Thamirabarani: Govt, ATREE adopt ‘hyper local’ approach to restore one of south Asia’s oldest rivers

The TamiraSES project aims to enable conditions for native biodiversity to thrive and maintain and enhance multiple ecosystem services to local stakeholders  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Monday 26 September 2022
The Thamirabarani river. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The district administration of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu along with Bengaluru-based non-profit Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) are using what they term as a ‘hyper local’ approach to restore one of south Asia’s oldest rivers, the Thamirabarani.

The district collector of Tirunelveli, Vishnu Venugopal, launched the first phase of a Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared by ATREE on World Rivers Day September 25, 2022. The restoration project is called TamiraSES.

The Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bengaluru and the Consortium for DEWATS Dissemination Society are also knowledge partners in the project.

The Thamiraparani is unique in many respects. It is the only perennial river in Tamil Nadu. It originates in the Pothigai Hills of the Western Ghats in Tirunelveli district. The river flows through Tirunelveli and then neighbouring Thoothukudi and ends in the Gulf of Mannar at Punakayil. It thus originates and ends in the same state.

“The river supports wildlife such as the Nilgiri marten, slender loris, lion-tailed macaque, white spotted bush frog, galaxy frog, Sri Lankan Atlas moth and the great hornbill,” a statement by ATREE noted.

Besides the ecosystem services it provides, the river also has historical value for the people of the state. It is mentioned extensively in Sangam Era literature.

Read The Porunai in Sangam Literature: A river of wealth, power and antiquity

A study published in 2021 found that paddy and soil discovered in an urn during an archeological excavation near the river in Thoothukudi district’s Sivakalai were at least 3,200 years old.

The project

The Thamirabarani is of great importance to southern Tamil Nadu environmentally and historically. But it too has suffered, which is why the restoration project has been started, according to ATREE.

“While the Thamirabarani landscape, in general, appears water-rich, it faced severe drought in 2016 despite the diverse water storage systems in place. In 2021, in a contrasting situation, Thamirabarani was in spate, but did not lead to any major disaster in the region,” the ATREE statement noted.

Settlements have been on the rise which has led to the shrinkage of agricultural land and water bodies.

“The TamiraSES project aims to restore the Social Ecological Systems of Tamiraparani river riverscape from head-waters to the estuary to enable conditions for native biodiversity to thrive and maintain and enhance multiple ecosystem services to local stakeholders,” the statement added.

Five social ecological observatories will set up as part of first phase of the project. These will serve as pilots to scale up from the learnings from these sites.

“The idea is to rejuvenate not just the Thamirabarani but all the waterbodies in the riverscape of Tirunelveli,” Vishnu Venugopal, the collector of Tirunelveli told Down To Earth.

“We are doing it now because the broad water testing parameters show that right now, the water of the river is of bathing quality (in accordance with Central Pollution Control Board) guidelines. The objective is to bring it to drinking water quality within 2024,” he added.

Venugopal said the focus on the river was in no way connected to the fact that the government of Chief Minister MK Stalin had hailed the 2021 study, which, it said, “could rewrite the history of the Indian subcontinent.”

“This is a district-level initiative. We are looking at more of a socio-ecological angle,” he said.

“Such a project is welcome. I would only suggest that since part of the river also flows outside the borders of Tirunelveli, it would also be important that collaboration and partnerships with other district(s) are done,” Manoj Misra, the convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan told DTE.

Venugopal said the first phase of the project would be restricted to the borders of Tirunelveli. He added that the project was an experiment since most river restoration projects nationally or globally relied on technical or nature-based solutions. But this project was all about community engagement.

“It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach,” he said.

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