While Kodaikanal receives abundant rainfall, our relationship with water is crucial to prevent water shortages

Harvesting Abundance

The Palani Hills are blessed with a shola ecosystem that receives abundant rainfall through most of the year, particularly during the monsoons. However, the town of Kodaikanal does face some water shortage during certain months, especially during May. As the town’s population keeps growing, water conservation should be a priority. More so for those settling beyond the limits of the Municipality, where the hilly terrain makes it impossible to lay pipelines that reach the houses.

The Kodai Chronicle spoke to a few residents of the Palani Hills, especially those who live beyond the Municipal water pipelines, to find out how they manage water usage in their day-to-day lives.

Until 2000, the year she got married and arrived in Kodaikanal as a young bride, T Muthupandiammal had never needed to fetch water in pots for the household. At her marital home in Naidupuram, tap water was not available, like it was at her childhood home in Sivagangai. ‘After coming to Kodaikanal, I had to fetch and carry water from the public tap to the house. At that time, water supply was available only once a week for an hour,’ she recalls. ‘To save water stored at home, we would wash clothes in the stream close to the temple in Pachamarathu Odai.’

Even so, there was no sufficient water to meet the family’s needs. They had to buy water from lorry tankers which cost Rs 600 for half a tank. There were also squabbles with the neighbours over using the public tap. But since 2021, thanks to the Lower Gundar project, there’s a functioning water tap placed close to the house entrance, with supply once every two days. ‘I no longer have to go to the stream to wash clothes,’ says the 38-year-old Muthupandiammal, with a relieved smile.

Back in the 1960s, water accessibility was different. Sixty-eight year old Jayashree Kumar, who has been living in Kodaikanal since the 1980s and has been visiting the town since the time she was a baby, remembers that at the time, the houses in Kodaikanal did not have sumps for underground water storage. Water was fed to the houses by gravity from metal drums perched atop a high tower-like stand.  Although houses had rainwater gutters lining the roof, the rainwater was generally let down into the ground.

And all residents had access to valves that they could open when water was required. In the mid 80s, that changed. ‘We could not open the valve. The Municipality would open the main valve. And the water would fill up. Sometimes, they would open only once a day and it would not be enough. We would fill two drums on the roof and that would not be enough for the whole day. That is when we started collecting rainwater,’ recounts Ms Kumar.

Beyond the Water Pipelines

The water supply from the Kodaikanal Municipality has been fairly regular this year, according to residents. But the houses located on the hilly terrain, away from the town of Kodaikanal, are beyond the reach of water pipelines. They depend on the streams, canals, wells and rainwater to meet their needs.

Radha Kumar, a 59-year-old writer residing on top of a hill at 6,000 feet above sea level, opposite Mother Theresa University in Attuvampatty, decided to go off-grid six years ago. Her house has been designed to harness energy from the sun, as well as harvest rainwater for utility services. Radha has two kinds of rainwater harvesting systems in place—closed gutters on the roof to collect water in a tank for bathing, and land channels that lead water into designated collection tanks. From these tanks, water is pumped into a fourth tank, from where it is distributed to all the pipes leading to the house. The tanks have a combined storage capacity of 2,50,000 litres.

Radha’s household hosts five people, including two gardeners, and it has never run out of water. While the black water or sewage water goes straight into a sump, the grey water or non-sewage wastewater from the household is saved and used to water the lawn. 

Radha Kumar sitting atop her water storage tank (Photo: R Suresh Kumar)

Drinking water alone is purchased from outside. Radha hopes to install a candle-type water filter soon, as electric water filters may overburden the solar power system. ‘None of the shops in town stock them. And they haven’t been able to order it for me due to the ongoing pandemic,’ she laments. ‘Boiled water has a horrible taste,’ she says.

While Radha could afford to establish an elaborate rainwater harvesting system at home, one that cost around 16-17 lakh rupees when it was set up in 2017, what about smaller households?

For the villages down the valley, Radha suggests a collective rainwater harvesting system can alleviate water shortage issues. ‘With roof gutters installed on top of every house leading to one big central tank, it is possible to collect water to supply everyone year-round. It is actually a tragedy, if not a crime, that in a place like this which receives heavy rains and has two monsoons in a year, the abundance of water available is not collected,’ says Radha.

Sholai School teacher Jigar Bhalani and his students, who enjoy the benefits of a healthy water harvesting system (Photo courtesy Sholai School)

A System That Works

Long-time resident, K Balakrishnan, knew better when he started constructing his house near Naidupuram in 1991. Due to leaking pipes, water supply from the Municipality never reached his house. He collected statistics about the rain patterns in Kodaikanal and realised that it rains throughout the year but for a few months. He decided to incorporate a rainwater harvesting system while constructing his house, having previously read about such systems used in parts of Australia. That year, he set up three large tanks with different capacities—a 30,000 litre tank for primary storage, 15,000 litre for secondary storage and a 10,000 litre tank for third storage. Then, some water could be stored in the roof tank. It cost him Rs 40,000 to set up the absolutely leak-proof primary tank alone, which was expensive at that time.

He suggests adopting the standards set by the World Health Organisation when deciding tank capacities. Typically, a person consumes around 120 litres per day. This includes 40 litres of potable water which is used for cooking and drinking, and the other 80 litres, for washing clothes, gardening and so on, can be of moderate quality. In India, a person consumes about 100 litres per day. So, in a household of four persons, 400 litres of water are required per day.

Balakrishnan further adds, ‘You don’t ever set up only one tank; it is like putting all your eggs in one basket. Set up many tanks, at least a minimum of two. Even if you want to clean one tank, you can drain the water to the other tank.’ The quality of the rainwater is, undoubtedly, clean. ‘The one thing to keep in mind is to avoid collecting the first fifteen minutes of the rain. This water washes the roof and the dirt with it. So we need a strategy to filter it,’ cautions Balakrishnan. He has designed his systems such that the first fifteen minutes of the rainwater gets collected into a drum. After it crosses a certain point, it starts flowing into the storage tank. The relatively dirty drum water is then drained out

Rainwater harvesting as water resource accumulation for home outline concept. Environmental runoff and drain underground piping solution scheme for sustainable collecting and reuse vector illustration. (Photo: iStock Photo)

Water harvesting for large groups

The Sholai School in Pethuparai has employed a number of water-harvesting techniques to serve the needs of its staff and students. According to Jigar Bhalani, who has been teaching physics, mathematics and engineering at the school for the past five years, the campus has been intelligently designed to harvest water using the principle of gravity.

The 100-acre campus is divided into the east side and the west side. On the east side, a water channel has been cut out way upstream, which runs into the school’s land. The water passes through three other properties before it reaches the school. The flow of water into the canal does not depend on any electric motor but is based entirely on gravity. The water comes from upstream and flows into this canal.

A stream near Sholai School (Photo: Jigar Bhalani)

Bhalani says, ‘We have an understanding with the owners of the land, through which the canal runs, to use water on some days. A system of tanks placed at varying heights and of different lengths ensure that all of them are usually filled.’

The tank higher up is connected to the tank lower down. If the rainwater is not optimum, then the school relies on these water tanks. The excess water goes through the farms, and at the end, any remaining water returns to the river. So, the water moves entirely on its own for a considerable distance, through a few tanks along the way.

On the west side, the school relies entirely on rainwater harvested through two techniques—rock water harvesting and roof water harvesting.

‘The rock water harvesting system is our big trump card,’ says Bhalani. There are three areas at a decent height, on the fringe of the campus, with three bare rock facades. The school has built embankments around these rock facades, which guide the water towards a tank. When it rains, all the water that runs off these rocks is funnelled by these embankments and is given an outlet, which then starts filling two tanks. One tank has a capacity of one and a half lakh litres. Another tank is being built to hold two and a half lakh litres.

The roof water harvesting system is fairly simple. Water is collected by roof gutters when it rains and collects within a series of interconnected tanks of varying carrying capacities—such as 27,000 litres, 15,000, 14,000 and 8,000 litres. These fill up one by one when it rains, with the largest getting filled first. Located close to massive buildings, some tanks are connected to the roof water harvesting system as well.

Roof water harvesting uses roof gutters to collect rainwater at the Sholai School (Photo: Jigar Bhalani)

‘We are also mindful of our usage of water,’ says Bhalani. ‘Washing clothes needs a lot of water. To reduce this, we prefer washing clothes by the river using the flowing water, with non-polluting soaps.’

All these various water systems in the school induce curiosity in the students about water and the way it works. Bhalani recalls a student asking him, ‘I just don’t understand how water spouts out of a tap when I spin its head, and stops when I spin it the other way. Where does the water go?’

Of Good Quality

The quality of water harvested at the Sholai School was found to be excellent. Bhalani says, ‘The last time we sent the water for testing was around 2015, to a laboratory in Chennai. We collected several samples, from different parts of the campus. We were checking for the presence of heavy metals and toxins that may find their way into water channels. The water was found to be absolutely potable.’

Drinking water is supplied through another series of five tanks that allow the water to sediment. A certain movement of water in these tanks oxygenates the water. As the water flows down, a small filter at the end removes any relatively large-sized particles left in it. The water then flows into another tank that has two silver electrodes. Once that tank is full, electricity is run through it for a minute or so which purifies the water.

Smaller Concerns, Simple Solutions

In this well-working system, there is only one occasion when things get slightly muddled up—when heavy rains flood the river. ‘A significant amount of sediments start running through our water canal, which doesn’t happen normally when there are no floods. The filtration is slightly compromised when there is heavy flow. But it causes no major harm. For new people who are not used to the water here, it can sometimes cause an upset stomach. So when this happens, the students and members of the community are asked to drink boiled water from a filter in the dining hall,’ says Bhalani.

Bhalani also points out an ingenious method in which the football ground, found on the marshy lands adjacent to the river, was made fit for use. ‘Some staff members have buried a system of six-inch pipes underground. All the water retained by the marshy land now flows out of these pipes, back into the river. That allows the school to use the place as a football field. However, during heavy rains, the field does become slushy, so it becomes out of bounds.’

Well water to the rescue

In another part of town, R Helan, a 33-year-old resident of Keel Pudukkaadu, close to Observatory Road, relies on the water from a 22-feet deep well located about 70 metres from her house. ‘I have been fetching water for the house in pots since the day I remember,’ laughs Helan, who used to carry one pot on the head and the other on her hip, even as a child.

The well where Helan and her neighbours collect water from (Photo: R Helan)

Until four years ago, her family would start to fill the barrels at home from 6.30am. While her elder brother drew water from the well in a bucket and filled the pots, Helan’s father and elder sister pitched in to help carry water to the house, along with Helan. This exercise lasted about an hour every two days. Then the family bought a motor to draw water from the well and a long tube was then used to fill the barrels.

Six families living nearby share use of the same well. In 2018, when the water went below the normal level, the families took turns to use the water from the well. Each family would fetch water on only one particular day of the week allotted to them. Due to insufficiency, some family members began fetching water out of turn stealthily, which then led to arguments. However, they stopped once the rains started.

Across Kodaikanal and its suburbs, rains are a frequent occurrence. In some cases, large-scale harvesting systems seem to be working well, but inherent heavy costs make them inaccessible to all. It is thus imperative to use water mindfully. When water becomes a scarce resource, neighbours can turn into foes, as in the case of Helan and Muthupandiammal. For future generations to continue their livelihood, water management is of utmost importance.

Cloudy skies near Pethuparai village, located in the middle elevation of the Palani Hills, about 22km from Kodaikanal town (Photo: Neha Sumitran)

To test the quality of the water:

If you are concerned about the quality of water that you use, you can send a sample to a laboratory for testing. Collect the water sample in a five-litre bottle. Send it to the address given below. On payment of a fee, the results will arrive after a week. Do contact the lab for more details.

Department of Industries and Commerce, Regional Testing Laboratory, Industrial Estate, K. Pudur, Lakshmipuram, Madurai- 625007. Phone: +91 452 2566588.

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

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