The plight of Vaigai river, India

Marianne Furtado de Nazareth

A study, a conference, and a field visit along the stretch of the Vaigai river including to the temple town of Madurai reveals the deteriorating state of the river

During a three-day National Training Programme Climate Change News Coverage for Aspiring and Young Vernacular media persons in Madurai in January 2016, we were taken on a field visit to understand the crisis faced by the Vaigai and Kirudhumal rivers.  After all, the Vaigai river is considered to be the lifeline of Madurai and the importance of protecting and preserving and reversing the damage done, cannot be stressed enough. This was the clean stretch where there was still sand in the river bed and grass fronds waved gently in the breeze.

Like anywhere in India, Madurai district is dotted with hundreds of small and large water tanks that are networked with its main river Vaigai and minor river Kruthumal with the help of many distributor channels.

However, the wisdom of the city forefathers, has been lost in the greed of a growing population and urbanization.

Valuable water collection tank beds have been built upon and the river itself is used like a sewer and so, the city now struggles for a decent supply of fresh water.

A recent study on the sustainable development of Madurai  by research scholars from the University of London and from DHAN Foundation, has revealed the significant role of Kruthumal River in the  historic, cultural, ecological and economic growth of Madurai. Centuries ago, Madurai city developed as a small urban settlement on the banks between the rivers Kruthumal and Vaigai. Appearing in epics and sacred texts such as Srimad Bhagavatham and Narayaneeyam, Kruthumal has significant presence in the written history of Madurai. It supplied water to the Ahazhi (moat) around the Tirumalai Nayakkar palace in Madurai.

The origin of the river was in the Nagamalai hills, west of Madurai city. Apparently there are five original natural springs, nine in the foothills of Nagamalai all of which at some point feed into the Kruthumal River.

Various large water Tanks existing (blue) and reclaimed (red) in Madurai Urban region. Source: (Sivakumar and Kanagavalli, 2007)

Various large water Tanks existing (blue) and reclaimed (red) in Madurai Urban region. Source: (Sivakumar and Kanagavalli, 2007)

During 70’s the Kruthumall flowed with strength all through the year. Over the period, many changes to the source, the catchment and the inlet-outlet resulted in the depletion of the original source of water. Well irrigation that boomed in the command area of the tanks resulted in poor cooperation among the farmers. The river bed has been encroached and its width reduced drastically.

With urbanization and a growing population, agricultural lands were converted for residential use. Land use changes at the original catchment, the redirection of water to Nilayur channel and the changed geomorphology of the Vaigai River contributed to the drying up of the Kruthumal river channel.

Over time, indiscriminate sand mining, lowered the Vaigai riverbed, while the bed level of the off-take channels from Vaigai carrying water to Kruthumal remained at a higher elevation. For example, many parts near the Thuvariman tank, the Vaigai river bed is almost three meters below the original river bed level. This resulted in dysfunction of the supply channels, even when there is a normal flow.

DHAN Foundation then undertook a basic documentation of the river channel which revealed how the shift in the use of the adjoining land destroyed the river corridor. For example, from Thuvariman tank to Achampathu, the river is relatively clean. The first ingress of wastewater occurs between Achampathu and Virattupathu. This grows worse as the river moves into the city.

In the central parts of the city, for example, near the Periyar bus stand, the river becomes a swamp of solid waste, heavy metals, sewage,  and other kinds of waste from different parts of the city. Not only do individual households, public and semi-public institutions and industries discharge their waste water onto the channel but the municipal corporation’s centralized sewage system as well as the septic tank cleaning companies also utilizes the channel to dispose of waste in large quantities. Solid waste is disposed all along the river length including animal waste from meat and fish selling units and corpses of dead animals. Moreover, the waste water is blocked using various means to pump up to grow vegetables. Due to insufficient capacity of the drainage and sewerage network and the waste disposal system, a large proportion of land users along the river corridor use the channel to get rid of their waste; these include cattle farms, rice mills, garage and metal works and so on. This highly poisonous wastewater is finally drained on to Samanatham tank again in the south East of the city, before it moves on.


The shockingly filthy river once in the city which has turned into a sewer/©Francis Harry Roy S

The shockingly filthy river once in the city which has turned into a sewer/©Francis Harry Roy S

We stood on the concrete banks of the river  in the city holding our noses. The stench was unbearable. The women from the surrounding slums came to complain, the living conditions of the people around were sub-human. They surely realized that the crisis they were facing was due to a combination of governmental apathy and a complete lack of civic sense.

According to DHAN Foundation, ownership and management of the system tanks and water bodies and river channels in Madurai used to be the responsibility of the Public Works Department. Being a department that manages such networked infrastructure across the region, their management style considered the corridor in its entirety rather than as fragmented pieces located in different parts of the city. A couple of decades ago, the maintenance responsibility of those parts of the water network were transferred to the municipal corporation. Being an organization that works mostly with ward boundaries and city corporation boundaries and over strained on its services infrastructure and management capabilities, the river corridor (and other such water channels) became the default location that the corporation depended on to solve the challenges that arose out of the insufficient waste management capacity.

In its present state, the river corridor actively contributes to poor living condition in the city-polluted environment, unhealthy agriculture, water borne diseases, flooding, water stagnation, and poses very high challenges to any remediation efforts. Within the city, the river passes through settlements.

While the middle class localities suffer from foul smell, mosquitoes and threat of communicable diseases, the informal settlement dwellers suffer the most due to their active dependency and proximity to this water body.

Even though the whole city contributes to the pollution, significant impacts are felt by the slums adjacent to the channel. It was reported by the women that the expenditure on health, mosquito repellents and electricity have increased immensely. The polluted water contributes to spread of water borne diseases such as frequent fever, chronic cough and skin infections. Further, the farmers downstream who depend on the water from the river are affected severely.

Though the city gets 928 mm of annual rainfall, the groundwater table fluctuates constantly. Moreover, the quality of ground water is poor and not potable. As a result, the city’s water needs are met from the sources based on Vaigai River and reservoirs located 70 km from the city. Individual households depend on bore wells and this has resulted in a rapidly depleting ground water table. According to the paper, Madurai has exhausted its shallow aquifers and the number and the depth of the bore wells are increasing every year, posing serious questions on water management.

Looking at the condition of the water body, one is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, but there is hope if together with the government, something is done to control the destruction of the river, by a strong law. And with organizations like DHAN, Madurai can hope for a clean Vaigai in the future.

Marianne Furtado de Nazareth is a freelance science and environment journalist and adjunct faculty at St. Joseph’s College, and registered PhD scholar at the MKU University, Madurai

Featured image: The Vaigai river at its source, plenty of sand with fairly clean water and out of the city limits/©Francis Harry Roy S

Reference study: Jayaraj Sundaresan and J. Kanagavalli 2014, Future Proofing Indian Cities: Towards an approach to spatial and social analysis for sustainable development of Madurai, Development Planning Unit, University College, London  and DHAN Foundation, Madurai


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