Troubled Water

A few years ago, I happened to visit a resort in Emerald near Ooty. One of the owners told me this rather apocryphal tale: how his sister had woken up one fine morning and found the valley in front had become a lake.

Maybe it was not so dramatic, but the fact remains that most of the lakes and water bodies in the Nilgiris are man made: The largest of them being the Ooty Lake. W. Francis of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and one time collector of Nilgiris in the first decade of the twentieth century has this to say about the Ooty Lake.
The Ooty Lake is the largest of these, as it is also the most beautiful; indeed, it is hard to believe that its sinuous smooth water has not been formed naturally.In length it is about two miles, and about 300 to 400 yards in breadth.”
The lake continues to look beautiful from a distance but will not survive closer scrutiny as raw sewerage still flows into it. Last year, the Tamil Nadu Government sanctioned Rs 4.25 crores, to clean the lake of silt and water hyacinth as well as set up sewerage treatment plants which would stymie the flow of raw sewerage to the lake. We will have to wait and watch the outcome of this. 
How green is my mountain: Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

The devastation caused by the torrential rains and cloud burst in the North Indian state of Uttarakand is a wake up call not just to the Government but to industry and the community at large.
Over the last 50 years we have witnessed the haphazard development of our hills.  Forests have been cut down, streams polluted and multi-storied buildings have sprung up everywhere like mushrooms after a thundershower.
Now about water
Coonoor like other hill towns stands on the very brink of a great disaster. The town currently is reeling under a severe water shortage, which seems incongruous at a time when another hill region is experiencing floods.  Though the Nilgiris district gets rain during the South West Monsoon and the North East Monsoon, Coonoor gets its rainfall mainly during the North East or Winter Monsoon.
According to the Coonoor Municipality’s website, the town’s requirement of water come from Ralliah, Bandumi and water sources such as Bellattimattam, Brooklands, Gymkhana, Karadipallam, Adar, Highfield, Upputhotti, Old Forest, Engledane  and Attadi. 
These ‘water sources’ are what the venerable Francis noted in those early days:
“Through almost every pair of undulations runs some rivulet or other, and the larger
of these, with their alternate quiet pools or chattering rapids, resemble the burns on a Scotch moor in everything but their lack of fish.' But rivers are comparatively few especially on the main plateau”.

This chattering brooks and streams cannot provide water to the population in Coonoor. That is for sure. What then is the course of action to be taken? The Government of India has had not one but two high level committees to study the problems of the Western Ghats.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under the chairmanship of Prof Madhav Gadgil made some recommendations back in August 2011 which can be implemented at the Panchayat and municipal levels. (There is another and more recent report, which I confess I am still reading.)  All it needs is a dynamic community which calls for change and which ensures that it happens. It can be doubt there. 

Let’s take a look at the water use recommendations made by the panel. It talks about reviving traditional water harvesting methods, recharging wells and surangams. Well, there are not many wells around. So the method advocated by the State Government of channeling the rain water off the roofs into wells won’t work here. What then? What are the traditional water harvesting methods in the hills?

We need to look at water conservation; reuse of bath water for flushing and gardening. Small, low cost treatment plants can be installed locality-wise. However, all this cost money. Will the community pay? Now people in Coonoor are buying water from dubious sources. In the long run, this measure would pay off. The Government can declare tax holidays and incentive to kick start the process.  There are also innovative ways of funding community projects- it has been done before.  

Another recommendation by the Gadgil panel was that the high altitude valley swamps have to be protected. When I was growing up in Coonoor, there used to be number of swamps around- I know, I have fallen into some. How many are there now? Let’s audit and find out the condition of these. Hope they haven’t become land fill sites.

The Gadgil report points out that the forest tracts between the tea plantations have to be maintained. It also recommends financial incentives be given for the maintenance of sacred groves. This can be done only with the cooperation of the local self government, planters and the forest officials.

Reviving hill streams is an important step to augmenting water resources. Have any of you seen the condition of the stream which flows past the Coonoor market? We should send a petition to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu asking for aid, to revive this stream.  It needs solid waste disposal units and sewage treatment plants at strategic places are the answer. Again incentives and tax breaks will help.
Coonoor market stream:Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

There has to be a review of the hydroelectric plants and those small dams which have silted over and have outlived their utility, have to be decommissioned.
I cannot stop without mentioning one of the major reasons for the water shortage and drying up of the underground streams in the Nilgiris. It is the eucalyptus which is planted all over the Nilgiris. The cultivation of this exotic tree has been detrimental to the water table. The research has shown that the eucalyptus can exploit soil water to the depth of 8 to 10 m within seven years of planting. 
The Gadgil report has said that this practice of cultivation of eucalyptus has to stop. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is aware of it, and many a high ranking forest official have told me that the Forest Department does not cultivate the eucalyptus, but this species has gone native and has to be rooted out.  


  1. Shalini Arun writes:
    Cheers to you Nina. I'm a great fan of your blogs and missed reading them for some time.
    As you've written so succintly,the situation is so alarming. My heart weeps for the hills. I don't feel lke going back ever. Have lost faith in the authorities for their apathy.
    Do keep writing.Your blogs bring back memories of "chattering brooks and streams" and more

  2. As usual wonderfully written. It has indeed been a terrible summer for the people of the hills - without water. You have understood the crisis, I just hope that more residents of Coonoor will read this and do something constructive.

    1. Stanley Varghese30 July 2013 at 10:58

      Good piece Nina. I empathize with the residents of Coonoor for their water woes. It is high time the authorities took serious action on this front. It is not just roti, kapda aur makan that people need but also pani.


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