In search of an ancient river that is lost in the city

Kiruthumal river clogged with discarded plastic items and garbage at Sringeri Nagar near Bypass Road. Sewage is also released into the river.

Kiruthumal river clogged with discarded plastic items and garbage at Sringeri Nagar near Bypass Road. Sewage is also released into the river.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Experts say urban expansion is an integral cause of degradation of the Kiruthumal

A. Sikkandar, a 12-year-old resident of Thideer Nagar, says he often walks along the channel next to his house to observe the different types of garbage floating in it. He says on occasions he has found family and friends dumping feathers of birds, skin of dead animals and other everyday garbage. Sikkandar says he is unaware that the channel that carries stagnant sewage was a river whose water irrigated fields.

From Thuvariman in Madurai district to Ramanathapuram, Kiruthumal river that once had water flow for about 11 months in a year, now has stagnant sewage which breeds mosquitoes and diseases. It is a dump yard for garbage and open sewerage for houses unconnected to storm water drain.

In areas like Chinthamani and Keeraithurai, the river comes in handy for farmers as it irrigates small fields where vegetables are grown. However, it continues to be perceived as a storm water drain with little or no use to residents who live along the river.

The Kiruthumal, which originates near Thuvariman, is the product of five natural springs from Nagamalai hills. K.P. Bharati, adviser, Dhan Tourism, says the river was a flood carrier and used for everyday activities, including bathing, washing and agriculture. It used to feed many tanks for direct irrigation and drain excess water from agricultural lands. Its source and course, however, are in very poor condition now, he says.

The waterbody has reference in many ancient texts, including Srimad Bhagavatham and Narayaneeyam. The Kiruthumal was once a supplier to the moat around Tirumalai Nayak Palace in Madurai. J. Kanagavalli, programme leader, Dhan Foundation, says urban expansion is an integral cause of degradation of the river. In her research paper ‘Kruthumal River: A Case Study: Examination of the Significance of a Corridor within the Ecological Network,’ co-authored by Jayaraj Sundaresan, University College London, she says urbanisation is a major contributor to the Kiruthumal’s disappearance.

The river passes through 16 wards of Madurai Corporation and has traces of poor planning all along, she says. “The Kiruthumal was once flowing for 11 months until about 50 years ago. Its main source is rain. Though the rainfall pattern has been consistent with previous years, the duration has significantly come down,” she says. She adds that poor infrastructural facilities and major sand mining across Vaigai riverbed caused the levels of offtake channels to be higher. This prevented easy flow of water from the river.

“Inefficient planning to meet spatial demands along with poor infrastructure facilities of the newly developed areas resulted in the utilisation of the Kruthumal for waste disposal. Encroachments, particularly in the centre of the city, contributed to the degradation of the river,” says Mrs. Kanagavalli.

She adds that the concretisation of the river (now reduced to a channel) under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission was inefficient. “Many parts of the channel were concretised without giving proper gradient and cross section. Though a baby channel at the centre aims to compensate for the groundwater recharge, it is fully silted and infested with weeds,” she says.

This blocks the flow and promotes stagnation of polluted water along the entire 26-km stretch of the river in the city. When it rains, it floods, as the width has been brought down from 50 feet to 20 feet to 12 to three feet, says the research.

In order to ensure that the river, in its shrunken state, continues to exist, a senior Public Works department engineer suggests protection of its source. He says unless water from Nilaiyur channel is diverted to the river, there would be no flow. Unless the Corporation devises an effective plan to deal with storm water drain management and ensures that there is zero sewage discharge into the channel, change will not be witnessed. He adds that educating the public and introducing stringent measures, including levy of heavy fines, will be one way to control dumping of garbage into the waterbody.

Mrs. Kanagavalli concludes saying citizens must understand their responsibility towards protecting this important water source. “Non-governmental organisations can support ventures that the government initiates but only a central enforcing authority can bring in large-scale effective change,” she opines.

Corporation Commissioner S. Aneesh Sekhar says the local body has been working towards cleaning and desilting the river for over three weeks now. “There is no reason for sewage to flow into the river because most of the areas it flows through have underground drainage. If there is a problem of gradation in specific areas, we are willing to rectify it,” he adds.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 12:28:18 PM |

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