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Can You Find Local Solutions for Storing Rainwater?

Here in the US, we most often use plastic tanks or ‘heavy-duty’ metal tanks with a strong plastic membrane interior, for our rainwater storage. But what happens in remote areas when we either can’t bring or don’t have these plastic or metal tanks? Where do we go then for charity water projects?

My two favorite rain storage solutions (cisterns) are rammed earth tires…


Rammed earth tire construction is exactly what it sounds like. ‘Ramming’ tires full of the available soil and stacking them on top of each other. We can use “trash” to create a sustainable solution to water storage.

To prepare the site for the cistern, remove the top inch or two of soil, pour a slab of concrete for the foundation (steel reinforcing bars will improve structural stability if you have them), lay the rammed earth tires on the concrete slab, and cover the tires with a layer of water-tight concrete. Is the process labor intensive? YES!  And if you can obtain all the materials, well worth the trouble.

and ferrocement…


Here is a picture of our World Water Partners friends at Long Way Home building a cistern for Técnico Maya Vocational School. They built the cistern underground and used the soil that they dug out to fill the tires! The forms were built to hold the concrete in place while pouring.


Construction with ferro-cement on the other hand is very quick and far less labor intensive than ramming a few hundred tires full of soil. You just assemble a frame made out of chicken wire reinforced with thin steel bars (bamboo and brush sticks work as excellent substitutes) and cover it with a cement mixture (one part cement, three parts plaster or sand).


This is comparatively very simple it makes me wonder why we don’t use it more often, especially when the materials are readily available. Can it be in part because engineers are reluctant to use materials that they don’t learn about in materials class?

Structures made out of both rammed earth tires  & ferrocement have high load bearing capacity and equivalent or better structural stability than traditional building materials provide. Despite being very thin, ferrocement bends rather than fractures under compression tests and withstands earthquakes and other natural disasters with ease.

These are very cool ideas and as far as I have researched not nearly implemented often enough.

If you are traveling in remote areas of Africa, or anywhere else for that matter, you have to be willing to think creatively and invent solutions with the materials that you have access to. Maybe we won’t use rammed earth tires or ferrocement, because it takes supervision (education) and a skill set not often found in many remote areas, but we must keep an open mind and be ready to try new and different things and always try to design rainwater storage solutions to the available local resource.

When you arrive in a new remote developing area, one you have never visited before what are the first three things you need to understand before considering rain collection and storage?

1.   You need to determine the annual rainfall of the area and when the rainy seasons are. For example if it rains from January-March and July- September, this leaves two dry seasons of around three months every year. Whether you are focusing on a community or individual family you now know you will need storage for 90 days, and you can estimate usage of either focus…. You will find water usage per person in the developing world is quite a bit less than in our wasteful west.

2.   After you have determined how much water is needed, the next step is to figure out a location to collect the rain run-off. Does the school have a metal roof, or any other material suitable for rain collection? What are the local roofs made of? Do you need to build a new structure with a shed roof to accommodate the rainfall collection?

It’s all very well to set out to collect the water but if all the roofs in the area are made of thatch, what then?

3.   The third thing you need to address is how to store the water. You have rainfall, you have roofs, you know how long it has to be stored based on usage. So, what are you going to store the rain in?

This is where understanding the local culture pays off. You need to research what building materials locals use and what local industries exist. Are there local businesses dealing in commercial products that could be repurposed for water storage? Is there a UN  (or similar) presence that could provide their cast-off blue 50-gallon food containers in which they receive their supplies?

This third part could lead to a local sustainable business that provides products or services related to water collection and storage within the community.

If we were to be very lucky we might find someone hoarding piles of used tires hoping that one day he or she might find something useful to do with them ~ we should be so lucky!

Please let me know if I have missed anything important in my list above, related to getting started in developing areas installing rain collection systems? Please leave a comment below or email us at

Emily Berg and CASUDICaroline Di Diego for Bank On Rain

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July 5, 2011

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