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  • F O U N D A T I O N


    The Wells of Tamil Nadu

    The Wells of Tamil Nadu

    Peter Stokes - Short Stories

  • 1

    The Wells Of Tamil Nadu

    Most of the worlds great civilisations grew up around rivers; think

    of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Yellow River,

    the Pearl, the Tiber, the Danube, the Loire, the Hudson, the Mersey

    or the Thames. Or the Manchester Ship Canal. Tamil Nadus great

    rivers, the Kavery and Vaigai have watered the fertile plains of

    southern India for thousands of years, but they didnt look very

    impressive in November, even after months of rain. Local people

    regarded them as being in full flood. In a few months they will be

    completely dried out. The monsoon rains were wrecking the

    important salt pans on the Bay of Bengal coast and washing the

    roads away before our eyes, but still not providing the water to

    meet the peoples needs.

    If water were spread uniformly across the globe, everyone would

    have plenty. New Delhi gets only forty days of rain a year. The

    water table beneath Beijing has fallen 200 feet in the last twenty

    years. China has forty times the population of Canada, but less

    water. India has twenty percent of the worlds population, but four

    percent of the worlds water. Even in the biggest cities the poorest

    residents can spend hours in queues at standpipes or waiting for a

    tanker to arrive, in temperatures above one hundred degrees. To

    supplement these unreliable supplies a high proportion of household

    income goes on bottled water.

    Government water specialists (we met them at the office of the

    Chief Water Engineer of Tamil Nadu in Madurai) say they are

    connecting big population centres first, but water supply in big cities

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    is so fragile that it will be years, maybe a generation, before remote

    villages are connected to piped pure drinking water. And maybe

    never. Tamil Nadu gets about the same rainfall each year as the

    United Kingdom, about 900mm each year.* While rainfall in Britain

    is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, 90% of Tamil

    Nadus rain falls from June to November, with the south-west and

    north-east monsoons. The countryside was vividly and sublimely

    green, my, and Hollywoods vision of paradise, sugar and banana

    plantations, cotton fields, eucalyptus and teak forests, mangoes,

    acacias, coconut groves, with extensive stretches of water covering

    the rice paddies and floodplains.

    Some of this water is managed, to irrigate crops. Some is collected

    in reservoirs or tanks. These tanks may be small domestic assets

    or as big as a football pitch. Where you find a temple youll find a

    tank, since water is needed for ritual purification. Often there is a

    coconut grove as well, (a coconut, the tufty end on fire, is used as a

    temple offering) the temple, the water and the lofty coconut trees

    offering a golden photo opportunity.

    Some of the water is harvested for drinking water. That tank is

    pure water for drinking, local people will say proudly. (Their idea of

    drinking water is probably not yours or mine. At one spring-fed

    pond we watched local women using their saris, placed over the

    neck of their water bottles, to filter the in-rushing water, which was

    dusty, a little scummy, and contained plentiful insect life. There

    were cowpats and other evidence of animal life around the pond. In

    the dry season, they told us, it takes an hour or two to fill the water

    bottle, cupful by cupful.)

    Many of the tanks are decayed, silted over, overgrown with

    vegetation, or hardly more than muddy pools. There was a

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    magnificent tank (and a temple) a couple of hundred metres from

    our hotel in Karaikudi. A carpet of lilies bloomed prolifically at the

    centre of the water, encircled by a carpet of garbage. It was a

    breeding ground for swarms of huge dragonflies and other less

    attractive creatures. Some tanks and wells, constructed under the

    Raj, have dried out. Nobody can quite say why. Maybe soil geology

    or chemistry has changed in a hundred years. Now these impressive

    stonewalled, square tanks provide homes for interesting but lethal

    snakes. Many villages have a concrete overhead tank (OHT) as a

    central feature. Originally it would have used mains electricity to

    pump water from a borewell up into the tank for community use.

    Now they are mostly useless. Either the water is saline, because the

    well was drilled in the wrong place, or the well is too shallow, due to

    corruption or incompetence. Or the electricity supply functions for

    only ten minutes each day, unpredictably, so one villager has to

    spend the whole watchful day beside the tap, and tries to fill as

    many vessels as possible when the water does flow.

    The women of Africa, it has been estimated, spend 400 billion hours

    each year collecting water. (That is roughly equivalent to the

    number of hours, per year, that Europeans spend in the workplace.)

    There must be a similar figure for India. Americans consume

    roughly 500 litres of water per person per day. Europeans about

    half that. Indias water engineers estimate the needs of the people

    of Tamil Nadu at 40 litres per capita per diem, (pcpd), but in the

    remote villages people are managing on a quarter of that.

    I dont think I ever saw a man carrying water. Its the task of the

    women and children and we see them everywhere. Next time you

    have a little time on your hands fill a bucket with 18 or 20 litres of

    water and carry it on your head for a mile or two. 20 litres of water

    weighs an astonishing (and to me exhausting) 44 pounds. Some

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    women told us that they spend two hours a day collecting drinking

    water, walking 2km or more each way, to and from a reliable

    source. Some said three or four hours each day. And this is just the

    time spent on drinking/cooking water. Each family may need an

    additional 60 or 100 litres of poorer quality water each day, drawn

    from a closer source, for washing themselves and their clothes and

    for animals. (When they are not gathering water the women and

    children gather wood for fuel, huge bundles carried, for miles, like

    water, on their heads.)

    In two weeks we covered 2,500 miles between Kovelpatti and

    Tiruchirappali, between Madurai and the east coast, mostly in the

    districts of Sivaganga and Puddukottai. We inspected the five wells

    already constructed and talked to the women about the change that

    the new wells brought. Now, the women say, the installation of a

    Kamla Foundation borewell a few yards from their front door means

    that only a few minutes are spent each day fetching pure, safe

    drinking water. (In fact the last, fifth, well, at Naraikudi was not yet

    in use. The well has been bored out, the rig still present, but the

    heavy rains in the second week turned the site to bright red liquid

    mud, and delayed the laying of the concrete base. So we paddled

    around in the mud, and shared the pleasure of anticipation with the

    local villagers, but not the inauguration ceremony.)

    And we scouted for ten new wells, to be installed this year, talking

    to village councils and local community workers, and trying, in the

    midst of so much desperate need, to use a rational formula to

    install the new wells where they will benefit the most people. I did a

    back of envelope calculation. The five Kamla Foundation wells

    installed since 2010 serving about 5000 families, will, at a

    conservative estimate, save 1,000,000 hours of womens time and

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    labour, in their first year of operation. An immense amount of

    energy preserved for childcare, education, or productive work. And

    how many lives preserved? Globally, there have been more deaths

    from completely preventable waterborne diseases than from war,

    since 1945.

    The trouble with India, said my new friend, is that we have no

    drains. He was a young teacher of mathematics, who stopped off

    at Kumars Coffee Shop And Bakery, just around the corner from

    the hotel, every evening on his way home from work. He also

    owned the cybercaf on the second floor across the road. We were

    sitting in Kumars watching the rain come down, and the main road,

    a four-lane highway, disappearing under 10 inches of bright red

    water. The next morning the bath-sized potholes in the road were

    still full of red water. We are all aware of India Shining, the worlds

    biggest democracy, the astonishing technological development and

    economic growth, but India is also a collapsed civilisation, a failed

    state, and not only for the poor. Even in the major northern cities in

    middle class neighbourhoods water supply can be intermittent and

    undrinkable. The Romans built their Empire on drains and

    aqueducts. India is still reliant on the plastic bottle. But there are a

    growing number of villages in Tamil Nadu, where the drinking water

    is assured. Ive seen them.

    * But Wales gets twice as much. 1800mm falls in the Elan and

    Claerwen valleys. Almost exactly a hundred years ago the first

    stage of the massive engineering project to supply Birmingham with

    600 million litres of drinking water per day was complet


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