Centre for Water Resources and Ocean Management,
Anna University, Chennai 600 025.
Assistant Professor,
Centre for Water Resources and Ocean Management,
Anna University, Chennai 600 025.

Water is one of the most important resource need for mankind.  Total available water is sufficient to meet the demand.  But it is not available in the places where we want it and in the required quantity.  Therefore it needs conservation and management.

As changes in the water management practices are occurring in a long span of time, here it is divided the time span into pre-independence. post-independence and future periods as yesterday, today and tomorrow respectively.  In early Tamil Kingdoms water resources was managed by diversion weirs and small chain of tanks.  Tanks are the main sources of water for irrigation and domestic purposes.  In the British period medium and major reservoirs were constructed to store and distribute water for assured crop production.  During this period, the farmers are slowly veered away from their customary duties of maintaing the system through Kudimaramath.

In the free India, to insure against crop loss due to monsoon failure, almost all rivers in Tamilnadu are harnessed by medium and major reservoirs.  During this period, the tanks which usually command a third of irrigated area is reduced to 20 percent.  The reduction is due to encroachment in supply channel and lands on foreshore and silting.  Now attempts are made to involve the farmers to participate in this planning, execution, maintenance and management phases in the tank modernisation programme, so that they can upkeep the system in a sustainable manner.

During this period, the groundwater development has attained predominance.  Now it commands more than 40 percent of irrigated area.  This is due to mass rural electrification programme and introduction of high yielding hybrid varieties.  This resulted in over-drawal of groundwater in certain regions.  An attempt is made to recharge the groundwater by constructing large number of percolation ponds.

In the future, the demand for industries and drinking water are going to compete with irrigation demands.  As all the surface water resources are harnessed, the only choice left with us is to increase the conveyance and application efficiency of the water by actively involving the farmers in the system management along with agency and ultimately handing over the responsibility of operation and maintenance to the farmers themselves.  Further introduction of water saving irrigation methods such as sprinkle and drip irrigations are to be propagated with more vigour to save water and spread over large area.


The Earth is covered by water by more than seventy five percent of its surface.  But only 2.6 percent of total resource is fresh water, and is available for the use of mankind.  The 30 percent of fresh water lies in the form of ground water and the 70 percent lies in the form of frozen ice or snow (Dooge 1995).  River flows which sustain the bulk of the World Population  constitute  only 1/100th of one percentage of total volume of Water available in the Earth (Y.K. Murthy, 1995).  Though water is a renewable resource, it is not inexhaustible.  The renewable quantity water is finite.  In India, as well as in Tamil Nadu the total quantum of water available on the average is enough to meet all our demands viz. drinking water, irrigation, industry and navigation.  But its availablity is highly irregular.  It is not availble in the places when we want it and in the required quantity.  Therefore it needs conservation and management.

Water management may be defined as putting the water resources for the best beneficial use with all the technologies at our command.  It aims at spreading the benefits to the maximum number of people to meet their various demands.  In India, on an average 50 percent of Water flowing in the river is discharged into the sea.  The West flowing rivers discharge 80-85 percent of their potential.  The rivers of Tamil Nadu discharge only 12 percent to the sea, indicating higher percentage utilisation. (P.R.Pisharoty,1995)

When talking about Water Management in the 21st Century, John Hennessy in his keynote address at 15th International Congress on “Irrigation and Drainage” (1993) said “Sustainable development is the management and conservation of natural resource base and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for the present and future generations”.  Engineers plan and design a scheme based on physical soundness, economists assess its profitability, social scientists determine its acceptability  by  people, but it is the politician who decides on implementation. On implementation, the managers in co-operation with people operate and manage them.  Main focus in water management is not only to satisfy the demands and economic efficiency but also its constraints.  As the irrigation demand is more than 75 percent of the total demand.  Irrigation management is very commonly used denoting water management.

The current total irrigated area in the World is in between 240-270 M.ha of which 70 percent is in developing countries viz. China, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Thailand (FAO 1990).  The irrigated area in India is 85 M.ha. National Water Policy (1987) declares that water is a scarce and precious natural resource, to be planned, developed and conserved as such on an integrated and environmentally sound basis keeping the needs of the states concerned.

2.0       PRE-INDEPENDENCE PERIOD:                   YESTERDAY

2.1  During Early Tamil Kingdoms

In Tamil Nadu, people from ancient days had developed the art of water management through diversion anicuts and tanks.  In the second century AD, Karikal Cholan constructed the Grand Anicut to raise the water level to feed Cauvery and Vennar rivers.  Pandian and Nayak Kings developed the Tamiravaruni system with diversion weirs and system tanks.  The open off take channels from the weirs were constructed as contour channels so that any excess water drawn at weir head, returns back to the river or to the channel downstream immediately.  This ensures the use of same water for two or more times before it reaches the sea.  It shows the ingenuity of our ancestors in managing water use.  Similarly they developed the art of rain water harvesting well in the low rainfall as well as high raifall areas.  In the Ramanathapuram District, the low rainfall area, tanks are designed in such a way that any surplus from the upper tank and its command area feeds the tank immediately located below.  This chain tank arrangement helps to conserve as much water as possible.  In the Chenglepattu district, high rainfall area, in almost all tanks, locally called Periya Eri (Large Tank) is surplussing the excess water to a tank within the command called Chitheri (Small Tank) and used to feed the command lower down,  This arrangement solves the problem of inequity between head and tail end commands.

2.1.1 Organisation

Ancient Tamil Kings created organistaion and endowment for proper maintenance and operation of irrigation systems.  Pallava Kings  had organised “ERIVRAIAM”.  Variam is developed from the root word ‘Varam’ which means “Pangu” or “Share”.  That is the irrigation systems are maintained by the share holders themselves (C.N.Balasubramaniam 1994).

2.2 During British Period

When the British ruled India, they enacted comprehensive legislation relating to irrigation in the later part of nineteeth century.  Until 1921, irrigation and power was under the control of Government of India.  In 1921, irrigation became a provincial subject with certain reservations.  In 1930, the concept of river valley emerged and river basin conept was also adopted.  From 1937 provincial Government got full powers related to irrigation.  However, neither the union nor state has any right of ownership in the corpus water.  The state is only entitled to use and control river water for public purposes only, the actual beneficiaries being the people  (A.Mohanakrishnan 1990).

In Tamil Nadu (Madras Presidency) under “ryot wari” system, the Government funtionaries directly dealt with the irrigation administration.  They limited their responsibility for distribution of water at the head of anicut and the farmers with their own system of control and rotation, used to distribute water among them.

2.2.1 Reservoirs

As the technology developed, the British Government had constructed a number of reservoirs in Tamil Nadu.  The Periyar river originating in the Western Ghats and flowing Westward was dammed up in 1895 and was diverted to the east through a tunnel to feed the dry tracks of Madurai District. This project was undertaken mainly as a social reform project.  This is the first major inter basin transfer attempted anywhere in the world at that time.  Mettur dam, across Cauvery (1925-34), the highest masonry dam at that time was constructed to help the Cauvery delta – the granary of Tamil Nadu.  To stabilise the cultivation area, Pechiparai (1902), Wellington (1913-23) and Papanasam(1944) are the other major projects developed.  In all 23 major and medium projects were devloped during this period.

2.2.2. Kudimaramath

Kudimaramath refers to the practice of maintining the irrigation works periodically through free labour contribution of beneficiaries themselves.  This is in vogue as a tradition or custom.  Sekkizhar,  the poet lived in the tenth century AD described in his Peria Puranam, how Lord Chockanathar (Siva) took part in the Kudimaramath work, to the closure of a breach in the river bank of Vagai, in the disguise of a worker representing an old woman.  This customary participation of people in the system management was working well.  When the Madras Compulsory Labour Act 1917 which mainly provides for forcible recruitment of labour during emergency, the cooperation from the people to maintain the irrigation system vaned away.  Want of cooperation among the farmers, factionalism in the villages, severe erosion in the authority of leadership in the villages, increase in number of absent landlords and procedural difficulty in enforcing the Madras Compulsory Labour Act are the reasons attributed as the causes, for the failure of Kudimaramath in Tamil Nadu.  With the formation of Panchayat and Panchayat Union (P.U.) the responsibility for enforcing Kudimaramath was passed on to them.  They also could not enforce the customary obligation (A. Mohanakrishnan, 1990)

3.0       Post – Independence Period :  To Day

3.1  Irrigation Potential

Irrigation potential can be classified according to the source such as surface and subsurface resource.  They are further classified as major, medium, minor projects and lift irrigation.  Source wise development made is shown in Table-1.

Table – 1.  Sourcewise Irrigation Potential developed during different periods  in Tamil Nadu.



Details Major &

Medium Projects

Tanks Wells Total

(in M. ha)

1 Ultimate potential 1.50 1.00 3.147 5.647
2 During pre-plan period 1.10 0.69 0.040 1.830
3 Plan Period (1951-1992) 0.38 0.238 1.515 2.133
4 Total area developed 1.48 0.928 1.555 3.963
5 To be developed 0.02 0.072 1.592 1.684

Table 1 shows that Tamil nadu has to depend only on subsurface water resources for its further development programme.

3.1.1.  Tank Commands

There are 5 lakhs tanks in the country, out of which 39,200 tanks are in Tamil Nadu.  During 1950, tank irrigation represents one third of total area irrigated.  It is now dwindled down to 20 percent.  In the country as a whole, the area under tank command has come down from 4.78 M.ha (1962-63) to 3.07 M.ha.  For the same period the reduction in area in Tamil Nadu is 44,000 ha even though crores of rupees were invested for development of minor irrigation system (Reddy, 1992).

The main causes for the reduction are:

A.   Encroachment in supply channel and hence reduced inflow

B.   Encroachment in foreshore resulted in wanton breaching of tank bund and hence water could not be stored upto full tank level.

C.   Silting up of tank bed and hence reduced capacity. Anna University Study

Anna University has undertaken a research project with the funding of Ford Foundation in Padianallur Village near Chennai in the year 1982 to 1984.  The initial study on its problems and issues paved the way for the EEC to come forward to donate Rs.28 crores to modernise 200 tanks in Tamil Nadu.  The study revealed that the system modernised will not sustain, if the farmers are not involved in the planning, design and execution stages.  Based on this experience, Anna University has taken up a project “Alternative approaches to rehabilitation and management of Tank irrigation system – An experiment”, with the funding from Ford Foundation.

In this project, a research team consisting of an Institutional Organiser, Project Documenter and Technical Assistant have lived in the village to build confidence in the farmers minds.  Then they motivated the farmers to organise themselves as a Water User Group so that they can have their say in the sysem rehabilitation programme.  This experiment was initiated in 4 tanks in 1988.  In this study, the farmers’ association was involved even in the planning stage.  Their suggestions to change the alignment and lining of filed channels and provision of community well also incorporated in the estimate and executed.  After seeing the involvement of the farmers, the Government have decided to entrust the execution work also with them and provided financial assistance in the form of loan to the WUA.  This lead to further additional funding from EEC to modernise 150 tanks.

3.2  Canal Command

Since rainfed cultivation is a gamble with nature, it resulted in crop failure and frequent famine in the pre-independence period.  Irrigation is the insurance for successful crop growth.  Therefore, Government of Tamil nadu embarked a large scale construction of reservoirs of major and medium capacity across almost all rivers of Tamil Nadu.  During the plan periods, the number of reservoirs increased from 23 to 49.  The corresponding increase in command area is 0.618 M. ha (Palanisamy K.O. 1994).

3.2.1     Command Area  Development   Authority (CADA)

Government of India had assessed that though the irrigation potential is created by investing large amounts, the gap between the potential created and area utilised was gradually increasing.  To reduce this gap the second irrigation commission (1972) recommended to create a multi deciplinary team, Command Area Development Authority (CADA) to maintain and manage the irrigation system.  CADAs were established, with the basic objectives of increasing utlisation of potential created, increase in agricultural production and equitable distribution of water.  At presentt CADA is working in 181 irrigation projects to cover 21.18 M. ha land spread over in 22 States and 2 Union Territories (Shukla V.C. 1995).

Since it was assumed contrary to the fact that all is well with the main system, the CADA could not bridge the gap in potential utilization.  Tamil Nadu has opted out of CADP.  However, the On-farm development works are carried out below the sluice outlet by the Department of Agricultural Engineering.

3.3.  Groundwater

Vedas (3000 BC – 8000 BC) describe the use of ground water for irrigation in India.  Farmers were using mote and bullocks for drawing water from shallow wells and used mainly to supplement the irrigation requirements of crops.  In fifties, filterpoint tubewells are propagated in Thanjavur and South Arcot Districts on a large scale to tap rich shallow allovial aquifers.  Advent of high yielding crop varieties and mass rural electrification programme has changed the entire scenario.  The people found that the surface irrigation sources are entirely dependent on the  monsoon rains.  But the groundwater development helped the farmers to plan the cropping season to maximise the production.  This resulted in quantum jump in the ground water development and hence declining groundwater table.  The Central Groundwater Board assessed the ultimate groundwater potential of India and Tamil Nadu and the same is furnished in Table-2.

Table-2. Groundwater potential of India and Tamil Nadu. (Source R.S. Saksena)





Provision for drinking water & industries Irrigation Present draft Balance Ultimate Potential Present irrigation Balance
India 45.23 6.93 38.29 10.68 27.62 80.38 27.94 52.45
Tamil Nadu 3.02 0.46 2.56 1.20 1.36 3.35 1.45 1.90

Though the groundwater potential of Tamil Nadu represents 6.7 percent of Indian Groundwater Resources, the present draft is 11.23 percent.  In Tamil Nadu there are 16.82 lakhs wells inclusive of 99,000 tube wells used for irrigation purposes.  Another 5.83 lakh wells are used for domestic purposes only.  Even though 1.36 M.ha.m. of water is yet to be developed in Tamil Nadu, over draft is noticed in the hard rock region of Coimbatore, Periyar and Selam District.  Hence the farmers are competing with each other to tap the deep aquifer.  The present depth of water table is more than 30m in many places.  Benjamine Franklin said that once the wells are dry, we know the worth of water.  This  is  coming true in these districts.

3.3.1  Ground Water Development

Groundwater development area is classified as white, grey and dark area, when the percentage development of the groundwater is less than 65 percent, 65 to 85 percent and more than 85 percent of the recharge potential respectively.  Out of 384 Panchayat Unions in Tamil Nadu 89 and 85 Panchayat Unions are classified as dark and grey areas respectively.  Percolation Ponds

To increase the recharge of groundwater percolation pounds are found to be very effective.  Percolation ponds are constructed across small streams in the watershed to store water and allow more time for it to percolate into the soil.  There will be no sluice for direct irrigation.  The study conducted by Anna University and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University indicate that the effect of percolation ponds is felt upto 1.5 to 1.7 km downstream side and 0.50 km on the upstream side depending on the fractures and fissures existing in the hardrock.  Each percolation pond helps 5 to 20 wells.  The water level increases varry from 0.4 m to 2.0 m.  Satish Chandra (1992) also reports such results from the studies conducted in Maharastra, Andhara Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan.  The total number of percolation ponds constructed is more than 10,500 spread over all the districts since IV Plan.  Ground Water Regulation

Government of India circulated a model bill to all state governments to make suitable legislation keeping in view the prevailing groundwater situation.  Only Gujarat State notified the groundwater legislation applicable to a limited area, but kept it in abeyance.  Based on the revised draft sent by the Government of India in 1987, Government of Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh enacted a bill in 1993 to protect public drinking sources.  Government of Tamil Nadu have enacted Madras Metropolitan Area Groundwater Act 1987.  But there is no check or control over indiscriminate exploitation of  groundwater.  This may lead to groundwater mining and consequent land subsidence, sea water intrusion, etc.,

4.0 Future Scenario

Even though the irrigation demand remains to be a prime one in the future also, the demand for drinking water and industries are picking up.  The present population growth rate of Tamil Nadu is 1.30 percent per annum.  To meet the demand for food and fibre and to obtain sustainability in crop production 3-4 percent increase in water per annum is necessary.  Improved drinking water and sanitation facilities for rural and urban areas also require higher water demand.  The industrial demand is expected to increase from 2 percent of countries total demand in 1995 to reach 6 percent level in 2000 and 11 percent level in 2025 AD (Reddy, 1992).  The same may be the case of Tamil Nadu.  The increased in demand has to be met only by conservation of water mainly from Irrigation use.  The reduction in demand can be achieved by crop selection and improving application efficiency (R. Mohandoss, 1993).  Water resources planning has to be done in an integrated manner keeping various aspects in view.  However, the biggest barrier seem to be in our basic attitude which tilts in favour of meeting with the immediate needs rather than a long term  view (N.V. Pundarikanthan, 1995).

4.1.  Projected Demand

As already discussed, the Tamil Nadu has three type of water resource Viz. Canal, Tank and Wells.  The Fig-1 indicates their growth rate from 1951 and projected beyond 2000 AD.  It indicates the constant level use of canal water for 8.5 lakh ha.  The tank command is reducing and may stabilise at 5 lakhs ha.  Command level.  At the same time, the use of well water may be gradually increasing and may attain a peak around 13 lakh ha.  Therefore one can conclude that the total area would stabilize at the 2.7 M. ha. level.

4.1.1 Farmers Participation

Tamil Nadu Water Policy 1994 and Government of India IX Five Year Plan approach paper emphasise on the involvement of Farmers’ participation in the Irrigation system management to improve the efficiency of the system.  Tamil Nadu Government has undertaken a Seven year project “Water Resources Consolidation Project”  with the assistance of World Bank.  The project envisages the joint management by irrigation official and farmers at the initial stage, which will end with transfer of Operation and Maintenance of the system to the farmers organisation.  This is in consonance with the worldwide development in the irrigation sector.  The farmers of Tamil Nadu are hitherto organising themselves into WUAs here and there.  Many such organisations are functioning for a number of decades successfully spread over the state.  Therefore taking over the system operation and maintenance responsibility may not be a problem.  This may ensure efficient use of water and maximise production.  This may also facilitate diversion of water resources to meet the demand from other sectors.

4.2  Ground water

In the groundwater front, it is assessed that 89 Panchayat Unions (P.U.) are under dark area, which is 35 percent of total dark in the country.  Out of which in 50 PU, more than 100 percent of recharge  is being pumped out indicating groundwater mining.  It is estimated that 8 PU will fall under this category soon, Similarly, 24 percent of grey area in the Country lies in Tamil Nadu.  If this trend is not checked, it may end up in Irrigation iduced drought.  These area are situated in the hard rock area.  Water saving irrigation application systems such as drip and sprinkler only can help the farmers to grow successful crops with lesser quantity of water.  The ninth plan approach paper is also stressing the use of these systems.  In the Parambikulam – Aliyar Command area is extended to stress the need for providing protective irrigation for a large extent of land.  At present they are receiving irrigation  water once in 2 years.  Many farmers are now developing coconut farms.  These farmers are now proposing to use drip irrigation system using canal water in order to conserve water and spread it over a large extent of land.  If implemented this may be the first such attempt in the whole of India.

In the Anna  University, adoptive research trials are undertaken to have shifting lateral pipes for drip systems for closed interval crops to reduce the capital cost.  If this is provided adoptable by the farmers there will be total change in the selection of irrigation methods in the future and hence leads towards conservation of water.

4.3  Drinking Water

In the drinking water front, per capita available water in Tamil Nadu is one tenth of the Country’s average.  At present Chennai is supplying water at the rate of 70 lpd percapita.  The demand of Chennai metro area will increase from the present demand of 910 to 942 M. lpd to 1400 M. lpd by 2011.  Even after Telugu Ganga Scheme is executed to transfer 15 TMC of water from Krishna to Chennai, it may not be able to meet the demand at even today’s supply level in 2011.  Though desalination plant is the technological option to increase the water supply for the Coastal City like Chennai, the high cost is the stumbling block.  New Technological breakthrough is needed to reduce the cost of conversion of salt water in to fresh water.  It is estimated upto 50 percent water is lost in transmission and wastages.  To avoid or reduce wastage Five Year Plan document emphasizes here also to involve the user in the planning and O&M stages.  Now the Government of Tamil Nadu has proposed to treat the sewage water at a cost of Rs.572 crores and part of the treated water will be supplied to the industries.

4.4  Value of Water

Application efficiency of the water in India is only 40 percent.  (M.S. Reddy, 1992).  Mere improving the water use efficiency in the irrigation system by 10 to 15 percent the irrigated area can be doubled (Keller 1986) National Water Policy 1987 says “ Water rates should be such as to convey the scarcity value of the resource to the users and to foster the motivation for economy in water use”.  But irrigation water rates have not been revised in the last 10-20 years.  In Tamil Nadu it was done in the year 1962.  On an average the cost of water works out to Rs.0.91 per thousand litres.  The prevailing highest water rate for rice and sugarcane are 1.2 paise and 11.1 paise per thousand litres respecctively (Jayant Patel, 1995).  As the water rates are very nominal the farmers are not feeling the real economic value of water.

4.5  Farmers’ Rights

The days are changing now.  The agency cannot expect the users to accept whatever is allocated to them in future.  Warabandi is a system of allocation of water for irrigation being adopted in North and North West India since 1850.  The time and duration of allocation will be intimated to the farmers in advance.  A farmer Bulandshahr District, Uttar Pradesh has challenged the reallocation order of an Irrigation Engineer under Monopoly Restrictive Trade Practice (MRTP) (MOWR, GOI 1996).  The court ruled that the irrigation provided by the Department is the service, which will also be covered under MRTP acts.  This shows that the Indian farmers are awakened and they will fight for their rights in future.


Though the  development  in the  irrigation  sector in Tamil Nadu is commendable, the resources utilisation efficiency is poor.  The farmers have to understand the value of scarce water resources and put it to economical use.  Then their involvement in the water resource sector will ensure proper upkeep of the system and amicable resolution of disputes will come about.  The farmers have to take a major part in the system management in future.


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N.V. Pundarikanthan :

Ph.D., research on “Interference effect on multiple turbulent jets” from the University of Minnesota.  For the past five years he continues as the Director, Centre for Water Resources and Ocean Management.  At present there are 26 projects under progress related to water Resources and Ocean Management under him. He has participated in several international and national seminars, workshops and published over 100 papers.  Visited U.S, France, Sweden, Philippines, Singapore, Srilanka, China and Egypt.

Mohandoss :

Ph. D., thesis on “Some organisational and operational aspects of Irrigation in Tamilnadu” in 1996.  Currently he is Asst. Professor in Irrigation Water Management.  Undergone a number of training programmes in the country and a six week programme at the Utah State University, Utah, USA.  Guided 15 Master of Engineering thesis.  Co-author for an edited hand book and presented 17 papers in seminars / workshops.  Visited USA and Srilanka.