Vidhya Bhaskaran from Salamanatham village, Tamil Nadu, is a worksite leader for a government employment scheme, who mobilised women to join in reviving the dried Naganadhi river. The women of the village are part of an army of 20,000 women who built recharge wells and check dams to recharge groundwater which, in turn, revived the river. Illustration by Upasana Agarwal for Mongabay.

Harvesting rainwater to recharge groundwater, rejuvenate river

Explaining the process, former director of Karnataka State Remote Sensing and Application Centre, geologist Lingaraj Yale, who prepared the plan of action for the Naganadhi river rejuvenation project says the aim was to capture rainwater, avoid its wastage and use it to recharge the groundwater. Rainwater is caught along a network of streams by constructing boulder checks made from locally available hard rock. Big boulders are put in juxtaposition all along the streams every 300 metres. “Boulder checks serve many purposes. They reduce the speed of the running water which in turn helps in reducing soil erosion. When water flows slowly, the moisture of the soil, that supports the vegetation, increases. This vegetation, in turn, reduces soil erosion,” he says. Recharge wells are dug to 25 ft depth and the water is made to flow vertically down into them to recharge shallow aquifers. When shallow aquifers are recharged, it recharges open wells and the entire river basin gets filled up. The method also helps recharge deep aquifers further down the ground. Recharging groundwater helps maintain the environmental flow in the river. He says that if the rainwater is not conserved this way, the water will flow into the sea or evaporate. After the rejuvenation of the river, even a light shower helps the river to maintain its flow.

Despite the tiresome physical work it demands, the women are not complaining. In fact, Santha cannot wait for the Covid-related restrictions to lift so they could participate in some more work that’s left to be completed in her village. “Everyone gets paid the same for this work, whether one’s lifting cement rings or digging pits. For other work under MGNREGA, we are paid Rs. 100 a day. But for this, we get paid double – Rs 200 a day,” she says.

In Vidhya’s village, women also made cement rings for the wells and sold them to the government for profit. “We made cement rings by procuring raw materials ourselves. This gave us an additional income of Rs. 400 a day,” says Vidhya.

Women digging pits to facilitate groundwater recharge that eventually revived the Naganadhi river. Photo from Santha Ashokan.
Women digging pits to facilitate groundwater recharge that eventually revived the Naganadhi river. Photo from Santha Ashokan.

An inspiring tale of transformation

The Naganadhi river rejuvenation is a story of transformation, not just that of a river but the lives and livelihoods it sustains. Women like Vidhya and Santha feel empowered after successfully completing work that is traditionally considered unsuitable for women. They take pride in contributing to the development of their villages. Says a proud Vidhya, “This work has helped recharge every canal and well in the village. We have water even in summer now. Earlier we used to get muddy water from open wells but now the water is very clear. Our farmlands used to be dry and parched but now it’s all green everywhere.”

Kuppan says that with the recharging of groundwater, the moisture retention of soil has increased. “Even during the heavy rains in Tamil Nadu which resulted in floods in Chennai in 2015, these villages were safe because the waterbodies did not overflow. In the summer of 2016, our lakes were full because of the groundwater recharge,” he says. Farming is a prominent occupation here. According to Chandrasekharan, while only one crop was grown earlier by the farmers and that too only in monsoon, farmers are growing double the number of crops and throughout the year. Vidhya says, “We have 50 cents (half an acre) of land. While earlier we were not sure what to do there because of unpredictable rains and water situation, we are growing a lot of vegetables like chillies, cucumber, etc now and even selling them in market. During the season, I make a daily profit of Rs. 500 selling these vegetables. We also grow fodder for cattle.”

Moreover, women in these villages feel that their status in the family and the community has been elevated. They are respected as much as men, they say. And the fact that they are supplementing the income of the family and taking an active part in the upkeep of their homes and children makes them feel empowered and in charge. “The (Naganadhi) river has truly transformed our lives,” say Vidhya, Santha and a thousand other formidable women of Vellore.

Read more: Septuagenarian ensures Kole’s wetland status remains intact through farming


Illustration by Upasana Agarwal, an illustrator based out of Kolkata. When they’re not drawing they organise an LGBTQ art space in the city. Their work is largely influenced by the nostalgia and history of urban landscapes and the fabric of life that ties them together.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
, , , ,

Print button