Many large canyon systems cross Auroville. To prevent erosion and conserve water, check-dams have been built in all of them. But more action is needed to secure the future water supply of the city.
“The sea was like blood,” says Kireet, recalling his first encounter with erosion in Auroville during the monsoon. “It was my second visit and I was staying with Mali in Utility. The canyons were like rivers, sweeping tons of red topsoil into the sea. It flashed through me that there should be a dam in the canyon.” The year was 1975. It would take Kireet another two decades before he came to live in Auroville.
Map of the canyon systems of Auroville
“Like everybody else, I used the first years for finding a place. Soon afterwards, I built my house, which also became a guesthouse and created a garden (Gaia's Garden). At the same time, I was working in the Matrimandir nursery and gardens, pruning trees and clearing the outer garden area, as well as at Shakti nursery collecting seeds.
“Then it was time to do something else. I remembered my second visit, and started helping Michael from Samriddhi to repair the old check-dams that the Government had constructed. They were all in a very bad shape. Michael taught me the ropes and I also learned a few essentials from Jaap. That was a very valuable educational experience – learning by repairing badly designed check-dams.”
That first year, Kireet repaired nine old dams and built one new one. Since then, he has built so many that he became known as ‘Check-dam Kireet'. “A major challenge was finding the money – we got some grants from abroad,” he says. “Another problem was purely technical – how to make big check-dams – and here I was lucky to get advice from Dutch engineers who were staying at my guest house. They had come to advise the Government of Pondicherry on doing tank rehabilitation work.”
The Auroville canyons
“There are three canyon systems leading to the Bay of Bengal , while a few canyons empty into the lakes and yeris (small lakes) north of Auroville,” says Kireet. “A major first one begins by the community of Sukhavati and finally reaches the big canyon in Utility. The second system starts by the Samasti community watershed and finally empties into the Kuyilapalayam tank. But the water does not stop there; it spills over the back towards Aspiration, travels past La Ferme, and goes towards Quiet Healing Centre and empties into the sea. A third canyon, a small one, is in the Auromodèle area. There is not much overflow here, and the water usually percolates.”
Does he know how the canyons originated? “Human activity, particularly the felling of trees, has caused erosion. The Auroville plateau is situated 52 metres above sea level, so we have here a classic watershed. When the rains came, the water ran down in all directions, etching gullies into the naked landscape. Gradually the gullies became a series of canyons clawing through the Auroville area.”
An over-flowing check-dam in the Utility canyon in the aftermath of Cyclone Nisha.
The importance of the check-dams
Kireet has worked on over 60 check-dams. Their importance cannot be overestimated. “It is not only a question of preventing soil erosion,” he says. “A main issue nowadays is preventing sea water intrusion into the aquifer, as the water extraction in the Auroville area far exceeds the recharge.” Over recent years, Auroville's water monitoring agency, Harvest, has recorded a steady drop in the water table over almost all of Auroville. “This is largely due to over-extraction for agricultural use,” says Kireet. “Specialists have warned that salt water intrusion into the groundwater will happen in the entire Auroville area, starting with the coastal communities. This will be a disaster. The check-dams will hopefully postpone that moment.”
In the Utility canyon alone, there are about 40 basins and 30 check-dams. Are they all safe? On more than one occasion Kireet was out in the pouring rains at 2 a.m., checking the canyon with a torch to see if the dams were holding. “When you have rains like we just had with cyclone Nisha, I was tense. During the last night of the storm, it was raining torrentially, and every check-dam started overflowing. I had never experienced that before. But when the rain stopped in the early morning, the water percolated very fast. One basin of 15,000 cubic metres was empty in three days!” Kireet rejoiced. “Each year after the rains, I look to see where the water is overflowing, and raise the check-dams there by half a metre or more. In this way we have stopped water from overflowing in normal circumstances.” Kireet believes that the improved percolation is caused by the trees and bushes planted inside the canyons. “Nothing is as good as the roots of plants, even grasses, in opening up the soil and making the earth into one big sponge,” he says. “This year the water level in the basins went down on an average by about 30 centimetres a day.”
Kireet thinks that cyclones such as the last one might become more frequent in the years to come. “The weather everywhere is changing, and Auroville too will be affected. We will certainly see more of these heavy and unseasonable rains. Having these check-dams makes a lot of sense.” Are any more required? “No, on the east side of Auroville, the work is over. What we now need to do is to raise the water-table on the west side of Auroville. For that would directly benefit the water supply of Auroville.”
The west side story
About 10 kilometres north-west of Auroville one finds the forest communities of Aranya and Sadhana Forest . “Here we have an exception to the dropping water tables,” says Kireet. “In this area there has been a steady rise. And that's of prime importance for Auroville's future water supply.”
The soil in this area is white clay, which is not porous. Percolation happens very slowly. This area has quite a few natural ponds, yeris, and small lakes. For the past four years, Kireet has been helping Aviram, the caretaker of Sadhana Forest , to build bunds, dikes and spillways to harvest rainwater. This year, a wide lake with a capacity of about 25,000 cubic metres has been created using earth-moving machinery. “We had a strict deadline,” says Kireet. “The work had to be completed before the coming of the winter monsoon.” Cyclone Nisha hit, and the lake was full. “It's a huge success,” says Kireet.
In order to ensure the water for the future city, Kireet believes that the entire area from Aranya to Aurobrindavan, including Sadhana Forest , needs to be declared a sanctuary with the main purpose of harvesting rainwater. “In my country The Netherlands, certain areas have been protected for water harvesting,” he says. “The quality of water is closely monitored and controlled, and the areas have become nature parks. We should do likewise in this area. If the sanctuary could consist of 200 or 300 acres, joining up Auroville land with that of some other owners, such as the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which own large tracts of land in that area, the effort can be successful. This is the only solution I see to the looming water crisis that will affect all of us in future.”
Mud-bathing in the clayey waters of a pond in summer time.
A few years ago, the Working Committee sent an official letter to the village Panchayats and the Collector of the district warning of the danger of villagers constructing houses in the canyon, and stating that Auroville cannot be held responsible if an unusually heavy rain breaches a dam. Notwithstanding the warning, new plots are being marked up.
All photos courtesy Kireet except photo mudbathing by Luke