APOORVA IYER | 1 AUGUST, 2019
Water Overuse and Contamination in Tamil Nadu: What Needs to be Done
A situation we all might have to face soon
You can read the first part of this report here.
The Papanasam dam supplies water to three districts: Tirunelveli, Thoothukkudi, and Virudhunagar. The water in its reservoir has fast started depleting after multiple failed monsoons. The dam has a storage level of 143 feet while it is filled up to only 10 feet as of now. The fall in the water level is due to the failed southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoons.
Even after drawing water from Manimuthur, Tirunelveli’s largest dam, it has become challenging to supply water to both the rural areas and the urban areas. Moreover, the distilling process in these dams has not taken place because of which dead fish can be seen floating in them. It is now solely on the Manimuthur dam with a capacity of 5,511 MCFT to meet the drinking water requirement as per the government’s drinking water schemes.
Apart from this, the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board has sunk 113 infiltration wells along the 125 km-long watercourses of the Tamirabharani from Papanasam to Punnaikaayal, to provide a supply of around 12 crore litres of water every day from the once-perennial river to over 28.5 lakh people through 27 combined drinking water schemes.
The primary reason for depleting water in the Tamirabharani river is the use of water by large industries like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and many others located in the exclusive economic zone of the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu. According to an RTI filed by Chennai-based activist Ramiah Ariya from Arappor Iyakkam, 27 companies receive 0.5 million gallons of water per day.
Karur is a district with 8 blocks, 157 villages and 2,457 habitations which is also facing acute water scarcity. It is known for its home textiles: bed linen, kitchen linen, toilet linen, table linen and wall hangings. The town exports textiles worth about Rs.6,000 crore a year.
There has hardly been any rain during the time of the northeast or southwest monsoon season. The pre-monsoon generally gives an average rainfall that ensures the filling up of all the tanks in the district, but at present its 17 major tanks and 14 minor tanks are very dry.
The failed monsoon has prevented farmers from cultivating an ample amount of agricultural produce in order to minimise their risks. Along with this, there is another widespread problem prevalent in the region: water contamination due to the existing dye industries that discharge about 14,610 kilolitres per day of treated effluent into the river. The groundwater quality has deteriorated downstream from these factories due to continuous discharge of effluent.
The waters of the river Bhavani cannot be used anymore due to the indiscriminate release of colourless dye and coloured dye during the day and night respectively. Generally, rivers are expected to flow, but these rivers are now still and do not flow as a thick layer of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) has covered them. This development has made it difficult to pump the water to generate hydroelectricity.
Traditional cultivators grew Korai grass, which is principally used to make mats. Increasing water scarcity has become a roadblock in growing this grass. The development has put the cottage industry under threat as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on it.
The final reason for the water scarcity is the humongous amount of water pumped out from these sources for the paper industries that operate in these regions. Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited are among those who are closing down their operations due to the scarcity.
Because of these issues, Karur had decided to press NOTA in the general elections 2019. The Karur Mavatta Nilathadi Neer Padukappu Sayakalival Pathikapetta Vivasayikal Sangam, formed in 2003 by those affected by the dyeing and bleaching industry in Karur, spearheaded this protest.
A lack of rainfall combined with depleting water tables is what the locals of Dharmapuri are busy facing this year. The region witnessed a failed northeast monsoon with a 50% deficient rainfall. It broke the backbone of the agriculture sector, which depends on seasonal rainfall for irrigation purposes. It has forced many farmers to abandon the process of reviving their crops.
With hardly any water to drink for themselves, they are forced to give less water to their cattle. Not much development has taken place despite repeated protests. Although the water is supplied once in a few days, it is not in a fit state to drink: larvae can be seen floating in it.
Cauvery water and Hogenakkal water are the major sources of water supply in this district. However, with the water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, much water is not released. Due to a lack of rainfall, the level of Cauvery waters has also gone down. Karnataka released only 1.16 TMCFT in the first ten days of June although it was ordered to release 9.19 TMCFT to Tamil Nadu by the Cauvery Water Management Authority.
Water contamination is not new in the state, nor in this region. Fluoride has contaminated the water here. Fluoride is a toxin, which if consumed daily can harm the human body in various ways such as crippling skeletal fluorosis after a certain age.
The fluoride content of the water is between 1.8 and 2 ml/litre, as against India’s permissible limit of 1.5 ml/liter. Unfortunately, the residents are forced to consume it for drinking and other purposes.
The whole region is known as the Flouride Belt of Tamil Nadu. Dharmapuri with 141 habitations is the fluoride capital of the state. With the Cauvery flowing through this region, people are still dependent on groundwater or the community borewells. It is an irony because the river water does not reach the villages, and four-fifths of the rural population is cut off from the piped drinking water network.
These are insights from a few districts in various parts of the state. Evidently these developments did not happen in a fortnight. It has been taking place for decades, but no one paid heed as it was not affecting them much. Now when the whole problem is bulging out with such a huge force, it is making the people realise their mistakes.
Finally all the people have started working on the conservation of water for the future. There have been various small but useful steps taken by people, which are bringing a change. In some districts of Tamil Nadu, watershed management intervention programs have been set up to improve water efficiency. Not only that, it will help recharge groundwater and provide ecosystem services.
Also, a foundation called the TAKE Solution in collaboration with the Environmentalist Foundation India has started many awareness programs regarding these issues. Many activities such as lake cleanups, plantation, and maintenance have been carried out. This way, people are being involved at the grassroots level.
Similarly, rainwater harvesting has been put to use in parts of Chennai. One such area is Sabari Terrace. Located on the Old Mahabalipuram Road, this apartment complex had collected 30,000 litres of rainwater in an hour. The water is used for three months in a year.
The administration is also now moving towards practising the old methods used in earlier times. One such is known as the ‘kudimaramath’ scheme, an ancient method of constructing and maintaining waterbodies by the local community. Kudimaramath is considered as a long-term drought-proofing scheme in the region.
People should also be using recycled water for other purposes such as gardening; in this way much water can be saved. However, people in the region hesitate to use treated sewage water. The attitude of the people needs to change. It is very crucial when such a situation is looming across the country.
Last but not least, the water crisis which confronts Tamil Nadu does not pertain to a particular village, town, or nation of the world. It is a situation we all might have to face due to our careless and uncaring attitude towards nature. We all should join hands and do our bit to save water for ourselves and for the next generation as well.
As a wise one said, “All the water that will ever be, is now.”
(Cover Photo: Zacherie Rabehi for The Citizen)