Can These Water Warriors Show the World How to Revive Dying Lakes?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The success of this model holds lessons for other countries grappling with a similar crisis.
Manikandan remembers bathing with friends in the well near his house as though it were yesterday. But as the years passed, the well in Coimbatore district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu dried up, as did the stream in Manikandan’s neighborhood. One year, when the stream remained dry even after heavy rains, the bike mechanic decided to find out what had gone wrong.
He and a friend took a bike ride to trace the stream’s route. They found a defunct check dam in its path — hence the rainwater flowed into the ocean. It was the first of multiple water-shortage challenges that Manikandan would resolve to fix. Tamil Nadu, which is south India’s largest state, and its capital Chennai — with a population of close to 10 million people — have hit global headlines in recent years for both devastating floods (2015) and crippling droughts (2018). The floods rendered thousands of people homeless overnight, and the drought was one of the worst the state — which has 39,000 bodies of water — had seen in 70 years.
But even as the elected government has struggled in the face of these extreme weather events, ordinary citizens, from villages to neighborhoods in Chennai, have taken it upon themselves to revive dead or dying neighborhood lakes and wells. And they are having success that is turning this citizen activism into a model with relevance for societies around the world grappling with water crises — and potentially for other challenges as well, from wildlife conservation to reconstruction after forest fires.
In 2018, farmers in Peravurani, a village in the coastal district of Thanjavur, formed a network — Kadamadai Area Integrated Farmers’ Association — that has since revived 70 dead water bodies in the region, says Karthikeyan, a farmer and group member. Volunteers clear debris, plant vetiver crops to strengthen bunds, create mini forests within the lake, and repair canals and pathways. Pockets of the district that had been dry for decades now have water.
In Chitlapakkam, a Chennai neighborhood with 50,000 residents, citizens have banded together in a group they call Chitlapakkam Rising. Last June, 2,000 volunteers cleaned the neighborhood lake, which had been depleted and dirtied by encroachments and garbage. Shamed, the state government allocated $3.5 million for the lake’s revival.
These water bodies are necessary for recharging groundwater reserves … and for combating floods and drought.
Arun Krishnamurthy, Environmental Foundation of India
Manikandan, 36, now spearheads a nonprofit in Coimbatore with a team of 13,000 volunteers that has helped clean, desilt, remove invasive plants and trees, and remove plastic waste and trash from eight lakes, two canals and the water around two check dams. These initiatives are critical, say environmentalists, arguing that the survival of local bodies of water is the only sustainable solution to Tamil Nadu’s water crisis.
“These are treasure troves,” says Arun Krishnamurthy, whose nonprofit Environmental Foundation of India works with citizen groups to revive bodies of water across the state. “These water bodies are necessary for recharging groundwater reserves, localized temperature regulation and for combating floods and drought.”
Tamil Nadu, with a population of 68 million people, is no stranger to people’s management of bodies of water. Under an ancient water management system called Kudimaramathu — which literally translates as “maintained by people” — farmers used to take care of local lakes and ponds. Every year, just before the rains, farmers would remove the silt in the lake to increase water storage; in turn, they used the silt as fertilizer. A local water manager would decide which sluice would be opened and when, to ensure the sharing of water resources in the neighborhood. But that system collapsed in the 1970s with the advent of bore wells, and with the government’s public works department taking over the management of bodies of water, explains L. Venkatachalam, a professor and water expert at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Concerns about climate change are driving the new citizens’ movement. In Peravurani, the campaign kicked off after the devastation of Cyclone Gaja in 2018. For the residents of Chitlapakkam, the floods of 2015 were the catalyst. The impact of these nascent movements is already visible.
In Peravurani, birds are returning to the ponds, and the water level in neighborhood wells has risen by 110 feet within a year. Chitlapakkam Rising members audit the state government’s efforts at revising their community lake “and report on any irregularities,” says Sunil Jayaram, a neighborhood resident. The movement has inspired other neighborhoods such as Pallavaram and Tambaram to do the same.
Manikandan’s group has cleared 119 metric tons of plastic trash. After more than a decade, three of the lakes his team worked on, which serve 50 nearby villages, were filled to capacity last year.
While these initiatives are laudable, to make them sustainable the government needs to incentivize communities for their ecological services, says Venkatachalam. He proposes calculating the economic value of a body of water and having end users compensate the communities that maintain it. For instance, if Chennai spends $280 million on water each year, Venkatachalam suggests paying the local community that maintains the Veeranam lake that supplies Chennai 25 percent of the $280 million. Under this system, the government would still have ownership, but local communities would have control management and use of the lake.
In 2017, the Tamil Nadu government launched a modern version of the Kudimaramathu, in which it nominates farmers and local groups to join efforts to strengthen bunds, desilt supply channels and repair sluices. But community groups don’t get a say in who gets how much water, unlike what Venkatachalam is proposing. The government set aside $70 million for this scheme in the 2019–20 fiscal year.
Where both experts and the government increasingly agree, though, is that in the face of climate-change-related water crises, no one has greater motivation to act than the victims themselves. Tamil Nadu is showing how that motivation can translate into success.