Newsletter and Technical Publications
of Alternative Technologies for Freshwater Augumentation
America and The Caribbean>
PART B. TECHNOLOGY PROFILES
1. FRESHWATER AUGMENTATION TECHNOLOGIES
1.1 Rainwater Harvesting from Rooftop Catchments
The application of an appropriate rainwater harvesting technology can
make possible the utilization of rainwater as a valuable and, in many
cases, necessary water resource. Rainwater harvesting has been practiced
for more than 4,000 years, and, in most developing countries, is becoming
essential owing to the temporal and spatial variability of rainfall.
Rainwater harvesting is necessary in areas having significant rainfall but
lacking any kind of conventional, centralized government supply system,
and also in areas where good quality fresh surface water or groundwater is
Annual rainfall ranging from less than 500 to more than 1 500 mm can be
found in most Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Very frequently
most of the rain falls during a few months of the year, with little or no
precipitation during the remaining months. There are countries in which
the annual and regional distribution of rainfall also differ
For more than three centuries, rooftop catchments and cistern storage
have been the basis of domestic water supply on many small islands in the
Caribbean. During World War II, several airfields were also turned into
catchments. Although the use of rooftop catchment systems has declined in
some countries, it is estimated that more than 500 000 people in the
Caribbean islands depend at least in part on such supplies. Further, large
areas of some countries in Central and South America, such as Honduras,
Brazil, and Paraguay, use rainwater harvesting as an important source of
water supply for domestic purposes, especially in rural areas.
A rainwater harvesting system consists of three basic elements: a
collection area, a conveyance system, and storage facilities. The
collection area in most cases is the roof of a house or a building. The
effective roof area and the material used in constructing the roof
influence the efficiency of collection and the water quality.
A conveyance system usually consists of gutters or pipes that deliver
rainwater falling on the rooftop to cisterns or other storage vessels.
Both drainpipes and roof surfaces should be constructed of chemically
inert materials such as wood, plastic, aluminum, or fiberglass, in order
to avoid adverse effects on water quality.
The water ultimately is stored in a storage tank or cistern, which
should also be constructed of an inert material. Reinforced concrete,
fiberglass, or stainless steel are suitable materials. Storage tanks may
be constructed as part of the building, or may be built as a separate unit
located some distance away from the building. Figure 1 shows a schematic
of a rooftop catchment system in the Dominican Republic.
- All rainwater tank designs (see Figures 2a and 2b) should include as
a minimum requirement:
- A manhole, sump, and drain to facilitate cleaning
- An extraction system that does not contaminate the water; e.g.,
a tap or pump
- A soakaway to prevent spilled water from forming puddles near
Figure 1: Schematic of
a Typical Rainwater Catchment System.
Payero, Professor-Researcher, Department of Natural Resources, Higher
Institute of Agriculture (ISA), Dominican Republic.
- Additional features might include:
- A device to indicate the amount of water in the tank
- A sediment trap, tipping bucket, or other "foul flush"
- A second sub-surface tank to provide water for livestock, etc.
- The following questions need to be considered in areas where a
rainwater cistern system project is being considered, to establish
whether or not rainwater catchment warrants further investigation
- Is there a real need for an improved water supply?
- Are present water supplies either distant or contaminated, or
- Do suitable roofs and/or other catchment surfaces exist in the
- Does rainfall exceed 400 mm per year?
- Does an improved water supply figure prominently in the
community's list of development priorities?
- If the answer to these five questions are yes, it is a clear
indication that rainwater collection might be a feasible water supply
option. Further questions, however, also need to be considered:
- What alternative water sources are available in the community
and how do these compare with the rooftop catchment system?
- What are the economic, social, and environmental implications of
the various water supply alternatives (e.g., how able is the
community to pay for water obtained from other sources; what is the
potential within the community for income generating activities that
can be used to develop alternative water sources; does the project
threaten the livelihood of any community members, such as water
- What efforts have been made, by either the community or an
outside agency, to implement an improved water supply system in the
past? (Lessons may be learned from the experiences of the previous
- All catchment surfaces must be made of nontoxic material. Painted
surfaces should be avoided if possible, or, if the use of paint is
unavoidable, only nontoxic paint should be used (e.g., no lead-,
chromium-, or zinc-based paints). Overhanging vegetation should also be
Extent of Use
Rainwater harvesting is used extensively in Latin America and the
Caribbean, mainly for domestic water supply and, in some cases, for
agriculture and livestock supplies on a small scale. In Brazil and
Argentina, rainwater harvesting is used in semi-arid regions. In Central
American countries like Honduras (see case study in Part C, Chapter 5),
Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador, rainwater harvesting using rooftop
catchments is used extensively in rural areas.
In Saint Lucia, storage tanks are constructed of a variety of materials,
including steel drums (200 l), large polyethylene plastic tanks (1 300 to
2 300 l), and underground concrete cisterns (100 000 to 150 000 l).
The Turks and Caicos Islands have a number of government-built, public
rainfall catchment systems. Government regulations make it mandatory that
all developers construct a water cistern large enough to store 400 l/m2
of roof area.
Rooftop and artificially constructed catchments, such as the one at the
former United States naval base on Eleuthera, are commonplace in the
Bahamas. One settlement (Whale Cay) has a piped distribution system based
on water captured from rooftops. On New Providence, most of the older
houses collect rainwater from rooftops and store it in cisterns with
average capacities of 70 000 l. Industries also use rooftop rainwater, and
a preliminary assessment has been made of using Nassau International
Airport as a catchment. In multistoried apartment buildings and other
areas serving large concentrations of people (such as hotels and
restaurants), water supplies are supplemented by water from rooftop
The Islas de la Bahía off the shores of Honduras meet a
substantial portion of their potable water needs using rainwater from
rooftop catchments. Similarly, rooftop catchments and cistern storage
provide a significant water supply source for a small group of islands off
the northern coast of Venezuela.
In a recent rural water-supply study, the continued use of rooftop and
artificially constructed catchments was contemplated for those parts of
rural Jamaica lacking access to river, spring, or well water sources. It
is thought that more than 100 000 Jamaicans depend to a major extent on
Operation and Maintenance
Rainwater harvesting systems require few skills and little supervision
to operate. Major concerns are the prevention of contamination of the tank
during construction and while it is being replenished during a rainfall.
Contamination of the water supply as a result of contact with certain
materials can be avoided by the use of proper materials during
construction of the system. For example, in Montserrat, where 95% of the
houses in the medium to high density
Figure 2A: Schematic of a Cistern
Walter Santos, Center for Training in Agricultural Development, Bureau of
Water Resources, Comayagua, Honduras.
areas are roofed with oil-based bitumen shingles, consumers are strongly
discouraged from using this source of supply for drinking purposes. Use of
alternative roofing materials would have avoided this problem. The main
sources of external contamination are pollution from the air, bird and
animal droppings, and insects. Bacterial contamination may be minimized by
keeping roof surfaces and drains clean but cannot be completely
eliminated. If the water is to be used for drinking purposes, filtration
and chlorination or disinfection by other means (e.g., boiling) is
Figure 2B, 2C: Two Different Configurations for a Storage
Source: Payero, Jose'. Profesor, Investigador,
Departamento de Recursos Naturales, Instituto Superior de Agricultura -
The following maintenance guidelines should be considered in the
operation of rainwater harvesting systems:
- A procedure for eliminating the "foul flush" after a long
dry spell deserves particular attention. The first part of each rainfall
should be diverted from the storage tank since this is most likely to
contain undesirable materials which have accumulated on the roof and
other surfaces between rainfalls. Generally, water captured during the
first 10 minutes of rainfall during an event of average intensity is
unfit for drinking purposes. The quantity of water lost by diverting
this runoff is usually about 14 l/m2 of catchment area.
- The storage tank should be checked and cleaned periodically. All
tanks need cleaning; their designs should allow for this. Cleaning
procedures consist of thorough scrubbing of the inner walls and floors.
Use of a chlorine solution is recommended for cleaning, followed by
- Care should be taken to keep rainfall collection surfaces covered, to
reduce the likelihood of frogs, lizards, mosquitoes, and other pests
using the cistern as a breeding ground. Residents may prefer to take
care to prevent such problems rather than have to take corrective
actions, such as treating or removing water, at a later time.
- Chlorination of the cisterns or storage tanks is necessary if the
water is to be used for drinking and domestic uses. The Montserrat
Island Water Authority constructed a non-conventional chlorination
device with a rubber tube, plywood, a 1.2 m piece of PVC tubing, and a
hose clip to chlorinate the water using chlorine tablets.
- Gutters and downpipes need to be periodically inspected and cleaned
carefully. Periodic maintenance must also be carried out on any pumps
used to lift water to selected areas in the house or building. More
often than not, maintenance is done only when equipment breaks down.
- Community systems require the creation of a community organization to
maintain them effectively. Similarly, households must establish a
maintenance routine that will be carried out by family members.
As has been noted, in some cases the rainwater is treated with chlorine
tablets. However, in most places it is used without treatment. In such
cases, residents are advised to boil the water before drinking. Where
cistern users do not treat their water, the quality of the water may be
assured through the installation of commercially available in-line
charcoal filters or other water treatment devices. Community catchments
require additional protections, including:
- Fencing of the paved catchment to prevent the entry of animals,
primarily livestock such as goats, cows, donkeys, and pigs, that can
affect water quality.
- Cleaning the paved catchment of leaves and other vegetative matter.
- Repairing large cracks in the paved catchment as a result of soil
movement, earthquakes, or exposure to the elements.
- Maintaining water quality at a level where health risks are
minimized. In many systems, this involves chlorination of the supplies
at frequent intervals.
Problems usually encountered in maintaining the system at an efficient
level include the lack of availability of chemicals required for
appropriate treatment and the lack of adequate funding.
Level of Involvement
The level of governmental participation varies in the countries of Latin
America and the Caribbean. In some Caribbean islands, governments regulate
the design of rainwater harvesting systems. In the U.S. Virgin Islands,
the law requires that provision be made in the construction of all new
buildings for the capture and storage of rainfall coming into contact with
their roofs. The law requires that roofs be guttered and that cisterns be
constructed having a volume that depends on the size of the roof, the
intended use of the structure, and the number of floors. For a typical
single-level, residential building, the law requires that 400 l of storage
be provided for each m2 of roof area. Cistern construction is
further regulated by the Virgin Islands Building Code to insure the
structural integrity of these cisterns, which usually form an integral
part of building foundations. As of January 1, 1996, all new residences in
Barbados are required to construct water storage facilities if the roof
area or living area equals or exceeds 3 000 square feet. They will also be
mandatory for all new commercial buildings with a roof area of 1 000
square feet or more. A rebate of $0.50 per gallon of installed tank
capacity, up to the equivalent of 25% of the total roof area, will be
given as an incentive by the Barbados Water Authority.
Cisterns are likely to continue to be a principal source of water for
residences in several Caribbean islands. Even if mandatory requirements
are removed, their use will remain widespread, as they provide a water
supply that residents consider to be safe, sufficient, and inexpensive.
The cost of this technology varies considerably depending on location,
type of materials used, and degree of implementation. In Brazil, the cost
of a 30 m3 cistern in rural areas of the Northeast is around
$900 to $1 000, depending on the material used. In the U.S. Virgin
Islands, costs as low as $2 to $5/1 000 l are reported. Construction costs
for underground cisterns can vary tremendously, based on the size and the
amount of excavation required. In Saint Lucia, the average cost of a 1 500
l plastic tank is $125.
In the Chaco region of Paraguay, two different types of cisterns have
been used for rainwater harvesting: cisterns or storage tanks called aljibes,
and cutwater cisterns called tajamares. The capital cost of a 30 m3
cistern (aljibe) in Paraguay has been reported to be $2 000, while
the construction of a 6 000 m3 tajamar, including
windmill-driven pumps and distribution piping, has been estimated at $8
Effectiveness of theTechnology
Rainfall harvesting technology has proved to be very effective
throughout several Latin American countries and most of the Caribbean
islands, where cisterns are the principal source of water for residences.
Cisterns are capable of providing a sufficient supply for most domestic
applications. The use of rainwater is very effective in lessening the
demand on the public water supply system in the British Virgin Islands. It
also provides a convenient buffer in times of emergency or shortfall in
the public water supply. Also, because of the hilly or mountainous nature
of the terrain in the majority of the British Virgin Islands, combined
with dispersed housing patterns, rainfall harvesting appears to be the
most practical way of providing a water supply to some residents. In many
countries it is very costly, and in some cases not economically feasible,
to extend the public water supply to all areas, where houses are isolated
from one another or in mountainous areas.
Steep galvanized iron roofs have been found to be relatively efficient
rainwater collectors, while flat concrete roofs, though highly valued as
protection from hurricanes, are very inefficient. Rooftop catchment
efficiencies range from 70% to 90%. It has been estimated that 1 cm of
rain on 100 m2 of roof yields 10 000 l. More commonly, rooftop
catchment yield is estimated to be 75% of actual rainfall on the catchment
area, after accounting for losses due to evaporation during periods when
short, light showers are interspersed with periods of prolonged sunshine.
Likewise, at the other extreme, the roof gutters and downpipes generally
cannot cope with rainfalls of high intensity, and excess water runs off
the roof to waste during these periods.
This technology is suitable for use in all areas as a means of
augmenting the amount of water available. It is most useful in arid and
semi-arid areas where other sources of water are scarce.
- Rainwater harvesting provides a source of water at the point where it
is needed. It is owner operated and managed.
- It provides an essential reserve in times of emergency and/or
breakdown of public water supply systems, particularly during natural
- The construction of a rooftop rainwater catchment system is simple,
and local people can easily be trained to build one, minimizing its
- The technology is flexible. The systems can be built to meet almost
any requirements. Poor households can start with a single small tank and
add more when they can afford them.
- It can improve the engineering of building foundations when cisterns
are built as part of the substructure of the buildings, as in the case
of mandatory cisterns.
- The physical and chemical properties of rainwater may be superior to
those of groundwater or surface waters that may have been subjected to
pollution, sometimes from unknown sources.
- Construction, operation, and maintenance are not labor-intensive.
- The success of rainfall harvesting depends upon the frequency and
amount of rainfall; therefore, it is not a dependable water source in
times of dry weather or prolonged drought.
- Low storage capacities will limit rainwater harvesting so that the
system may not be able to provide water in a low rainfall period.
Increased storage capacities add to construction and operating costs and
may make the technology economically unfeasible, unless it is subsidized
- Leakage from cisterns can cause the deterioration of load bearing
- Cisterns and storage tanks can be unsafe for small children if proper
access protection is not provided.
- Possible contamination of water may result from animal wastes and
- Where treatment of the water prior to potable use is infrequent, due
to a lack of adequate resources or knowledge, health risks may result;
further, cisterns can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
- Rainfall harvesting systems increase construction costs and may have
an adverse effect on home ownership. Systems may add 30% to 40% to the
cost of a building.
- Rainfall harvesting systems may reduce revenues to public utilities.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, it has been found that projects
which involved the local community from the outset in the planning,
implementation, and maintenance have the best chance of enduring and
expanding. Those projects which have been predominantly run by local
people have had a much higher rate of success than those operated by
people foreign to an area, and those to which the community has
contributed ideas, funds, and labor have had a greater rate of success
than those externally planned, funded, and built. Successful rainwater
harvesting projects are generally associated with communities that
consider water supply a priority.
In the Caribbean, attitudes toward the use of rainwater for domestic
consumption differ. Some people, who depend on rainwater as their only
source of supply, use it for all household purposes, from drinking and
cooking to washing and other domestic uses. Other people, who have access
to both rainwater and a public water supply, use rainwater selectively,
for drinking or gardening or flushing toilets, and use the public water
supply for other purposes. These varying attitudes are related to the
level of education of the users as well as to their traditional
preferences. Different sectors of the society need to be informed about
the advantages of harvesting rainwater and the related safety aspects of
its use, including the threat of mosquito problems and other public health
Further Development of the Technology
There is a need for the water quality aspects of rainwater harvesting to
be better addressed. This might come about through:
- Development of first-flush bypass devices that are more effective
and easier to maintain and operate than those currently available.
- Greater involvement of the public health department in the monitoring
of water quality.
- Monitoring the quality of construction at the time of building.
Other development needs include:
- Provision of assistance from governmental sources to ensure that the
appropriate-sized cisterns are built.
- Promotion of rainwater harvesting as an alternative to both
government- and private-sector-supplied water, with emphasis on the
savings to be achieved on water bills.
- Provision of assistance to the public in sizing, locating, and
selecting materials and constructing cisterns and storage tanks, and
development of a standardized plumbing and monitoring code.
- Development of new materials to lower the cost of storage.
- Preparation of guidance materials (including sizing requirements) for
inclusion of rainwater harvesting in a multi-sourced water resources
Eduardo Torres, Investigador, Instituto Argentino de
Investigaciones de las Zonas Aridas (IADISA), Bajada del Cerro de la
Gloria s/n, Parque General San Martín, Casilla de Correo 507, 5500
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EMBRAPA/CPATSA, BR-428 km 152, Zona Rural, Caixa Postal 2356, 300-000
Petrolina, Pernambuco, Brasil. Tel. (55-81) 862-1711. Fax (55-81)
862-1744. E-mail: Luizatlb@cpatsa.embrapa.br.
Jorge Faustino Marco, Líder, Proyecto
RENARAN/Cuencas, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación
y Enseñanza (CATIE), Apartado 7170, Turrialba, Costa Rica. Tel.
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Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorolog-ía e Hidrología
(INSIVUMEH), Ministerio de Comunicaciones, Transporte y Obras Públicas,
7ª Avenida 14-17, Zona 13, Guatemala. Tel. (502-2)31-4967 / 31-9163.
Ernesto Bondy Reyes, Director General, Dirección
General de Recursos Hídricos (DGRH), Ministerio de Recursos
Naturales, 100 metros al sur Campo Birichiche, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Tel.
(504)32-6250 / 32-1386. Fax (504)32-1828.
Eugenio Godoy Valdovinos, Comisión Nacional de
Desarrollo Regional Integrado del Chaco Paraguayo, Dirección de
Recursos Hídricos, Casilla de Correo 984 / 273, Filadelfia,
Paraguay. Tel. (595)91-275. Fax (595)91-493.
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Manejo de Agua a Nivel de Finca, Av. Jiménez Moya, Centro de los Héroes,
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166, La Herradura, Santiago, República Dominicana. Tel.
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Bwalya John Mwansa, Project Manager, Barbados Water
Resources Management & Water Loss Studies, Barbados Water Authority, "Invermark",
Hastings, Christ Church, Barbados. Tel. (809)430-9373. Fax (809)430-9374.
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de Ingeniería, Universidad de Cuenca, Av. 12 de abril s/n, Cuenca,
Ecuador. Tel. (593-7)831-688/819-891. Fax (593-7)832-183. E-mail:
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Ressources Naturelles et du Développement Rural, Av. Lamartinière
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