India's water crisis: Lessons from Madurai, a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Understanding why Madurai, like every other city in India, has built over its water bodies like tanks and canals illuminates how we got to the mess we are in

Mridula Ramesh August 22, 2018 09:33:53 IST
India's water crisis: Lessons from Madurai, a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Editor's note: This is part 2 in an ongoing series on India's water crisis. Also read part one.

The Niti Aayog Composite Water Management Index states, “54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are declining, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020, affecting ~100 million people.” While some claim the situation is not quite so dire, such a strong statement from the leading government policy thinktank cannot be lightly brushed aside, and thus serves as a much-needed wake-up call.

Today, many Indian cities rely overtly on the provision of water from reservoirs and a seemingly-never-ending groundwater supply, while not focusing enough on management. Meanwhile, a majority of city dwellers are water-stressed, and water sources are becoming more volatile. Clearly, this cannot last. What can be done?

To answer this question, let us examine the situation in Madurai – my hometown.

Why Madurai?

There are many reasons why Madurai provides an ideal lens through which to consider a city's issues with water. Madurai’s population, at over a million, makes it relevant. Its relatively small size (about 148 square kilometres) makes some of the issues even more interesting, as we shall see. Like many cities in India, Madurai depends on a combination of water sources – reservoirs formed by damming a river, rainwater and groundwater, which are used to provide water to an eclectic mix of residents, offices, industries and farmers. Thirdly, Madurai appears to be running out of water. Some neighbourhoods without access to municipal water have exhausted their groundwater and are reliant entirely on tankers. There are thousands of other urban residents who are highly water-stressed, while others lean heavily on groundwater use, thinking it will last forever. They appear blind to the fact that the many blocks are in a precarious groundwater situation (See Figure 1).

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 1: Classification of block by groundwater use, Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board

Lastly, understanding why Madurai, like every other city in India, has built over its water bodies and canals illuminates how we got to the mess we are in. With that, let us understand the status quo.

The present

In the past few months, Sundaram Climate Institute, where I work, surveyed over 1,000 families living in Madurai on the realities of and attitudes towards waste and water in their lives. We are yet to formally publish our results, but I’ll share some of our preliminary findings: We found almost all families have access to municipal water. But this is not water available at the turn of the tap. No, for many, this is water that comes for a few hours in a communal tap once every other day. Families must fight for water access (giving rise to the phrase, ‘Kozhai adi sandai’, or fight under the tap), and then store the water and stretch it for interim period until the water comes to the communal tap again.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 2: Filling water from a communal tap

To provide even this water, the municipal corporation must fight for its share with the vocal and powerful farmer associations. For instance, Madurai gets about 115 MLPD from the Vaigai for drinking water – a figure that has not been revised in decades, even as the urban population has grown. At a higher level, Tamil Nadu fights for its share of the Kaveri waters with Karnataka, its upstream neighbour. Thus, neighbour fights with neighbour. City fights with Farm. State fights with State.

Many households are water-stressed. A precise guess of how much water they have is difficult, given that almost everyone who has access to groundwater does not measure how much water they use. For those who have access only to municipal water through a communal tap, daily per capita water availability appears to be 50-60 litres per day. The Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board pegs the present supply (2016) at about 63.6 litres per capita per day.

We also discovered that about 40 percent — almost one in two — families buy water in Madurai. Water use is sort of like a stack, with the poorest saving this precious water for drinking use for the youngest of children. As people move up the wealth spectrum, this purchased-water use expands, first for drinking water for all the family, then for cooking, and finally for some, for all purposes.

The average spend per household is about Rs 500 per month – quite a chunk of the mean Rs 2,630 average urban per capita consumption expenditure.

Our findings reinforce the Niti Aayog report. The water situation in cities is not good. And as Madurai becomes wealthier, per capita water use per will no doubt grow. Where will that extra water come from?

I often find that the paths to the future must travel through the landscape of our past. Let us, therefore, turn to history.

The history

Madurai (once called the Athens of the East), like many great ancient cities, owes part of its success to sound water management. The Vaigai river (and earlier the Kiruthammal river) and the tanks linked to it, were central to Madurai’s water supply. In more recent times, Madurai has increasingly grown dependent on groundwater, but we are jumping ahead in our story. Madurai gets about 850 mm of rainfall a year, most of which comes during the Northeast monsoon. Importantly, Madurai’s rainfall, like India’s, is highly seasonal, falling over just 44 days in a year (see Figure 3).

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 3: Distribution of Madurai's rainfall over the season (Source: The Tanks of South India, K Palanisamy & W Easter, 1983)

It is Madurai’s tanks that have played a key role in eking this water over the remaining 321 days of the year.

Tanks are brilliant. They work in two ways – one, they collect rainwater from whichever area they directly drain, and allow the rainwater a chance to percolate into the ground, rather than ‘runoff’. Second, a subset of tanks, called system tanks, or system ‘eris’ are connected to a network of other tanks and to the river through canals. These system tanks are the beneficiaries of surplus non-local rainfall. During the southwest monsoon, the Vaigai swells as it captures the rain from the Western Ghats, the mountains. The surplus water flows from the river through a set of channels to tanks, and as each tank overflows, downstream tanks, also connected via channels get filled.

Such cascading tank systems were common in Tamil Nadu’s past. For instance, writing about the Palar river tank system in Northern Tamil Nadu, Drs Chitra Krishnan and Srinivas Veeravalli of IIT Delhi write:

From rainfall and runoff data for the region, it appears that the small tanks would fill up every year, while the large tanks would fill up only once in four years. The small tanks are useful in cultivating an annual rainy season (July to November) crop of paddy and once in four years, the large tanks ensure a second and very productive crop of paddy in the Summer (January to May). Given the variability of rainfall in the region this arrangement appears to optimise food security. Calculations show that even assuming fairly conservative yields, a population density close to that existing in the 1980s could be supported by this traditional system.

Tanks were an elegant way to spread water from seasonal rainfall over the year. To use a financial analogy, system tanks are like (sticky) Foreign Direct Investment that transfer non-local savings into the local economy. Tanks capturing local rainwater are analogous to local savings being channelled into the local economy.

The key is water storage – something India is woefully short on. For a country that gets its water in such a seasonal fashion, it is stupid, not to put too fine a point on it, to have as little storage as we do (Refer Figure 4).

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 4: Storage per capita; source: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT Main Database - Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The best data we have is old (2005, as opposed to 2013 for China, and 2015 for the rest), but it will have to do (indeed the age itself speaks of priorities). This number for India does not appear to include tank storage capacity

But, in earlier times, water storage was given great thought by Madurai’s rulers, as evidenced by its ubiquitous presence in stone inscriptions (Kalvettu). Kings often built the tanks and canals, while maintenance (such as clearing the silt, maintaining the canals and operating the sluices) was typically a decentralised, community exercise.

Even the gods were involved. Madurai revolves – physically and spiritually – around the Meenakshi Amman temple. One of the temple legends speaks of time when the Vaigai was in spate, and the city was in danger. Echoing the community nature of water maintenance, the then king ordered each family to provide labour towards building and maintaining a massive bund to guard the city. One old woman, Vanthiammai, a seller of a kind of rice cake called puttu, lived alone and thus could not comply with the king’s order. She offered puttu to any able-bodied man in exchange for helping her. But no one came forward. Finally, Lord Shiva took the form of a young man and offered to build her share of the bund in return for any unsold puttu. Being the trickster that he was, Shiva ate the puttu but dozed off at the work site. The king discovered him loafing off and whacked him with a cane. Legend has it that every Madurai citizen felt the blow. A festival based on this story is celebrated every year in August, as a reminder that even the gods are subject to the laws of water, and thus no one is exempt from their responsibility in water management (and can be punished).

Also read on Firstpost — India's water crisis: Tracing the country's history of water management and crucial, destructive shifts in policy

Moving forward in time, the British presence in India led to a government-led role in water management. In 1876, a famine hit the Madras Province (which now encompasses Tamil Nadu). I would recommend those with strong stomachs to read Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts for a discussion of what transpired in those horrific years, but, in brief, many millions died and many millions more underwent the worst forms of suffering in that famine. The death toll was so high because of crop failure, the policy of continuing grain exports from India during the famine, and the insufficient relief efforts. Madurai, one of the main districts affected by the famine, could only manage to save 25 percent of its crop in 1877. Among the many fallouts of that famine was the formation of the Indian National Congress, and the supply of indentured labour to British colonies across the world. Every wonder why there is such a high South Indian presence in the overseas indentured labour? Now you have your answer.

Tanks losing favour

Another fall out was the building of the Mullaiperiyar Dam built in 1895 that diverted the waters from the river Periyar to the river Vaigai. The Vaigai had always been a non-perennial stream, and the thinking behind the dam was: ‘Why not divert some water from the Periyar to the Vaigai?’ – a sort of redistributive socialism with the waters of the rivers. The idea was not new; it had been around for nearly a hundred years, but the famine gave it the final push. Governments needed to be seen doing something, you see. It seemed like a good idea – farmers were able to grow more – at least those connected to the system tanks that now received the additional water largesse from the Periyar-fed-Vaigai. Indeed, some parts of Tamil Nadu dedicate their harvest festival to the officer who built the dam, John Pennycuick. But there was a side effect: The tanks (especially in the lower Vaigai basin) became AC .uk/15583/">less dependable sources of water, first when the Periyar Dam was built, then later when the Vaigai Dam was built.

This appears to be a non-sequitur. When farmers got more water from the Vaigai, they likely became less interested in maintaining the tanks to eke out water. In the later decades of the 20th century, several more disruptions occurred to make the tanks even less dependable. There was the advent of the tube well which transformed India by making water access more democratic, but also more uncontrolled. The Tamil Nadu government egged this along, with free electricity to power pumps for agricultural use. Next, the canals that provided the lifeblood to the system tanks were encroached or stuffed with garbage.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 5: Canal choked with garbage, Madurai

This minimised the flow of water to the downstream tanks from the river. Lastly, sand mining deepened the river bed, meaning in times of low flow, the outlets to carry water from the river to the canals no longer received water. All of this meant that tanks became less and less reliable as stable source of water. Indeed, the dependability (the number of years in a given period where all the tanks fed by the river were filled) fell from about 77 percent in the pre-Periyar years to about 33 percent in the period between 1986 to 2001.

This is a problem — communal responsibility tends to break down when you don’t get something in return. When the water became less dependable, farmers and the citizens became less interested in their role in maintaining the tanks and the channels that connected them. It made sense – why spend labour on something that will not allow you to grow another crop/or increase your yield? Both these developments made the labour to maintain tanks and canals harder to corral. This is key – we will come back to this.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 6: Madurai Corporation population from 1866 to 2011; source: multiple, primarily census

In the second half of the 20th century, Madurai’s population exploded. From just about 1,00,000 people in 1901, the population went up 10 times to over 1 million people being served by the Madurai corporation in 2011. Better healthcare and urban migration were both responsible for this. To wit, between 2001-2011, urban population grew by 28 percent while rural population grew only by 5 percent. This just meant more and more people were being squeezed into a smaller place. But why didn’t the city grow? The Economic Survey of 2017 provides some explanation as to why Indian cities are smaller than other global cities of similar populations. One reason is that the infrastructure has not allowed Indian cities to grow. Take transport – job opportunities tend to be highest in the centre of cities. But to take advantage of these and have inexpensive housing, employees need to have access to low cost, convenient mass transport. That is often missing – Indian roads tend to be crowded, and the poor prefer living in slums to living far away and commuting endlessly and expensively. As a result, India cities are among the most land scarce regions in the world – especially within corporation limits.

With the masses pouring into the cities, the government needed to provide infrastructure – bus depots and such to cater to their needs. But where would the land come from? Governments like announcements: ‘xx bus depot will be built this year’. But the legendary, exquisite tortuousness of land acquisition in India makes quick infrastructure building impossible.

And that’s where the tanks – once filled with water, the centre of community life, now neglected, with sluices choked with waste, and bereft of water – become interesting. They offer inviting, quickly-acquirable, new land in the heart of the city. Tanks are classified as ‘poramboke’ land – one that comes under the control of government. As such, the government can divert them to other purposes. Moreover, in a water-scarce area, the public works department tends to give preference to supplying water to those tanks which still have an ayacut (irrigation area) attached to them. Feeding urban tanks to recharge groundwater is seen as second priority. So as the urban tanks went dry, they became more vulnerable to acquisition. Typically, when the tank bed wants to be diverted for other purposes, the concerned officer or tehsildar makes an announcement that the tank has fallen into disrepair; it is an eyesore choked with waste and a breeding ground for mosquitoes etc.

Why don’t people protest? Let me answer that question with a set of questions. What if all the traditional right holders around that tank had sold their lands and moved away? What if the canals feeding the tank were encroached upon/clogged, starving the tank of water and leaving it an inviting storehouse of solid waste? What if the ‘public interest’ redevelopment had powerful interests backing it? What if the combination of piped water and the bore well acted as opiates, giving ready water to numb the pain of losing tanks?

Tank after tank has fallen prey in the past few decades. I live in a place called Chokkikulam – ‘kulam’ in Tamil means pond. So, sometime in the past, my neighbourhood was a water body whose disappearance occurred before living memory. But the water flows lasted for decades after the pond’s disappearance. My mother told me that 50 years ago when she moved to Madurai, when the Mullaperiyar dam was opened each year, the garden in front of our house used to flood, and she would see tortoises moving about in the garden. She remembers this very clearly because my grandmother believed it was bad luck for a tortoise to enter the house and used to get very worked up whenever she saw a tortoise ambling about our garden. How far we have come! Today, house after house on my street is running out of groundwater. Temporally, hydrologically and philosophically, Madurai has come a long way from the days when tortoises walked in the gardens!

The nearby Bibikulam tank is now home to the All India Radio Station, officer’s quarters and various government offices. One tank is now a central bus depot.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 7: Residences built on the erstwhile Bibikulam tank. The irony is that women wait at the communal tap with colourful plastic pots to collect water

A little further away, the Tallakulam tank now houses the Madurai Corporation, while a little further down, part of the erstwhile Ulaganeri Tank now houses the bench of the Madurai High Court.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 8: The dry Ulaganeri Tank

The floodplains of the rivers and some part of the water body have also become home to slums. For the slum residents, this is low-cost housing close to work. For the councillors, this is favours granted in return for votes. The bargain has worked because water has not been a problem – until now.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 9: The Sellur Tank bereft of water even when Madurai has enjoyed decent rains in the past few months

And over time, as erstwhile canals have transformed first into storm drains and then into sewer channels, the tanks they feed have become receptacles of untreated sewage. In a meeting in Chennai, I learnt that fishermen who catch fish from a particular tank have a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ not to sell the fish to the locals – because they know the fish has grown in toxic waters.

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 10: A deceptively beautiful sunset on the Vaigai river. The water you see is sewage

Mr Gurunathan, who was part of the Dhan Foundation’s effort to map Madurai’s disappearing (and disappeared) water bodies, says only recently has the appreciation for water bodies increased. When I asked Dr Seenivasan, whose thesis was on urban water bodies, why the protests were not more vehement, as say, the recent Jallikattu protests of Tamil Nadu, he replied that perhaps there was a lack of awareness of and appreciation for the role of tanks and water storage in building the resilience of cities. Very often, the citizens themselves want the tank gone. Take for example, an erstwhile tank that has been built over with private residences in the outskirts of the city. Naturally, when it rains, the area floods. The residents want the tank filled up, so that the water does not enter their living rooms during the monsoons. The same residents however, complain of water levels falling in the summer, and buy water in tankers.

So, at a time, when water storage is needed more than ever, city after city in India is losing what little storage it had. Research from the Dhan Foundation and Dr Seenivasan shows of the 46 or so tanks in the early part of the 20th century, 14 have been ‘dismantled’ by 2011, and the others are in severe states of disrepair. This destruction is echoed in other cities; for instance, the number of water bodies in Chennai has fallen from 650 to less than 30. But storage alone is only part of the picture.

The second aspect – water (mis)use

The second part of building water resilience is optimising water use. In our survey, no one used or understood the potential of reusing treated sewage. We also found that leaks were commonplace, which fits in with other reports of Indian cities losing a third to half of their water to leaks. Surprisingly, for the state that pioneered the use of rainwater harvesting, we found that more than half the households do not have a functioning rainwater harvesting system (See Figure 11).

Indias water crisis Lessons from Madurai a city that adopted tanks and suffered after abandoning them

Figure 11: Percentage of respondents answering the question: 'Do you have a functional rainwater harvesting system at home?

Almost no household of the 1,000+ we visited had a functioning water meter, and our surveyors often met with confused smiles when they asked if households paid a price for municipal water. Those who tapped bore wells did not have any idea of how much water they consumed. In such a scenario, how can water use be optimised? Dr Aneesh Shekhar, the Corporation commissioner, states there must be some rethinking around water pricing and groundwater regulation if we are to build water resilience in the city. But politically this is a non-starter…for now. Nearby Coimbatore is taking baby steps towards measuring water use and potential pricing 24 x 7 piped water supply but is facing pushback from the people.

The future

Without more storage and managing use, there is no real hope that we can build water resilience in our cities. At the heart of what led to this problem is a mismatch of timescales. Our politicians (and thus the bureaucrats who execute the orders) work on, at best, a five-year time frame. Realistically, the time frames are far shorter – because there are multiple rounds of elections – municipal, state, Centre happening all the time. Promises need to be made (and kept). Why go through the torture of slow and legal land acquisition when a dry, forsaken, inviting tank bed lies enticingly close? Actions on building storage or pricing water are hard, expensive and unpopular, and benefits accrue over longer timescales. When a recent influential study has shown that Indian voters prefer leaders from their own caste, why would a leader stick his or her neck out on water pricing, or evicting squatters from canals, rather than pandering to his or her own caste constituents?

Democracy is not an armchair sport, folks. India is what we elect.

We maybe tempted to look to more glamorous solutions like AI or the IoT (Internet of Things) to make our cities water resilient. As things stand, this would fail. Because we need a psychological (and philosophical) foundation first – an understanding and appreciation of the climate and environmental systems and the services they provide that is central to human civilisation. Above this foundation needs to come the processes, responsibilities and infrastructure that allow us to sustainably use (and reuse) the resources and services the natural world provides. AI (and its twin sister, IoT) is the (optional) layer on top. Yes, it would be nice to optimise our use of our resources and it can provide a powerful lever of building resilience in a country like Israel, which has the foundation and building in place. Otherwise, AI or IoT will be a worse-than-useless distraction.

Maybe what we really need is more motivation. We are getting that in the warming climate which has India’s water in its crosshairs. That is where we will go next time.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution - India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at

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