The day is not too far when Madurai will be battling one of the worst water crises in recent times. It is time some measures were taken. On World Water Day (March 22), A. Shrikumar takes a look at the past and present water management systems in Madurai.

It is late afternoon. The women are lined up, some of them squat, with plastic kodams by their side. They have been there for a little more than two hours waiting for the Corporation water tanker. When it arrives, there’s a mad scramble. Within few minutes, the tanker runs out of water, even as more than half the crowd is left without. This is what happens at Munthirithoppu in Anna Nagar almost every day.

Most Maduraiites manage to make a day’s supply of water last a week. “We spend Rs.3,000 a month on buying water from private suppliers,” says Ramachandran of Melamadai. The water at the Vaigai dam has plummeted and the corporation is in the process of digging 500 bore wells in and around the city. Madurai is hurtling towards cataclysm.

Some attribute it to the failure of monsoons and call it the wrath of nature. Environmentalists blame deforestation. Some others blame the government. But it is nothing but inefficient water management system, say the water experts.

“Every year, over 25 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Cauvery drains into the ocean. That quantity can fill the Vaigai dam four times over,” states A.C. Kamaraj, Chairman, National Waterways Development Technology, who has proposed a 15,000 km long waterway covering the entire country. “Digging bore wells is not a solution as it will only lead to depletion of ground water table. Creating waterways across rivers will ensure that the excess flood water is effectively utilised. This way, the damage caused by floods can also be reduced.”

“Even at the city level, we lack full-fledged water saving and storage systems,” he says. “The water bodies should be periodically de-silted so that the water table gets recharged.” He points out that Vandiyur tank, one of the biggest tanks in the district, can be made a summer water storage for the entire city. Tanks like the Thanakankudi kanmoi located as far as Thirubuvanam in Sivagangai district gets water from Vandiyur. “If the Vandiyur tank is deepened and the inlets are relieved of encroachments, it can be used as a substitute to the Vaigai water.”

Selvam Ramaswamy of Wake-up Madurai group, which has been involved in cleaning water tanks across the city, says, “Though we have been talking about rain water conservation, the water bodies are lying in neglect. They are either encroached upon or used as dump yards. All storm water channels should be connected to the tank in the locality,” The group so far has cleaned the tanks of Vandiyur, Sellur, Parasuramanpatti and Mailanendal.

Tamil Dasan, an environmentalist, lists out the number of tanks that have vanished under encroachment. “We have lost 16 tanks inside the main town. Today, tall buildings and thoroughfares stand in places of water bodies,” he says, pointing to the areas named after water tanks such as Tallakulam, Chockikulam, BB Kulam and Kosakulam. “We even have streets names after wells and ponds like ‘Elukadal Theppam Street’ and ‘Thottiyan Kinatru Street.”

According to J. Kanagavalli, co-author of Neerindri, Madurai was never a rain deficit district. “The average rainfall of the district has remained 935 mm annually since the past 35 years and occurrence of drought is common in any place once in 10 years. So, it’s unfair to blame rain and nature. It is we who have failed to save and use water judiciously.” Rampant sand mining in the Vaigai bed, cemented water channels and clogging of inlets to major tanks are cited as some main reasons for the current water crisis. “By cementing the channels, the rain water is unable to seep into the ground and in turn gets evaporated,” observes Kanagavalli. “The Krithamal River which was once a source of fresh drinking water should be cleaned and revived. Water saving structures should be safeguarded against encroachments.”

Water leakage from pipes and tankers also significantly contributes to the wastage and mismanagement of water. N.T. Prashant, a social worker has taken up an initiative to check and repair water leakages across the town. “In the past three months, I and my team of volunteers have responded to nearly 50 leakage complaints. Most came from the centre of the town and some from the peripheries,” he says. “We did a short study and found that hundreds of litres of water go waste through tap and pipe leakages everyday. Following this, we have conducted awareness programmes in 43 colleges covering 25,000 students.”

Water managers

If we look back a few centuries ago, there are ample evidences for the existence of a technically advanced and efficient water management system. “A number of literary references are there to cite the water wealth of Madurai,” says Kangavalli, referring to a song from Silapadhigaram that sings the glory of Vaigai and the presence of abundant coconut palms and plantain groves on its banks. “The word ‘Vaigai’ itself means ‘brimming with water’. Some verses from the epic also talk about the moats around the Pandya fort and how the water of Vaigai was channelized to various villages around for irrigation,” says Kanagavalli. She recalls that the Madurai of yore was dotted with water tanks and how it was the strategy of the Pandya kings to irrigate the dry belts of Sivagangai and Ramnad.

In the olden days, there were also separate groups of people to take care of the water wealth of the country. They were called as ‘Neerkatti’ or ‘Neeranikarar’. A few neerkatti families still reside in some villages around Thirumangalam. Karuppiah of Chokkampatti says that his grandfather was given the job of regulating water from the Kanmoi. “The job was passed on me and when the tank is full it’s my duty to ensure proper storage and supply to the respective villages,” he says.

“The practice of appointing a neerkatti was started during the Nayak period, which was continued by the later zamindars,” says Pichayappan of Muthuramalingapuram. “Our responsibility was to check breaches in the bund, desilt and deepen the bed, clean the tank and to relieve the canals and inlets of any clogging.”

“In return for the services rendered, our forefathers were paid in kind by the villagers. Every farmer would present us a part of the paddy yield and it was called ‘Mada Dhaniyam,” says Panchavarnam who is the neerkatti for Kilangulam kanmai. She took the job after her husband Subramani passed away and boasts of her swimming skills and recalls how she dived underwater a decade ago when the tank was full, to release water by unlocking the sluice lever.

“We take note of the repair works needed to be done and the encroachments if any before the monsoons and report it to local panchayat members and they mobilise the necessary fund and take action,” says Krishnan of Vellakulam. “But today, the tanks have dried up and we are left jobless.” A number of these Neerkattis have branched into doing menial jobs in the nearby towns of Peraiyur and Thirumangalam.