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Rainwater Harvesting

Rainwater harvesting consists of the collection and storage of rain water from rooftops or from the land surface, for later use within households or for the irrigation of crops. It makes use of water that would otherwise flow into groundwater or rivers, and often away from the area altogether, and can thus greatly reduce water shortages.


Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

Water is a basic need for all living organisms. Too often, the potential of making use of the rain that falls on our rooftops or on our land is ignored, needlessly reducing the amount of water available.

Like fresh and clean water, clean air is a basic need for all breathing organisms. Pollutants can move from air to water or vice versa, and thus the two needs are physically closely connected.

Food is arguably the most important need of humans in order to survive. If ample and clean water is not provided in an area or becomes too scarce to use freely, food preparation and the cleanliness of our diet is compromised. In order to grow produce to eat, irrigation may be needed. Irrigation is any method supplying more water to crops than rainfall alone. It is considered a risk management tool and also a capital investment. According to the US EPA, 18% of global agricultural land is irrigated, which produces around 40% of the world’s food.  About 75% of all freshwater taken from lakes, reservoirs, and rivers is used for irrigation purposes. With agriculture being the single largest use of fresh water, the importance of using the water wisely and efficiently is great, and rainwater harvesting can contribute to that.

Water in the form of rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, rainfall, snow, fog and clouds contributes to the nature of each and every place on the surface of the Earth. If the nature of water in a place is changed, its viability as a home for humans and all other life forms will be impacted.

Lack of water can also lead to discomfort and mental insecurity, because water is required for life on a daily basis. To ensure water security in times of drought and plenty alike should be a main concern of all of society.

Water is needed in order to wash our clothes and bodies.

Every shelter must have access to water, for purposes of drinking, cooking, cleanliness, and hygiene.

Clean water is essential for health, to prevent the spread of infectious disease, as well as for numerous medical treatments.

Managing water effectively and keeping it clean, and preventing water-borne diseases, all require appropriate learning as well as participation in collective economic and political decision making.


Relationships to Organizational Forms

Water can be obtained by self-provisioning, where there is access to surface water, to a well or cistern, or if one harvests rainwater from one's own roof. These structures can also be shared among more than one household. Somewhat larger systems of water provisioning can be established through community solidarity. Yet larger systems involve utilities, that are classified under the committed services or sales cluster. The latter usually involve currencies and markets of some kind.

Relationships to Resources

Not every location has plentiful water resources to aid crop growth or for household consumption. Rainwater harvesting can contribute to making more careful use of available water, essentially retaining it in an area longer before it flows on toward the sea.


Rainwater harvesting can contribute to making more effective use of the land to cultivate crops or feed livestock (living things).


The physical, man-made assets which are needed for rainwater harvesting are often very simple, consisting of a rooftop, some pipes and filtering mechanisms, and a storage container or cistern. In addition, there may be a distribution system that creates a network among several providers and users.


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Understanding patterns of abundance and scarcity

According to FAO’s Water and Food Scarcity report, about 45% of commercial and residential water is actually properly used. The other 55% of the water withdrawn for irrigation often does not reach the crop. It is lost through canal leakage, spillage, infiltration and unproductive evaporation. Improper use results in overdrawn aquifers, reduced rivers, and extreme erosion. While the actual percentage of irrigation water wasted on larger farm lands is unknown, the point of wasted water can be applied on this scale as well. Improper use of irrigation water results in overdrawn aquifers, reduced rivers, extreme erosion, and major salinization of farmland.


Aquifers in general have been greatly depleted over the past fifty or so years due to high need for irrigation, especially in the U.S Midwest.  The biggest freshwater aquifer in the United States is the Ogallala aquifer, which extends through 8 states, from South Dakota to Texas. Water levels in this aquifer have declined by nearly 30 meters in some areas and have been reduced by half in some areas, as is seen in Jeffrey Petersons ‘Conserving the Ogallala Aquifer’. The rapid decline of freshwater sources contributes greatly to the need for sustainable irrigation practices.


Not only has improper use of freshwater resources and poor irrigation practices made a considerable dent in our natural water resources, but also general overuse of water due to high population levels and poor conservation practices has contributed to the problem as well.

Approaches to creating greater abundance

Rainwater Harvesting

The rapid population growth of India has led to a water crisis that has created a demand for policy reforms. The Centre for Science and Environment website shows that a slew of awareness programs, workshops, and informational materials have led to a widespread public responsiveness to the problem. Extensive rainwater harvesting has begun around the country as a sustainable and equitable solution to the freshwater shortage. The harvesting is not only limited to rural farming areas, but is applied in common urban living as well. Rainwater harvesting makes sense in a monsoon climate that only gets around 3 months of rainfall, which is a problem that people in temperate regions don’t often encounter and forget exists in other areas of the world.


Water Trading

When in drought prone areas or seasons, water trading may also be a sustainable way to save freshwater, though this method may not be the most cost efficient. A somewhat unfair advantage is placed on those in most need at the time and the market of water trading is considerably unbalanced (like the Pareto efficient.)


When it comes to the water trading market and equity concerns it all boils down to private water rights versus public goods as well. It’s a battle of efficiency versus equity, which can also be seen as firmer water rights and a stronger emphasis on water markets or focus on government decision making. Property rights are fuzzy in many farming communities, therefore making the balance of decision making and fairness of trading rights quite unpredictable. A major problem within this area is distinguishing between what are the rules with private property on land versus what are the rules with the private property on land that holds water.  The benefits are thus far unknown due to the general confusion within the market.


Groundwater as Commons

The idea of groundwater as a commons resource is also a big issue when dealing with technicalities and equity of water supplies. Groundwater is most generally regarded as a common pool resource, meaning many people can use it and can’t really be excluded easily. If groundwater was a full on commons resource, however, all the users would have a say in deciding how much can be used and at what times. Some people such as ecologist Garrett Hardin believe that the commons are doing more harm than good in the current times. The “tragedy of the commons” states that without a social reform on the way we look at commons resources, people will just look after their own self-interest without any regard the natural resource they are depleting.


The commons tragedy issue is being combated by some, such as the state of Washington. Wandschneider and Barron describe the state’s policy in their article ‘Economic issues in protecting groundwater quality’. The state publically owns groundwater, therefore causing a need for a permit when using groundwater and regulating what is taken. There is no charge for the water, but there is still a significant change in water use. In other cases among the United States a landowner has access to an aquifer by drilling a well and then pumping the water. The landowner pays the costs for drilling, pumping, and transporting the water, but no fees are charged for the use of the water itself. In this system less care seems to be placed on the amount of water being taken.


Water Rights: The Law

The issue of equity and level of fairness is a huge issue in the water market, as well as in water management and property rights in general. Looking at the Ogallala aquifer again, Texans have had a major debate about who should own the rights to the water. It boils down to the issue of landowner rights versus government/public ownership and permit rights. This is an issue throughout the world, not just in this particular area. The issues of economic efficiency, equity, and moral duty are brought up in regards to ownership debates. There are particular rules that the states have adopted, the pertinent issue is whether they stick to the rules and how fair the rules are to all people.


    The absolute dominion rule permits landowners to intercept groundwater that would otherwise been available to neighbors. It even allows the monopolization of yield of aquifers without liability. Eight states have adopted this rule, including Texas. The reasonable use rule limits water uses to be reasonably related to use of land. This is pretty much the absolute dominion rule with the intentions of cutting wasteful and offsite uses. Twenty one states use this particular rule, including Missouri. There is also the correlative use rule, in which the courts have the power to allocate water. Six states claim this rule. Restatement of Torts rule and Prior appropriation rule places the rights in the landowners hands reasonably as well, the later placing emphasis on the first landowner, as opposed to the current neighboring owners. Twelve states use the latter (US EPA – Who Owns the Water).


A wider understanding of land/water ownership rules can greatly aid in the understanding in how water can be used on farms properly.



The problem with proper use of freshwater for irrigational purposes is also directly connected to the problem of efficiency versus sustainability. What seems to work the best or be most cost efficient is not always the most environmentally safe or sustainable method. My proposal is to bridge efficiency with sustainability in order to create more effective uses of farming irrigation water in both the business and environmental sense. Rainwater recycling is a major solution to providing sustainable farming irrigation.

Approaches to creating greater abundance


Rainwater harvesting is defined as the gathering, or accumulating and storing, of rainwater in either DIY systems (such as rain barrels) or commercial systems (used for irrigation or livestock).Collecting rainwater saves freshwater sources as well as provides a cost efficient way to irrigate one’s own land. Many farming communities especially in impoverished or highly populated countries such as India and sub Saharan Africa in general have set up widespread harvesting systems and implemented higher level learning programs to teach people to do it themselves.



Many organizations, such as the SARE program (sustainable research and education), provide grants and other incentives to local or commercial farmers who can create more environmentally efficient ways to farm. A local farmer in Missouri (Ashland) by the name of Dan Kuebler paved the way for many local farmers to become more innovative in their farming methods and provided one example of sustainable irrigation. Switching from the most “efficient” method of irrigation (drip irrigation) to his own invention of solar powered irrigation pumps saves him around $2,300 annually, as well as provides a more environmentally friendly and still efficient source of irrigation. By using solar power to pump his pond water to his 1.5 acres of organic crop land, Kuebler started a sustainable practice that is now being mimicked by farmers around the Midwest. Not only did Kuebler create a solar powered solution, he also practices rainwater recycling from his barn top to his pond.


On a smaller scale, a graduate student from Clemens University, Nic Koontz, put together a rainwater harvesting system for his capstone class. The tank holds 1500 gallons of water and is used for landscaping purposes around campus. About 80,000 gallons of water a year will be saved using this system, and it just goes to show that anybody with the means to do so can practice this sustainable irrigation method.


Do it Yourself

If a person chooses to start rainwater harvesting by themselves the set up for a basic backyard rain barrel system can really be quite simple. A rain barrel kit can be purchased for around $100, or a system can be set up with a large trash can or barrel underneath a gutter. The waterproof container could use a spigot valve or irrigation hose, or could simply be used as a container. Collecting rainwater runoff in rain barrels can save thousands of gallons of tap water each year. A typical 40-by- 40-foot roof is capable of collecting 1,000 gallons of water from only one inch of rain, according to Matheson’s ‘How to make a rain barrel’ article.



By the use of water recycling in general we can improve our sustainability of farming irrigation greatly. Proper soil management and new innovations such as solar powered irrigation pumps also greatly contribute to a sustainable and efficient system of irrigation. Sustainability of irrigation water should be highly valued in a world so concerned with ending world hunger and feeding all the people we can with our resources in the most efficient way possible.

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FAO. World Food Summit 1996: Water and Food Security.


International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance
Matheson, Betsy. 2011. Harvesting Rainwater: How to make a rain barrel. Mother Earth News.


US Environmental Protection Agency

Sustainable research and Education  

Centre for Science and Environment –  





    "Missouri Farmer Develops Sustainable Irrigation System for Organic Vegetable Production Systems." / North Central SARE From the Field / From the Field / Learning Center / SARE Nationwide. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.


Clean Water for Washington – Economic issues in protecting groundwater quality – Philip Wandschneider and James C. Barron

Groundwater Utilization – Victor M. Ponce – 2006

Choices magazine – ‘Conserving the Ogallala Aquifer – Jeffrey Peterson, Februrary 2003



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