On the receiving end of the climate crisis and urban infrastructural issues, five Madurai farmers approached DHAN (Development of Humane Action) Foundation as their last resort in 2016.
M Seedhuramu, one of the members of this contingent, tells The Better India, “We were desperate to get a perennial source of water for our livelihoods. Crop losses due to water scarcity were putting a huge dent in our savings. DHAN Foundation is locally known for reviving hundreds of water bodies and empowering farmers like us,” he adds.
While the organisation agreed to help with finances and technical guidance, the execution and ownership of the project had to remain in the hands of farmers.
“We did not have a degree, or expertise and experience in reviving a water body, so the concerns were genuine,” Seedhuramu notes.
But little did the team know that this little call for help would result in them spearheading a massive water body revival project that would go on to provide water to 50 acres of farmland in Madurai. The 9-acre Kadhiyanur irrigation tank in Iravathanallur is now free of sewage, and groundwater tables have significantly improved.
However, the revival of the dying water body was no mean feat.
Restoring the ecosystem
The area of Kaathiyanoor tank, a Wakf property of ‘Madurai Kazimar Periya Pallivasal (Mosque) Trust, is spread across 38 acres. The land was leased to 25 families, each getting cultivable land up to two acres.
According to the contract, the farmers have been sharing a small part of their produce with the trust for the last three decades. However, in case the farmer is not able to give the crop for a certain period or his land remains uncultivable for ten years, the contract can be cancelled.
The farmers’ worst fears came true when the cultivable land suffered a blow due to rampant urbanisation, which in turn reduced water availability.
“This increase in the built-up area of Madurai engulfed agriculture land (command area) and water bodies either partially or completely. An increase in demand for public-private infrastructure and lesser availability of ‘poramboke’ (common wasteland) lands compelled city planners to treat tanks with no or less command area as poramboke lands. The change in catchment characteristics catalysed by the encroachment of waterways reduced the runoff and harvesting potential of the Kaathiyanoor tank. Further, unregulated sand mining along the river bed followed by low or zero flow in River Vaigai reduced the feed of the Kaathiyanoor tank. The above factors proved detrimental and risked the paddy cultivation,” states a report by the Center for Urban Water Resources (CURE), a division of DHAN.
Seedhuramu faced the direct repercussions of this and his land became rain-dependent. He even started using sewage mixed with water. Due to an irregular water supply, he stopped growing a variety of millets and switched to paddy only.
“I have about two acres of land and working on it was terrible because of the stinky water. I would often fall sick and experience frequent crop failures,” he says.
Further, as the population in the area soared, waste dumping increased in the tank and soon the farmers were forced to adopt sewage-fed agriculture.
“In 2012, the Sottathatti channel, which fed the supply channel of the Kaathiyanoor tank, was RCC lined. The 18-meter channel was reduced to 6 meters and the bed was deepened for a meter. As the elevation difference between the bed level Sottathatti channel and the Kaathiyanoor channel was more than two meters, the latter could no longer receive any sewage draining in the Sottathatti channel. The tank received no feed except the sewage disposed of by households residing along the 1.3 km Kaathiyanoor channel. The channel that was originally 12 meters shrunk to three meters; even less than two meters in a few stretches,” the report adds.
The landscape, which once boasted of birds, cranes and swamp hens, was now reduced to a dumping ground and was full of weed infestation. Several farmers shifted to other professions like livestock breeding and land remained fallow.
In 2016, Seedhuramu and his friends Kumaresan, a retired postmaster, and Alagusundaram decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed ‘Kaathiyanoor Kanmoi Vivasayigal Vayalagam’, a farmers’ trust.
They collected Rs 75,000 from the affected farmers and deepened the Kaathiyanoor channel for one meter so that the water in the Sottathatti channel could be drawn easily. But the project failed, and soon, the deepened area was full of silt.
At this point, the farmers decided to get expert help and approached DHAN, who in turn conducted detailed research on the history, rainfall patterns, crop yields and waste disposal habits of the region.
With the foundation’s help, the farmers spent ten days excavating the slurry till the sewage from the Sottathatti channel gushed into the tank. This meant that the water was finally reaching the tank as well.
The farmers were able to cultivate paddy after a gap of five years. This also brought back sparrows, cranes and ducks in the region.
But the issue was not over yet…
In 2017, the tank was infested by water hyacinth which led to a decline in the water and soil quality. However, the farmers who had been farming with sewage water for so many years refused to treat it. They believed that their land had become used to sewage and that natural processes would further reduce their yield.
That’s when CURE stepped in to bust the myths. They designed a ‘nature-based treatment system’ for treating sewage. The farmers removed the water hyacinth, constructed foreshore bunds and set up floating wetlands.
“We used the Kalvazhai (Canna Indica) plant to purify the water. The water quality improved as pH level increased from 6.5 to 8.2. The plant supplies oxygen that is used by the bacteria to break down organic compounds in the greywater,” says Lokesh, a project executive of DHAN.
The impact of the project is for everyone to see. The stench is no longer there and farmers like Seedhuramu have gone back to growing new varieties like Thaladi, white ponni and samba which can fetch higher prices in the market.
Edited by Divya Sethu