With its pleasant climate and serene environment, Kovaipudur, a quaint township located in Coimbatore, was once known to be a haven for retired people. Kovaipudur is living out a nightmare now, one that has snowballed over the years. It is painful to even picture what it is like to reside in an area that receives corporation water supply for about half an hour to maybe one hour once in 20 or 30 days. But that’s what living in this town means these days. Youngsters have left the town looking for better job opportunities while the old people remain and they are finding it all the more difficult to deal with the water situation.
Ramdas Iyer, whose parents have been residing in Kovaipudur for about 30 years now, mentions that citizens have now stopped depending on the municipal water supply. Most of the houses, about 95 percent of them, have borewells which are only getting deeper. “In fact, the erratic water supply from the corporation has actually encouraged people to set up borewells,” says Iyer. Consequently, the groundwater level has been going down.
Why there is no water in Coimbatore
The water problem in Coimbatore has many causes one of them being its geographical location itself. Iyer says, “Kovaipudur is situated in the rain shadow area of the Western Ghats. Coimbatore receives no rain from the southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoon stops short of this place. It is water deficient. The groundwater comes from the rainfed areas of Palakkad or Salem in the neighbourhood.” In such a situation, water conservation strategies become all the more important. Iyer says there has been general neglect on the part of the government in this region.
Secondly, the residents claim that Coimbatore has been neglected by the Tamil Nadu government and the city is economically dependent on private investors. Srinath Iyer, brother of Ramdas Iyer, who resides in Kovaipudur mentions that the area was added to Coimbatore much later and that the ward is like a suburb. Coimbatore has been the economic bastion of Naidu industrialists from southern Andhra Pradesh and the Gowdas from Karnataka, who are among the communities that have traditionally lived there for more than a century. Additionally, large tracts of land have been bought for mills and numerous colleges--which draw students from outside to the city--have sprung up in Coimbatore. All these have exacerbated the water problem.
Iyer also mentions that Coimbatore does not flex its political muscle enough. The government has displayed very little interest in investing in the infrastructure here. While it is common for political parties to invest in vote banks, the situation in Coimbatore paints a rather peculiar picture. Political rivalry is a serious impediment to the political patronage (or the lack of it) that this city receives. Coimbatore is known to be the stronghold of the AIADMK. Srinath says that the AIADMK takes the loyalty of the region for granted while its political rival DMK ignores them because the city is loyal to its rival.
With not enough water being provided by the government, it’s natural for the population to depend on illegal water supply for their needs. Iyer says that there are many who claim to sell water from the Siruvani dam that was constructed to meet the water needs of Coimbatore. Initially, the government had dug a few borewells and used to pump water directly to a few outlets for a few hours a day. The water tanker mafia, however, took over the government borewells and stopped the water supply. It is now claiming to sell Siruvani water but at a higher price. The water tankers also come at prices which cannot be afforded by all and the quantity is simply insufficient. Merely 500 litres of water is supplied to a family by tankers and they are expected to pay Rs 150 for this.
The water level of the Siruvani dam has been depleting as well because of which the water supply from the dam was stopped as early as January this year. Usually, it is common to pump water from the dead storage even when the dam dries up in April or May until the city receives rainfall. Now, the city is completely dependent on rains to recharge its groundwater levels.
Rainwater harvesting is the way forward
What Kovaipudur needs right now is prompt and effective intervention. Dr Sekhar Raghavan, Chennai’s rainwater harvesting expert and director of the Rain Centre has some valuable insights to offer in this regard. “People must understand that when rainfall is less, they should harvest the rain better.” He, however, says that when the terrain is rocky, as in the case of Coimbatore, where more than 50 percent of the area is hard rock, shallow aquifers may be insufficient. “It is the depth of the shallow aquifers, which lie above the hard rock that determines how viable they are. One of the indicators of the depth of a shallow aquifer is the open wells. We can determine where the hard rock starts depending on the depth of the water in an open well,” he explains. According to him, even shallow aquifers can be replenished. “In Chennai, when the water levels in the shallow aquifers went down, people started digging borewells without realising that the aquifers can come back alive. With the rainwater harvesting ordinance of the Jayalalithaa government in 2002, the water levels in these aquifers increased phenomenally--by 30 feet. People should not lose hope and give up rainwater harvesting because that would make the situation worse. The effect may not be noticed in a month or a year, but has positive ramifications in the long run. In general, the awareness about the importance of rainwater harvesting is lacking.” In fact, he has also been rigorously working towards sensitising people about the importance of open wells.
While he believes that the dependence on shallow and deep aquifers is contingent on the occurrence of hard rock in the region, Dr Raghavan says that until 50 years ago, people depended on open wells for water. “It is time to reinvent the wheel. I have visited Coimbatore many times and there used to be many open wells, but eventually, they have turned into garbage dumps. Bureaucrats themselves are usually ignorant about these issues”. But he says the level of ignorance is no different at the household level where there is a complete lack of awareness about the importance of rainwater harvesting.
As for governmental intervention, Raghavan says that we need to distinguish between micro level and macro level interventions, adding that mega schemes by the government such as the construction of dams and water sharing will always be mired in political scuffles between states--as in the case of Mullaperiyar dam. He believes that the micro-conservation methods such as rainwater harvesting in households are more sustainable. “Rainwater can always be collected in a sump, even in hard rock terrains, and be used for a few months. People should also consider reviving the ponds in and around Coimbatore and dig open wells near them so that the seepage from these can be collected in the open wells”.
There is a need for collective action by the civil society and revival of traditional, sustainable methods of water conservation to ensure that the region makes the best use of whatever rainfall it gets this year. It seems like all hope is not entirely lost.