Water scarcity

Dry and dreary

Print edition : February 03, 2017

The Papanasam Dam in Tirunelveli district as seen on October 12, 2016. The storage level at the dam is nearing dead-storage level. The situation in the fertile district, which is a rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, is quite critical. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

The Puzhal lake, the main source of drinking water to Chennai city. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

With dams, reservoirs and other waterbodies almost dry, all the 32 districts of Tamil Nadu and Chennai city face the prospect of a water famine.

WITH the north-east monsoon failing all over Tamil Nadu, it is not surprising that a debilitating drought has gripped all the 32 districts of the State, including Chennai, the State capital. With reservoirs and dams heading towards dead storage, it is only a matter of weeks before the entire State will face drinking water famine. The dams that are approaching the dead-storage position include Mettur dam in Salem district, Vaigai dam in Madurai district, Papanasam, Manimutharu and 10 other dams/reservoirs in Tirunelveli district, Krishnagiri dam in Krishnagiri district, Pechiparai and Perunchani reservoirs in Kanyakumari district and Sathanur dam in Tiruvannamalai district.

Chennai is heading towards a massive drinking water supply crisis. The situation is so alarming that the combined storage level in the four reservoirs that supply water to Chennai city stood at 1.504 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) on January 12 against the total capacity of 11.057 tmcft. The four reservoirs that provide drinking water to Chennai are situated at Puzhal (Red Hills), Sholavaram, Chembarampakkam and Poondi. Their combined storage level as on January 12 was sufficient to supply Chennai only for four weeks. The alarming situation compelled Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in Vijayawada on January 12 and request him to step up the release of the Krishna water from the Kandaleru reservoir in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. He also thanked the Andhra Pradesh government for ensuring the flow of Krishna water to Chennai from January 9.

The situation is equally alarming in other districts. Madurai district has 13 blocks, with five coming under the Periyar dam-Vaigai dam assured irrigation command area. The sluices of the Vaigai dam were not opened for irrigation this season in view of the extremely poor storage position in its reservoir. As a result farmers in Madurai east, Madurai west, Melur, Vadipatti and Alanganallur blocks could not cultivate both kuruvai and paddy crops.

Tirumangalam, Tiruparankunram, Kallikudi, Usilampatti, Sedapatti, Sellampatti, Kottampatti and T. Kallupatti, all rain-fed areas, are the remaining eight blocks where farmers grow pulses and millets. Fifty per cent of these crops have already dried up. Agriculture Department officials have undertaken an assessment of the situation. In a season of normal rainfall, paddy is cultivated in about 50,000 hectares in these 13 blocks. But sowing was done only in 6,000 hectares this season for want of water and it is anybody’s guess how much of paddy will be harvested in January.

Waterbodies in villages such as Silaiman, Keezhadi, Manalur and Thoothai Maranadu, which are situated on the banks of the Vaigai river, have dried up. Drinking water is supplied to these villages in tankers. The Maranadu “kanmai” (lake), which irrigates more than 1,200 hectares, is also dry. The bed of Kattikulam tank, which irrigates 800 hectares, is overgrown with Prosposis juliflora trees. The tank is bereft of water.

In Tiruchi district, irrigated by the Cauvery river, its branches and irrigation canals, farmers have lost both kuruvai and samba paddy crops this season. There is no water flowing in the Cauvery or its branches such Kudamuruttiaru and Kuzhaiyaru. In rain-fed areas such as Siruganur, Peruganur and Tiruppattur villages, sorghum and maize have withered. At Siruganur, a well and an adjoining tank were incredibly dry when this correspondent visited the village. Across the road, a group of women were cutting down the sorghum plants because they had shrivelled before reaching maturity. The plants will become fodder for cattle. G. Chellambal said, “We lost sorghum. In the nearby villages, cotton farmers lost heavily because the yield was not good. The red gram has failed. It did not rain at all here. We did direct sowing and we got nothing.”

A couple of kilometres away, at Tirupattur village in Mannachanallur panchayat union, a marginal farmer, K. Gandhi had cultivated maize on one acre (0.4 hectare) but the crop dried up for want of water. He showed the Frontline team the shrivelled corn cobs. “I lost Rs.20,000. This includes Rs.3,600 spent on buying seeds, Rs.5,500 spent on fertilizer and Rs.6,000 spent on labourers who de-weeded the field. I am yet to pay Rs.4,200 for ploughing,” Gandhi said.

Some distance away, in the interior part of Tirupattur, A. Natarajan cultivated cotton but the crop did not take off for want of water. There are no irrigation canals in this rain-fed area. There are only open wells. As the monsoon failed, farmers were hit hard. Natarajan’s cotton plants, which should normally grow to a height of five feet, were only three ft tall. “I would have got about 100 cotton bulbs from every healthy plant. We did not have enough water, so the plants are not healthy. I will not get even 10 bulbs from each plant,” Natarajan said. The cotton collected from these plants was sent to the textile mills in Tiruppur, he explained. “I spent Rs.50,000 to cultivate these plants in one acre. I shall get only Rs.5,000 now,” Natarajan said.

A. Radhakrishnan and his four brothers had invested Rs.1 lakh each in their citrus plantations. They also cultivated snake gourd, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, double beans and pumpkin. None of these has given a good yield.

The drought situation is really grim in Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Virudhunagar districts. Most of the waterbodies in these districts are dry. There is no water in the domestic or irrigation wells. The situation is no better in the fertile Tirunelveli district, which is another rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. (The districts in the Cauvery delta are the main rice-growing areas of the State.) Storage levels in the 12 dams/reservoirs in the district, including the Papanasam and Manimutharu dams, are nearing the dead-storage level. Owing to a couple of spells of rains recently, some water flows in the Tamiraparani river.

Salem district is no better. Mettur dam, the lifeline of agriculture in the Cauvery delta and Cauvery belt districts, is approaching its dead-storage level.

A report datelined Salem and published in The Hindu on January 12 said: “Owing to the failure of the monsoon and the refusal of the Karnataka government to release water from its Krishnarajasagar and Kabini reservoirs into the Cauvery river despite the Supreme Court directive, the quantum of inflow into the Mettur dam has remained meagre since mid-October.

“The storage level went down to 9.908 tmcft on January 11 against the dam’s full capacity of 93.47 tmcft, and this is the lowest storage level registered this season, according to Public Works Department sources.”

The full-reservoir levelof the Mettur dam is 120 ft; the level now stands at 35 ft. Its dead-storage level is 20 ft, below which is just slush.

There is not a drop of water in the east canal and west canals of the Mettur dam, which irrigate an ayacut of 18,000 hectares in Erode, Salem and Tiruchi districts. So cultivation of paddy, tapioca, millets and pulses has been upset this season in Salem district. No water is available for the cattle. There is no fodder either. Farmers have already begun distress sale of cattle.

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