Prominent citizens share with SOMA BASU their concern about the looming water crisis in Madurai. Wake up or face the consequences, they warn.

“I see it only in my dreams now,” says Karumuttu T Kannan, the Thakkar of the Meenakshi Temple. He is referring to Madurai’s biggest Teppakulam near the Mariamman Temple. As a lad he has seen the tank brimming with water.

“Nearly 40 years ago, a foreigner recorded the mesmerising sight of the central mandapam floating in the tank,” he exclaims.

Today the 1,000 feet long and 950 feet wide landmark water source built by King Thirumalai Nayak is dry. For the second year in a row, the famous “float” festival, an annual ritual of the Meenakshi Temple held in the month of Thai, was merely a “static” one.

The ‘nilai theppam’, according to a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments official, was conducted for the third time in 60 years.

Even though the waterless float took away some charm of the festival, the massive public outpouring more than made up for the absence of water in the tank. But in the din of religious fervour, the important issue of water was choked.

Unfortunately, environment issues continue to be a preoccupation of few individuals, laments the founder-chairman of Centre for Environmental Sciences, S.V.Pathy. Why can’t water management be dealt with the same enthusiasm as airport expansions and infrastructure developments, he asks.

Madurai has lost over 50 ancient reservoirs and rainwater storage systems indigenously developed by native rulers that were once considered a marvel of hydraulic engineering. But still, there has been no public outcry.

Water shortage is an imminent reality, not a distant problem, warns Chennai-based scientist Prof.A.Vaidyanathan, who made a case for renovation of traditional tanks. “It has to be a shared concern and the rising shortage needs to be addressed collectively and immediately,” he says. Just one shining example in a State or city can show the way. Traditional wisdom of water harnessing can turn sun-bleached wastelands into tracts of green, he says.

“It is imperative for people to be directly involved and connected to water issues,” says Mr.Kannan.

Rainfall is the main source of groundwater recharge. Madurai’s lifeline, River Vaigai, is parched with Tamil Nadu facing 13 per cent reduction in rainfall in the last decade. With water level at depths lower than 400 to 500 feet, people are unable to think about saving water when there is not enough for daily use,” says Pathy.

But, environmental activist Anupam Mishra of Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi holds out hope of bringing dead rivers and reservoirs back to life. Restoration is always a complex process involving ecology, engineering and political diplomacy. “How will groundwater get recharged if you continue to concretise every inch of land and stop the water from seeping in?” he demands.

When King Thirumalai Nayak built the Teppakulam 368 years ago, he also built special channels that supplied water to it from the perennial river. Today, Vaigai has turned into a seasonal river with water only for 45-odd days in a year. Many catchment areas have vanished and all the channels are clogged with manmade waste. The tanks have fallen into disuse with decades of neglect and encroachment.

“Whatever is left of these containers meant to hold rainfall,” says Prof.Vaidyanathan, “should be cleaned up, their walls repaired and their concretisation strictly prohibited.”

Engineer and INTACH member Boby Thomas suggests the construction of earth dams across dry riverbeds. “It can be built with the clayey soil from the river bank or field. They do not face the threat of erosion as they are situated below the surface of the sand in the riverbeds. They can rejuvenate a dead river within three years,” he says.

Focus has to be constantly on water recycling and conservation. Rainwater harvesting cannot be pushed aside. We have to learn to trap water whenever and wherever it becomes available. While a few citizen groups have realised the value of reviving water bodies and have begun to clean the tanks, the movement should be on a war footing.