Field Notes | Environment

How a collector led the revival of over 300 waterbodies in a Puducherry town

Ayyanar Kulam   | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

Last year, as Chennai reeled under one of its worst water crises in history, officials in a Puducherry town, some 300 km away, went into a huddle in June. In the tiny coastal enclave of Karaikal, administration officers brainstormed about putting in place a sustainable water resource management model for the town’s two lakh people.

What this group — with officials from 35 government departments, educational institutions and NGOs — could not have anticipated was that this meeting would sow the seeds of a mass movement that would rejuvenate water bodies across Puducherry: within less than three months of the meeting, as many as 178 ponds in the Cauvery basin in Karaikal were revived, inspiring similar efforts all across the Union Territory.

It all started with a query raised at the meeting. When someone asked if Karaikal had the capacity to store 7 tmcft of river water allotted by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, “the response from officials was an emphatic no,” says M. Selvaganesh, Assistant, District Collectorate of Karaikal.

This was when the then District Collector and present Secretary to the Chief Minister, A. Vikranth Raja, stepped in with the idea of digging into revenue records to locate the region’s traditional waterbodies.

“To our surprise,” says Raja, “we found 549 ponds within a small territory spread over 157 sq. km. But we found that 40% of these water bodies were in various stages of extinction. Most of them turned out to be dumping yards.” The biggest hurdle, the young officer says, was to figure out a way to bring these water bodies back to life. “When people depended on ponds, they took care of them. When wells came up, they forgot about ponds; then when hand pumps arrived, wells were neglected. And, finally, with piped water, hand pumps went into disrepair,” says Raja.

Women draw water from the desilted pond at Keezhaputhumangalam.

Women draw water from the desilted pond at Keezhaputhumangalam.   | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

The idea was to first create an awareness programme before starting any ground work. Thus was born the ‘Nam Neer (Our Water)’ programme in July 2019. “The main objective was to reconnect people with their traditional repositories of water, particularly ponds, tanks and wells,” says Raja.

When he appealed for volunteers, 17 employees of the District Collectorate came forward; they donated ₹1,000 each to desilt Vathi Kulam at Keezhakasakudy in Karaikal, and spent an entire day cleaning up the small pond.

The news went viral on social media and the very next day, students of the Mother Theresa Institute of Health Sciences came forward to help rejuvenate another pond. Contributions poured in from everywhere and the work was executed by sponsoring agencies from both private and public sectors.

Community support

In the next four months, 178 ponds were desilted and channels bringing water from Arasalar, Noolar and Thirumalairajan rivers were cleared. Pond bunds were strengthened with the sand dug up during desilting. Saplings of local species were planted.

Initially, the local people were sceptical about the programme; they assumed it would fizzle out. “Even when the Collector waded into the pond for desilting, not everyone was convinced. But after a while, the community began to rally around and support the cause wholeheartedly,” says R. Muthu Sreenivasan, a junior engineer associated with the Nam Neer programme.

R. Kumar lives next to Ayyanar Kulam pond in Thennangudi. He said the Collector’s initiative prompted many like him to take part in Nam Neer. “While the programme was on, we decided to draw the Collector’s attention to an encroached pond by stopping his vehicle during one of his programmes. He stepped down and visited the place. He then gave directions for desilting work to start the very next day. Now, we have a beautiful pond. Even two to three months after the monsoon, the pond is filled with water,” says Kumar.

Engineer R. Muthu Sreenivasan at Ottapilliyarkulam.

Engineer R. Muthu Sreenivasan at Ottapilliyarkulam.   | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

His neighbour R. Nethaji says people now use the pond to bathe, wash clothes and graze animals. The water body had shrunk to around 1,200 sq.ft due to encroachment, but now it is nearly four times that size.

N. Annalakshmi of Keezhaputhumangalam says they had been waiting for more than 10 years for their local pond to be restored. “Thanks to the initiative, the pond is around 12 feet deep. Some 15 families depend on the pond to bathe and wash utensils,” she says.

Local people have understood the importance of preserving traditional water bodies; they now water the saplings planted along the bund. Raja says an afforestation programme was also launched with public participation. A petrol bunk owner donated 10,000 saplings. More than 30,000 saplings were planted in public places.

Taking a cue from Karaikal, the Puducherry administration also formed an action plan on similar lines and desilted 191 water bodies and 206 km of canals in the Puducherry region. “We identified many water bodies that were lost due to siltation or encroachment,” says Puducherry District Collector T. Arun.

Governments alone cannot find a lasting solution to the water crisis, says writer and historian P. Raja. “Community participation is a must for any plan to succeed.”

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 6:29:03 PM |

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