focus gets shifted to environmental conservation (including water conservation practices). Moreover, weak policies and regulatory mechanisms along with their poor implementation in these countries worsens the situation by not being able to control and manage the growing water crisis.

Other than this, the rate of urbanization is quite high in LMIC as these nations generally get transformed from agricultural economy to industrial economy resulting in high migration from rural to urban areas. As a result, urban areas come across higher water related issues compared to other rural areas due to high population density which in turn leads to higher water demand, high water consuming lifestyle and slow replenishment of natural water sources (such as ground water) due to huge paved areas and less open spaces. Roads and streets constitute up to 70% of the impervious urban area (Carmon & Shamir, 2010 cited from Wong et al. 2000). Open spaces play critical roles as receptors of storm water in urban areas. They can prevent and mitigate floods by retention of storm water and by purifying and infiltrating runoff, thus recharging groundwater with clean water.

The income classification of the countries is based on a measure of national income per person, or GNI per capita, calculated using the Atlas Method by World Bank. As of 1 July 2018, World Development Report defines low-income economies as those with a GNI per capita of $995 or less in 2017; lower middle-income economies are those with a GNI per capita between $996 and $3,895; upper middle-income economies are those between $3,896 and $12,055; high-income economies are those with a GNI per capita of $12,055 or more.

Following map shows the relation between income and level of water scarcity in the countries across the world. It can be seen that low income and lower middle income countries in Africa, South Asia and South America face economic water scarcity majorly. Upper middle income countries in Asia and South America face little or no water scarcity largely. Economic water scarcity is generally said to occur when human, institutional and financial capital limits the access to water, for instance, due to lack of infrastructure. (Hyvärinen, et al., 2016 cited from Molden, 2007) However, some of the upper middle income countries in North America, South Africa and Asia are facing physical water scarcity or approaching towards it. The high income counties no water scarcity at large except for the few in North America and Australia.

water scarcity map

Source: Hyvärinen, A. et al. (2016) Potential and Pitfalls of Frugal Innovation in the Water Sector: Insights from Tanzania to Global Value Chains, Sustainability, Vol. 8(9), pp.4

Related: UN World Water Development Report 2019 

Water scarcity affects all social and economic sectors within a country and threatens the sustainability of the natural resource base. Therefore, this calls for addressing water scarcity through water conservation practices to ensure development and management of water resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

Also Read: Global Water Security – The Way Forward

Best Practices in water conservation in urban areas of Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC) – Community based practices

1. India: Rejuvenation of a community water pond in Delwara, Rajasthan

India’s water system has traditionally been consisting of shared water resource which serves as the key source of water in any rural or urban settlement. These water sources fulfill the daily needs of the people such as drinking, bathing, washing etc. as well as acts as natural rechargers of water table leading to water availability in the region.

Delwara (case study area) is a small peri-urban township in semi-arid hilly region of Rajasthan. It is a medieval town with 7000 people as its population. It is a densely built town with the houses lining both sides of narrow streets. The town is located near a small lake named Palera which is the main water source for the town and primary water provider as surface water source which recharges hand pumps and wells in the area.

The project was initiated in 2004 when town had suffered three years of drought conditions during summer months and all the water sources dried up. Palera, the main pond had dried up in the summer for a couple of years because of insufficient rainfall and dilapidated condition of pond feeders, the well and the aquifers of the settlement.

Entire community’s health, social and economic condition was suffering because of this inadequacy. Around fifty percent of the households has no access to sanitation and other fifty percent had to travel long distances to fetch drinking water, leaving hardly any time for other work.

This citizen engagement and integrated planning project-initiated work on water and sanitation to ensure clean and potable water at household level in Delwara. The citizens of the town collectively worked towards planning and executing the project for the desilting of the pond and for the repair and maintenance of the feeder channels. Since the pond has been rejuvenated, it retains water throughout the year ensuring perennial water supply to the community. It has also recharged the neighboring water sources and the community driven pond maintenance activities are repeated every couple of year since 2006.

This community driven project has resulted in many positive impacts. Firstly, the area did not face any drought since then. Soil available from the desilting of pond is not sold commercially, but used to fill the school playground and other low-lying areas benefitting the community. Today, the pond and the surrounding area are the largest open public space of Delwara and also the pride of the residents. Recognition of the importance of the pond maintenance process by the local official governance body has resulted in more work done in enhancing the water security of the town through public and private partnerships. It has also led to planning and execution of other water supply projects for different parts of the town through partnerships of Government and people’s organizations. Excited with this achievement, the community went on to ensure the cleaning up and repair of the main drinking water source. In the present time, the entire community comes together to clean this drinking water source periodically to ensure clean water and also to repair hand pumps, construct small water harvesting tanks and discuss on new water challenges facing the community.

2. Indonesia: Rainwater Harvesting in Semarang

Semarang is one of Indonesia’s largest cities, with a population of more than 1.5 million. Due to its topography, the public water service company is unable to serve all of the city’s population, so the people rely on wells, mostly shallow ones, since few people own deep wells. But natural calamities such as drought and flooding related to climate change are affecting these wells. During the dry season, the shallow wells run dry and people need to buy water or rely on government aid for the same. During the rainy season, the shallow wells get polluted when floodwater breaches the wells’ wall.

Overdrawing water from wells during dry season also contributes to a situation of subsidence where ground levels sink due to compaction of the earth as the water is removed. Subsidence represents a serious problem particularly for densely populated cities as it can damage structures and create living hazards.

In order to address these water related problems, the residents of Semarang have been building rainwater harvesting systems in partnership with government, local academics, non-governmental organizations (such as ACCCRN), companies and community members. Systems were installed in five households as well as at an elementary school.

Since the harvested rainwater is stored in closed tanks, it is kept safe from contamination during floods. Moreover, the use of collected rainwater during the wet season allows wells to recharge so that when dry season comes, water is available.

This rainwater harvesting practice gives city residents a clean, local, and renewable water source. Hygiene and sanitation are improved, particularly for children and teachers at the school. City residents, now, face fewer risks to loss of life and property due to flooding or subsidence. City’s residents also save money from not having to purchase water, which especially helps poorer population groups. Apart from this, harvesting rainwater puts less pressure on groundwater resources and allows the aquifer to recharge which helps in restoring ecological balance. Rainwater collection reduces runoff and thus flooding, preventing the environmental damage that might have been caused.

Success of this initiative by the residents and recognition of benefits of rainwater harvesting by the Semarang Environmental Agency has led to replication of the project at 49 locations in the country. The project also catalyzed a transformational change in behavior as Semarang residents changed previously held views of rainwater as dirty.

3. India: A water intervention through community inclusiveness in Cuttack, Odisha

This project started in 2009 with an objective of the improvement of the four peripheral urban poor dominated wards in the city of Cuttack in Orissa, India. These four wards are located in the outskirts of the town near a river called the Mahanadi. The settlements in the ward consist of small hamlets of about 300-1000 people each, totaling a population of approximately 20,000 people. The character of these settlements is almost rural with single storied permanent and semi-permanent homes loosely clustered. Though these areas are classified as urban, they have no access to either formal water supply system or to a sanitation and sewerage systems and it was an area with high poverty, unemployment and high health incident rates.

This community-based intervention was expected to enable ordinary people in society to put in their best efforts for the well-being of the deprived sections of the society. Through this, they have been able to reduce health risks, facilitate greater empowerment, particularly for women and young people, foster social relationships and create a cleaner environment. This was possible only because the intervention was designed in a people centric way by the facilitating NGO.

The involvement of women was and is central to this project. Demand for the facilities came firstly from women and they have worked to sustain this demand. The community was organized into small inclusive groups comprising of women, children youth, people with special abilities, etc.

The primary goal of the project was to enhance the quality of life and sense of well-being of the inhabitants through a participatory and consensual planning process. There was a special focus on gender justice and well-being was considered not only in the economic terms but also as an overall development. The project aimed to facilitate greater participation of citizens in managing their own civic needs and strengthen the formal institution of self-governance.

The entry point activities of the project have been eye-opener in the community participation and mobilization methods and led to various positive outcomes. In the four settlements, it was found that the water of the deep tube wells and hand pumps provided by the government agencies was adequate but not of potable quality as it had very high iron content. The focus of the project was on digging some new wells and the improvement of the existing ones by introducing low cost technology which helped in reducing the iron content in water and making the water potable. A demonstrable community water filter was designed and constructed to ensure clean drinking water for residents which is being managed primarily by children and youth groups who ensure awareness generation, cleanliness, right usage and maintenance of the water structure. These structures are specifically designed to conserve water, replenish the rapidly descending water table and do not require significant energy inputs.

To prevent the contamination of well water, the well was covered and the surrounding area was paved to prevent stagnation of overflow water. Small hand pumps connected to the well were installed which reduced the effort required to draw water from the wells. The women of the community have played the central role in this initiative.

Through the process of community participation, this project resulted in many principal benefits. A clean environment was created which enabled the proper maintenance of the installed structures and ensured availability of potable drinking water for the community. Other than these, the project led to equity in accessing water resource and behavioral change and responsible citizenship amongst young people. It also helped in building aspirations among common people towards a collective vision. By directly empowering the citizens to pursue their own development, this model ensured that the development projects belonged to the community who had an interest in their upkeep and are able to expand to other projects they wish to. Residents were involved at every stage to make the project sustainable with clear stake in construction and maintenance process. These community structures are durable requiring only minimal maintenance. These constructions have been designed to be ecologically sustainable using local materials. Operation and maintenance of the same will be carried out by the citizens and user groups that benefit from them.

4. Kenya: Water Conservation efforts in Nairobi

Nairobi is the capital and largest city of Kenya. When it comes to water, this country is a land of contrasts. Though it is home to great water towers of East Africa, 90 percent of the country is either arid or semi-arid. Rainfall patterns are highly variable which is further exacerbated by climate change.

Similar to the cities in other fast-growing developing nations, Nairobi is also facing water shortage problems. The water supply is unable to meet the fast-growing demand. Water is unreliable even to small majority who have access to tapped water. For those who cannot get enough, reliance on alternative unregulated service suppliers is a necessity but these prices are much higher than the legal water rate.

In 2015, in Kenya’s Upper Tana watershed in Nairobi, Africa’s first water fund was launched in cooperation with tens of thousands of smallholder farmers, many of whom farm on less than one acre. On these very steep hillside farms, any bare soil can quickly wash massive amounts of soil into the river, clogging filtration systems and reducing the amount of clean water flowing into Nairobi. Changing rainfall patterns that include very intense rainfall had been exacerbating the problem by manifolds. By working in association with farmers on the improving soil-retention practices, the watershed acts more like a sponge now that releases water slowly and uses rainfall more efficiently. Since 2015, more than 24,000 farmers have begun applying soil and water conservation methods and 27 million more liters of water is flowing into the city of Nairobi every day.


  • Hyvärinen, A. et al. (2016) Potential and Pitfalls of Frugal Innovation in the Water Sector: Insights from Tanzania to Global Value Chains, Sustainability, Vol. 8(9), pp.4
  • UN-Water (2006) Coping with water security: A strategic issue and priority for system-wide action, United Nations


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