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Water dynamics in the Auroville bioregion


Gilles Boulicot and Judith D’Souza


The southern state of Tamil Nadu in India has a rich water resource heritage. Though this state has no perennial river that can cover the whole state and so people have to depend on the monsoon rains for irrigating the lands and filling the ponds for other consumption and other purposes. A system of tanks was made about 1500 years ago to provide enough water for the area. These thousands of these tanks not only recharged the groundwater table after the monsoon rains but also provided the sole source for drinking and irrigation water. They guaranteed a decent crop, and sometimes even two crops a year. The tanks were all interlinked with each other so that surplus water could over flow from each tank to the other thus allowing for distribution of water over a larger area and less scope for wastage.

Eri or the long history of water in Tamil Nadu

Majority of the irrigation tanks (eri) were built from the 6th to the 10th century of our era during the dynasty of the Pallavas. One will understand the importance of these systems of irrigation by noting that about a third of the surface area of the state is actually irrigated by these omnipresent tanks (about 40,000 such tanks), the two thirds of water needs comes from the exploitation of ground water.

The big tank of Bahour, in the south of Puducherry, existed before the Chola period (1st century). As for the famous Lake Estate, the widests in the area, more known today under the name of Ousterie or Oussoudou, in the south-west of Auroville, was built by the Vijayanagar Dynasty around 1110.

It was observed that the land irrigated by these tanks (known in Tamil as ayacut - wetland) have seen an increase in their fertility due to the water which is rich in nutrients. In addition, the beds of the tanks were cleaned regularly and mud was utilised in the fields, bringing better fertility. This practice continued until the beginning of the 20th century.

The irrigation tanks played a decisive role to guarantee the food production but also in maintaining ecological balance, to control the floods, to prevent erosion, to recharge the water table and to limit the valuable water loss during the large rains. The presence of the eri allowed a favorable microclimate at local level. Moreover, without the eri, the development of rice cultivation, which is the staple diet of the people, would not have been possible. From the beginning of the 16th century, rivers were partially diverted to fill these tanks quickly, thus offering a greater guarantee to the food production. The first irrigation wells, operated by man or animal energy, then made their appearances.

Auroville is located in a catchment area representative of this system, with chains of irrigation tanks connected along feeding channels extending over the entire length and width of the watershed and finally ending in Kaluvelli wetland, ensuring the life of the whole of the local population and beyond. This system covers about 1500 sq km.

Management systems

These systems of irrigation being the pillar of the life of the population, simple mechanisms of management and decision, anchored in the life of the rural communities, made it possible to maintain these tanks. The maintenance of the systems of irrigations (eri, control structures, feeding and irrigation channels) was formerly with the responsibility of a local body. This maintenance was ensured by participation through work or financial.

A person, or more generally a family, “ Neerkatti ”, was in charge of managing the opening of the gates (sluices) to aid the distribution of water to the fields. The filling of the tanks was measured precisely, and the villagers met in order to define the area to cultivate as well as the choice of the species and the irrigation plan, thus ensuring an adequate and optimized use of land and water. The sharing of seeds, of work for the fields and maintenance of the irrigation equipment, coupled with an equitable division of the production, ensured a great equality and sustainability, and contributed largely to reinforce social fabric.

Scientific knowledge and traditional wisdom implemented to develop such processes, which ensured and still ensure to a large extent the sustainability of rural life of south India, can only inspire the deepest respect. History proves to us that it is the innovation and the local intelligence which produced these systems as well as the social and political organization responsible to maintain them.

Kulam and oorani

Apart from these broad irrigation tanks of a few tens to a few hundreds of hectares, the villages all are equipped with small ponds or kulam, often masonry made, close to a temple. Oorani and kulam are Tamil words which indicate that they are small village ponds. The oorani is mainly used for drinking purposes while the kulam is temple based and used mainly by the priests for various temple purposes. These ooranis could also be shared between villages. They are present as the village ponds. The oorani is shared among the village people but different sides of the ponds are allotted to the different caste communities.


They have multiple purposes for domestic use, drinking water, cattle use and personal hygiene. In other cases, the basin is separate into two, seldom by a physical barrier but by established practice, which makes it possible there to still guarantee a relative cleanliness. Today the ooranis are also used for providing water necessary for the spraying of pesticide, cleaning of farm equipment and cleaning vehicles, etc. In such cases, the population does not have much of a choice in accessing other drinking water resources. In Kuilappalayam for example, the village itself does not having a well. In the early 70s the population had no other choice but to go down to the open well near the coastal road to bring back water home each day passing through the fields. there was no road at time to aid in their transport of water.

Presently, in Kalupperumbakkam, a village located along the southern edge of the marsh of Kaluvelli, a good half of the population takes their domestic water from holes dug in the sandy banks of the village pond which until eight years ago, provided water of sufficient quality to the population. The village is situated at the end of a chain of tanks. The ground water became contaminated by the drainage of the increasing quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the entire watershed area. To address this acute water shortage, the service of the government in charge for water supply (TWAD), developed not less than five wells for the domestic needs. Unfortunately, and as in many villages of the bioregion, all these wells have a high salinity, and their water is unsuitable for consumption.

This has added to the burdens of the women and girl children of the village. Not only they had to trudge twice a day to the sandy bank but wait in long queues for their turn at the dug out, wait for water to seep out and then scoop it up in their little bowls, filter it through a cloth attached on the mouth of the vessel, carry the filled vessel back home and boil the water to rid it of contaminants. With the increase in workload especially of the girl children, we have found many of the middle school drop outs to be girls (who also drop out when there are no proper sanitation facilities and security for them at their school).

Ground water

As mentioned earlier, the first wells of irrigation developed towards the 16th century. These were open wells, which were not very deep, taking into account the nature of the grounds. One thus finds them only in the areas where water is naturally close to surface at least during a major part of the year: on the alluvial part, close to the beach, or on the argillaceous parts or with slow vertical infiltration. From these wells one often drew water by hand, or used animal haulage, or norias (water wheels). In addition, in Puducherry, due to the French presence, profited rapidly from social and technical developments, artesian wells were present and functioning until the 1950s. At the beginnings of Auroville and until the eighties, water was often close to the surface, which made it possible to extract it with Cretan wind mills, but with limited extraction capacity.

In the direct area of Auroville, the principal aquifer, called Vanur sandstone, was in 1975 at 7m above mean sea level. Today, after 30 odd yrs this same aquifer is 57m below mean sea level! This implies that not only the subsoil waters are now flowing in from the sea towards inland, but also that this aquifer presents perfect conditions to be inundated by the sea in a very short span of time. And this fact one can observe as a fast increase in salinity (measured since 1994) in the surrounding water bodies. The realizations of this phenomenon lead to the initiation of Auroville Water Harvest.

In the same way, but to a lesser extent, the Cuddalore sandstones aquifer, that on which Auroville is located partly and which corresponds to our red soil, presents an alarming profile now, with water table levels sometimes descending to sea level as far as 1.5kms inland. This same aquifer is already in the course of contamination by sea water more in the south, towards the town of Cuddalore.

The decline - Advent of the British Raj and the 'promising' green revolution.

With the advent of the British and their system of administrative centralization, came numerous related problems. Consolidating power centrally not only broke the local governance which contributed to the economic self sufficiency but created problems that are visible even today. The great famines which devastated India made their appearance only with the British Raj (1857 to 1947).

The British government declared common resources as belonging to the State and would be managed through the Tax Service. Later, they imposed a tax on the land and a right on water for those who used the tanks. The local population was not involved any more in the maintenance of the irrigation systems. The enormous expropriation of the resources of the villages by the government led to the disintegration of the traditional society, its economy and its control. Taxes to maintain the eri could not be supported by the population. This extraordinary system of water collection, of centuries of concerted collective labor, this unique example of social participation fell gradually in disuse.

At the end of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century the situation became disastrous: famines, impoverishment of the population, but also of the local government, are the rule. India was known since antiquity for its opulence, its richness and the plenitude of its people. But during the British rule India knew 25 major famines in the second part of 19th century and 35 to 40 million people died of hunger during the same period. The British government reacted by developing irrigation canals and by improving the degraded structures. Due to these decisions and to the distribution of rice at the most critical periods, there was no more major famine until 1943. The independence so much desired did not bring a much needed reform of the Indian administration. The degradation of the eri continued, as well as the growing problems faced by the population, which then turned as one of the engines of the exodus towards the large cities.

Undoubtedly, the demographic growth is one of the major sources of the problem. In 1950, India counted 357 million inhabitants. By 2006 it counted more than 1.1 billion people and the needs for the population, adding to those related to modernization, made only exponentially increase the exploitation, then the overexploitation, of natural resources. Problems of food to which the population faced since the middle of 19th century and the most serious famines which struck the country during part of the 20th century generated a sharp reaction of the government. The fact is that the population grew much more quickly than the food production.

The engines selected for the Green revolution of 1967-1978 were the extension of cultivated surfaces, the practice of double cropping and the use of high yield seeds. This was combined with the modernization of husbandries, the facilitated access to water, the massive production of fertilisers and the pesticides necessary for these seeds to yield optimally. Double crops means “two monsoons” or the equivalent in the form of water drawn… from under ground! The food bet was won. India, a country of famine (the last great famine in 1967 decimated 4 million people, that is to say more than one percent of the population), became a global food exporter in 1978. Multiple economic and social repercussions benefited the population and the country in the form of employment creation, industrial development for fertilizers and pesticides and agricultural machinery etc. The Green revolution, practiced in all the developing countries, was regarded as particularly successful in India. On the other hand, the environment and especially surface and ground water, up to that point preserved, started to be largely overexploited but also massively polluted. This aspect of the Green Revolution was found out much later and along with it, a virtual Pandora’s Box was open.

With the advent of the Green Revolution and the consequential modernization, the government promoted free electricity for all farmers. This lead to an increase in the bore well usage among farmers who used the machine extensively with little or no concern of the appropriate amount of water needed for the crops. Soon, as they saw the ground water decreasing, they dug deeper to find more water. This activity led to numerous deep bore wells all over the area, some tapping into several aquifers and causing waters to mix. Presently, there are over 6000 bore wells in an area of 25 sq km. And this number is increasing as the government has just put forward a proposal of digging 4000 more bore wells in this area.

The phenomenon caused by these numerous deep bore wells is alarming. The vacuum within the aquifer can cause a massive inflow of salt water. Through numerous studies done by Harvest, we have come to the conclusion that we are on a brink of a massive saline intrusion that can occur at any time. Also due to the multiple tapping of the aquifers by the bore wells, the mineralized water from older aquifers is now leaching to the above aquifer.

The tsunami

In addition to the destruction and the loss where so many people suffered, another phenomenon, less noticed but however alarming, occurred. In the few minutes the sea covered the ground, a phenomenal volume of salty water intruded into the ground, carrying with it the dejections strewing the beaches, privileged place of public defecation since immemorial times. The immediate result was that the fresh water present in the dune aquifer, which fed the large population living along the coasts, in a few minutes, was found to be completely unsuitable for consumption. Everywhere along the coast, the government and NGOs had to ensure the needs for freshwater. And that was the very first time, to address the sanitary requirement of the coastal population.

The importance of these factors on public health emerged only further with time and a vast segment of public health hazards and lack of sanitary arrangements, largely neglected until that point of time, emerged to light to be addressed in a substantial manner. The emergency and temporary camps are transformed into a multitude of new settlements with high population density, in zones without access to water, sewer or purification elements completely absent from the rural and coastal Indian landscape.


Majority of the structures of irrigation today are in a bad condition and are largely silted, having lost their original storage capacity because of the absence of regular maintenance as it was practiced in the past. Drainage and feeder canals, control structures, as well as know-how related to their usage are on the edge of collapse. The traditional knowledge of the people is being lost.

At the same time as the impoverishment increased, the rural population grew exponentially, bringing an increased pressure on the already decreasing resources. To ensure their survival, the dependent population sought other resources, and started to deforest the surrounding lands to sell wood for the cities which developed, for construction, and also for cooking purpose. Swiftly, in this area of torrential rains, the ground cover rapidly disappearing, erosion took its toll, washing away the arable soil and the remaining vegetation, filling the eri and channels even more quickly with silt and other materials, opening broad scars like canyons in the ground, and releasing into the sea the rich soil that had contributed to the prosperity of this area.

Today, in the Auroville bioregion, the water intended for domestic needs in the villages is of unsuitable quality almost everywhere. In certain zones, the rate of salinity is such that it affects the agricultural production. Added to it is the infiltration of often very dangerous pesticides, the overused fertilizers and other toxic industrial and urban wastes which, for lack of adequate treatment, are found concentrated in the ground and the water.

Fortunately, this increasing salinity is not yet the fact of the intrusion of sea water, at least in the close vicinity of Auroville. On the other hand, 20 kilometers south, the disaster is present. We sit on a time bomb: the current scenario of overexploitation of the groundwater resources, if not massively and immediately rectified, guarantees a major catastrophe for the 1.2 million people living in the bioregion of Auroville.

We need to understand that a sea water intrusion as massive as that which could occur under the present conditions is a “catastrophe” that would take Nature fifteen thousand years to restore … But the threat of saline intrusion does not stop here: to this situation at the very least alarming, the tsunami of December 2004 came to add to its misdeeds.

Redmedy - the Harvest Way

The area of Auroville has a rich history regarding development of activities around water. The complexity of the actual problems calls for in-depth answers, based on a solid comprehension of the water mechanisms and the socio-economic dynamism of our area, articulated around a systematic transfer of knowledge and of the methods suitable for sustainable and integrated development. Auroville is in total interdependence of the bioregion as regards water resources. Auroville Water Harvest plays an important role in this regard by setting up not only scientifically grounded solutions, also environmentally, socially, organizationally and economically viable, with the local population and main actors.

Becoming aware of the importance of these structures for the life of our area, large efforts are being carried out by Auroville Water Harvest for the last twelve years to not only rehabilitate these structures, but also to recreate the necessary institutions in the villages with the participation of all the beneficiaries. Auroville Water Harvest is a very present and recognized actor in this field, as a project carrier but as much as partner and adviser to the government and international agencies. Groundwater, surface water, pollution, drinking water, cleansing, distribution, recycling, coastal area development, urbanization, rural life, industry, agriculture: are some of the fields where the expertise of Auroville Water Harvest has been used.

Where to find water? How to avoid the dramatic problems which can emerge from the deplorable hygienic conditions? What are the existing sustainable techniques and are they adaptable to the conditions, the population needs, and the local capacities? The water tables are everywhere within a few tens of centimeters from the ground, often salty and very sensitive to pollution - A leviathan of a challenge to be solved at all levels. The solutions used initially, including by the international agencies specialized in public health and water sector, were catastrophic and completely unfit for local context. Due to this difficult lesson, gradually, the government and the local actors turned to reliable and really adapted solutions. Only now complete and appropriate solutions are available for some villages, with a growing interest from others for duplication. The urbanization and industrialization, the absence of medical facilities, faulty system of distribution of water and the lack of regulation, generate today enormous pressures on the environment and pubic health.

Auroville Water Harvest plays a forerunner’s part in the divergent field of water, its protection and its regeneration, a role recognized and appreciated by the highest Indian and international authorities. With the visit of the President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, who visited Auroville in November 2004 in order to understand better the water situation (which affects the whole India), the solutions suggested and implemented by Auroville. The expertise acquired in these fields and other related ones is well known and appreciated by the authorities, which see in Auroville a fair and privileged partner, capable to give answers and to develop practical solutions for the complex problems faced by Tamil Nadu.


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