Madurai, a city of tanks, reels under water stress

Groundwater recharge needed to augment availability

September 02, 2019 09:26 am | Updated December 03, 2021 08:17 am IST - MADURAI

Dry and deserted: Madakulam, one of the biggest tanks in the region, used to offer a spectacular view of the vast expanse of water lapping the shores.

Dry and deserted: Madakulam, one of the biggest tanks in the region, used to offer a spectacular view of the vast expanse of water lapping the shores.

It is an irony that in the city of waterbodies people suffer from water stress. Madurai, famous as city of temples and city of festivals, once had tanks dotted all over its face. Two rivers - the Vaigai and the Kiruthumal - augmented the storage of these tanks, which ensured sustainable water use. Today, drinking water is rationed and people are forced to factor in water purchase in their monthly budget.

Madurai had a sound irrigation system that enabled it to raise paddy. References to the Vaigai, the Kiruthumal, irrigation canals and tanks are found in stone inscriptions, Purananooru , Silappathikaram , Tiruvilayadalpuranam and Madurai Kanchi . The city itself was referred to as Madakkulam keezh Madurai (Madurai below Madakulam tank) by identifying it with one of the biggest tanks of the region.

Neerindri , a book on water resources published by Dhan Foundation, vividly recounts how Madurai’s waterbodies had been bartered for concrete structures in the name of urbanisation and development. It is like selling your eye to buy a painting, it says.


In an article in Firstpost , news website, ‘Madurai, a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them,’ Mridula Ramesh of Sundaram Climate Institute points out that the tanks of the city played a key role in eking the rainwater received in 44 days of the year over the remaining 321 days. They were outstanding examples of a sound water management system.

Concurring with this view, S. Suthanthira Amalraj, former Executive Engineer, PWD, says the city had lost about 60% of its waterbodies to exponential urbanisation. With no dramatic change in rainfall yield, but a fall in number of rainy days, water crisis has become complicated with population boom.

Where have they gone?

Where have all the waterbodies gone?

According to a survey conducted by Dhan Foundation, several of the 38 known tanks can now be identified only as Madurai Corporation building, Madurai Law College, World Tamil Sangam, Sunday Market, Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, District Court, All India Radio station, TNHB tenements and Press Colony.

Some of them have quietly disappeared from the city map. Naina Teppakulam, now recalled as Myna Teppakulam, was named after Tirunalai Souri Nayunu Ayyalu Garu (the full name of King Tirumalai Nayak). It is difficult to find even its trace on Kamarajar Salai. Efforts taken to develop Koodal Alagar Perumal Temple tank on Town Hall Road had gone waste as the waterbody remains a huge dust bin. The legendary Kiruthumal now winds its way into the city as a waste carrier.

Ms. Mridula says that tanks became less dependable as sources of water after the construction of Mullaperiyar and Vaigai dams.

The dependability fell from 77 % in pre-Periyar years to 33 % in 1986.

So was the case of canals. Dependence on canals for irrigation came down due to encroachments and sand mining and provision of free power for agriculture. This led to waning interest among government agencies and the community in maintaining them as feeding urban tanks to recharge groundwater was seen as second priority. This made them vulnerable to acquisition for construction of buildings.

Sustained neglect

Sustained neglect of waterbodies has led to depletion at both surface and ground levels. An added disadvantage has been absence of desilting, though it has been randomly taken up under the kudimaramathu scheme in the last few years.

Sedimentation has been consistently bringing down the capacity of the Vaigai dam, which was constructed in 1958. A sedimentation survey of 1976 showed that the capacity of the dam had come down to 178.191 million cubic metres from its original capacity of 194.78 million cubic metres. Today, Madurai and surrounding districts are fully dependent on Mullaperiyar dam for water supply.

Mr. Amalraj says groundwater has been tapped to the maximum and hence it has become difficult to source water even at a depth of 800 feet in a once water-rich area such as S. S. Colony. Surface flow in the river happens only when water is released from Vaigai dam for Ramanathapuram.

He attributes diminishing surface flow to damming of water at several places in Theni, Dindigul and Madurai districts.

Prudent water management, frugal use and eminent harvesting of rainwater can help in reducing water stress, he says.

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