Reviving the tanks

Print edition : January 30, 2004

PROJECT SIRUTHULI, pioneered by a group of corporate houses in Coimbatore, aims at conserving and storing water to tide over the scarcity condition that is threatening to become acute. Not only did the southwest monsoon precipitation drop from 700 mm to 400 mm, but the storage tanks and the main waterways are heavily silted.

The Valankulam tank being cleaned up under Project Siruthuli.-

The nine tanks around Coimbatore, which used to irrigate 7,500 acres (3,000 hectares) and recharge groundwater over centuries, are in various stages of neglect; many have become garbage and sewage dumps. The tanks and their bunds have been encroached upon, and in some places even concrete buildings have come up. The government also has a hand in the neglect of tanks. A public lavatory has been built on Selvanpatti tank, an electricity sub-station has encroached on the Valangulam tank and bus stands have come up in some others.

To take the water problem head-on, a trust called Siruthuli, meaning little drops, was registered in June 2003. Its founder-trustees include S.V. Balasubramaniam, chairman (chairman and managing director, Bannari Amman Sugars Ltd.), Vanitha Mohan, managing trustee (executive director, Premier Instruments & Controls Ltd.), Dr. R.V. Ramani, trustee (managing trustee, Sri Sankara Eye Society), Ravi Sam, trustee (director, LMW group of companies) and Arathi Varadaraj, trustee (vice-president-orgn.devpt., ELGI Equipments Ltd.)

According to S.V. Balasubramaniam, the groundwater level has been depleting rapidly, leading to an acute water shortage throughout the year. Agricultural activity has almost come to a standstill. Lakhs of coconut trees have withered away. Therefore the urgent need is to revive the water storage and harvesting facilities.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in the 1980s Coimbatore's groundwater depletion was the fastest in the world. Though the district was declared drought-prone as early as the 1970s and borewells were banned, Coimbatore has the distinction of being the district with the highest number of borewells in the country.

Every day, an average of 1,000 tonnes of garbage is generated in Coimbatore city and it is dumped in the tanks, making them unfit for water storage. Therefore, according to Vanitha Mohan, some of the industrialists decided to strengthen the arms of the government by creating awareness among the people and educating them on the right garbage disposal methods. The trust is working out better solid waste management practices with the help of experts.

Increased flow of sewage into the drainage system has led to the release of sewage water into the tanks. Heavy encroachment along and on the tank bunds also leads to the pollution of the tanks. For instance, Sanganoor Pallam, one of the arterial canals carrying rainwater from the Western Ghats into the tanks in the city, has become a sewage drain. During the monsoon, rainwater mixes with sewage and inundates low-lying residential areas.

The primary aim of Project Siruthuli is to keep the canals and tanks free of sewage water. Hence sewage water treatment methods are being worked out.

Since June 2003, Siruthuli has completed work on four tanks encompassing 294 acres, which can now hold 866.5 million cubic metres of water. Among the tanks completed are the Krishnampathy, Selvampathy, Kumarasamy and Narasampathy and work is on in two tanks - Valankulam and Selva Chintamani Kulam.

Project Siruthuli has been successful partly because it has been implemented in collaboration with District Collector N. Muruganandam and Corporation Commissioner D. Karthikeyan, apart from local bodies, officials such as the Revenue Divisional Officers and Tahsildars, and local residents. The encroachers were also involved after being convinced about the benefits of the project.

According to Vanitha Mohan, awareness campaigns, including a children's rally, and information dissemination during the Aadi Perukku festival, where over 10,000 people gathered, have made Siruthuli a "people's movement".

An exercise of developing riparian forests along the banks of the Noyyal river and connecting canals from the river to the tanks is also under way.

According to Balasubramaniam, corporates can go only thus far. A project of this size and magnitude requires a great deal of money. Though the seed capital came from the industries run by the trustees, public contribution in cash and kind (earthmoving equipment and service vehicles) has been encouraging. "Yet," says Vanitha Mohan, "this is not enough to take the project to its logical conclusion. The government has to help us, particularly with sewage treatment."

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