How this environmentalist revived 15 ponds and lakes in Coimbatore

R Manikandan had to drop out of school after class 9 but that did not deter him from reviving 15 water bodies in Coimbatore. The rejuvenation has increased their water storage capacity by 80%, raised the groundwater level and conserved biodiversity

US Anu
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R Manikandan, founder of Kovai Kulangal Pathugappu Amaippu, is reviving water bodies

R Manikandan, founder of Kovai Kulangal Pathugappu Amaippu, is reviving water bodies

When R Manikandan was a child, he saw a gradual decline in the water level of his family’s well, eventually leading to its complete dryness. While the family opted for other sources of water, the incident left a deep imprint on the young mind. He wanted to understand the cause behind the drying up of the well.

His search led him to a nearby check dam that could no longer retain water after the monsoons due to cracks in its structure. Manikandan, who had spent his childhood drafting applications to government departments on behalf of the villagers, decided to send one to the Public Works Department (PWD) to repair the check dam.

“An engineer came, inspected the site and the repair works were carried out. The check dam was full in the next monsoon and water returned to our well. That made me understand how water bodies are inter-connected and local problems can be solved with the involvement of the community and the authorities,” he says.

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Drought that led to a mission

Then in 2017, Tamil Nadu witnessed the lowest rainfall in 140 years, resulting in a drought. Coimbatore or Kovai was no exception. The Perur Periya Kulam, a lake spread over 265 acres, had dried up over a decade back and was full of filth and silt. 

cleaning drive
R Manikandan (in white) at a river cleaning drive with other volunteers. Pic: KKPA

“I felt the solution to Coimbatore’s water woes lay in cleaning and de-silting its water bodies,” says Manikandan. 

He then decided to mobilise people and work towards the restoration of lakes and ponds. “I used social media to ask people to come for a meeting and work towards cleaning the Perur Lake. In the first week of the meeting, 50 people turned up to volunteer for desilting and cleaning the lake. In the second week, 400 people joined the cleaning drive,” says Manikandan, adding that Kovai Kulangal Pathugappu Amaippu (KKPA) was thus formed on February 5, 2017.

They removed plastics, debris, wild bushes and invasive weeds like Prosopis Juliflora (keekar or babool in Hindi). 

The volunteers also desilted the 12.5 km inlet channel that feeds Perur and the lake was full of water after 12 years in the next monsoon. 

The same year, in 2017, KKPA cleaned, de-silted and strengthened the bunds of Vellalore Lake, Sengalum Lake and Perriya Kuttai Pond with support from volunteers. The funds were raised through crowd-funding. “So far, we have worked on reviving and rejuvenating 15 water bodies across Coimbatore,” says Manikandan, who had to quit schooling in class nine due to family circumstances. 

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Water bodies are interconnected and the revival of one helps bring water to others. Pic: KKPA

How water bodies are revived and rejuvenated

KKPA first identifies the ponds, lakes and rivers that need to be revived and then conducts site assessments to understand the extent of pollution, siltation, and encroachments. “We then undertake environmental impact assessments and baseline surveys to gather initial data. This is followed by estimating the resources required, including manpower, machinery, and financial support,” he says.

Also Read: Arun Krishnamurthy: This man quit his job at Google to restore lakes across India

KKPA then approaches local authorities and environmental agencies to obtain necessary approvals before starting the clean-up drive. “Over the years, KKPA has established partnerships with local communities, environmental organizations, and governmental bodies, who support our work,” he adds.

Manikandan says after desilting and dredging to restore the natural depth and flow of the water body, KKPA implements soil and water conservation techniques, such as bunding and afforestation, to prevent erosion. 

“Silt doesn't allow the water to percolate into the ground. Water infiltration resumes after de-silting. That recharges groundwater and increases overall water levels in the area. Moreover, the lake or pond’s capacity to carry water increases manifold,” explains Manikandan. 

KKPA volunteers at a plantation drive to conserve native biodiversity. Pic: KKPA

“We introduce native plant species wherever possible to improve biodiversity and stabilize the ecosystem. Native species provide habitat to birds and animals and do not harm the environment like invasive plants,” he says.

The total water carrying capacity in 11 of the 15 lakes revived by KKPA has increased by 80 percent from 1,47,783 cubic metres to 2,63,276 cubic metres.

KKPA has set up a Butterfly Park near Vellalore Lake. The trees and plants here have led to a thriving ecosystem that brings in wildlife species, particularly butterflies, bees, wasps, and other insects. Manikandan also promotes the planting of quick-growing native trees to improve soil’s water holding around water bodies which also helps in biodiversity consevation.

Now, Manikandan is ready to expand the work beyond Coimbatore implementing a scalable model. “This expansion will involve forming partnerships with local environmental groups, NGOs, and government agencies while seeking funding from corporates and donors,” he says.

Utilizing data analytics, GIS, and innovative water management technologies, the project will start with pilot initiatives in select regions, followed by the establishment of regional hubs and training centres, eventually covering larger areas, Manikandan adds.

(US Anu is a Madurai-based writer. She specialises in stories around human interest, environment and art and culture.)

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