High faecal content and animal waste contaminating the 120-km-long river

The flood of pilgrims to the Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple located within the Kalakkad–Mundanthuri Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in the Western Ghats is resulting in ecological devastation.

A study by a team of experts of the Tamirabharani upstream before and after the ‘Aadi amaavaasai’ festival held at the Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple has revealed that uncontrolled open defecation and indiscriminate dumping of sacrificial animal waste have significantly polluted the river, with the faecal coliform bacteria content rising to alarming levels during the annual feast.

As thousands of devotees stay deep inside the jungle around the temple in the KMTR for over a week as part of the annual ‘Aadi amaavaasai’ celebrations, the degradation of the environment appears catastrophic. The 120-km-long Tamirabharani river, which sustains a range of crops, especially paddy, spread over one lakh acres, is the primary drinking water source for four districts – Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Turicorin and Virudhunagar.

Renowned toxicologist and environmental scientist A.G.Murugesan, a professor at the Sri Paramakalyani Centre for Excellence in Environmental Science, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Alwarkurichi, has been studying for years the effects of contamination on the river, upstream and downstream, near the location of the temple. The focal point of his study is the faecal content present in the river.

Water samples were scientifically collected from seven different points along the Tamirabharani, starting from Karaiyar dam to Papanasam, before and after the festival. According to the study findings, the river water near the Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple contains unacceptably high levels of total and faecal coliforms and the situation is worsening year after year.

The term ‘total coliforms’ refers to a large group of gram-negative, rod-shaped bacteria that includes thermo-tolerant coliforms and bacteria of faecal origin from environmental sources.

During 2004–2006, the total coliform bacterial population was found to be in the range of 844–1,100 MPN (Most Probable Number)/100ml of water near the temple and at Papanasam. The total coliform was found to be 20 MPN/100ml near Karaiyar dam, and there is no faecal coliform in the area throughout the study period – from August 2, 2013 to August 22, 2013.

But upstream (0.5 km ahead of the Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple), the total and faecal coliform levels were recorded at 240–1,100 MPN/100ml and 150–460 MPN/100ml respectively, before the festival this year (August 6).

From August 6 to August 10, the total and faecal coliform levels were greater than 2,400 MPN/100ml invariably at all the sampling points.

“Since we have limited facilities, we can measure up to 2,400 MPN, and hence the actual number of coilform bacteria in the Tamirabharani can be even more than a million. If we have sophisticated equipment, we can measure the exact number,” Dr.Murugesan points out.

On August 16, the faecal coliform content came down to 1,100 MPN/100ml near and beyond the temple, but was above 2400 MPN/100 ml at Papanasam.

The total coliform level was also found to be more than 2400 MPN/100ml from the temple up to Papanasam.

On August 19, the faecal coliform significantly reduced to the range of 64–210 MPN/100ml while the total coliform was recorded at 150–240 MPN/100ml.

Human contamination from open defecation, dumping of sacrificial animal waste and mass bathing are responsible for the elevated levels of the pathogenic bacteria in the river. If ignored, this may pose a great risk to human health, leading to diarrhoea, fever, headache and other secondary complications, warns Dr.Murugesan.

Faecal and total coliform counts are the most commonly used indicators in assessing the pathological quality of water. The presence of this organism is regarded as an indication of faecal pollution and possible presence of other enteric pathogens. People suffering from communicable diseases also discharge pathogenic microbes into the water in the form of excreta, and the higher the level of faecal contamination the greater will be the threat of waterborne diseases.

As per the guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board and World Health Organisation, the standard values are 50 MPN/100ml for total coliform, and 0 MPN/100ml for faecal coliform in water used for drinking. Dr.Murugesan suggests that strict measures should be taken to improve sanitation, and awareness must be created of the quality of water. Pollution of river water should be stopped.

“Authorities should restrict religious activities to one or two days, instead of permitting the pilgrims to stay in the forest area for a week or more. Temporary, permanent or mobile latrines should be set up in adequate numbers and they should be properly maintained during the festival. Separate places should be identified for animal sacrifice in a controlled manner and provisions should be made to remove the animal waste immediately,” he stipulates.

If ignored, the problem could spiral out of control and the pursuit of religious practices could result in the decimation of our natural heritage and resources.

More In: Madurai