Bala explaining mechanisms of water contamination
Bala explaining mechanisms of water contamination

15 December 2016, Kotagiri: Eight youth from indigenous communities underwent a training on the basics of Springshed Managment at the Keystone campus on 12-13 December 2016. They were from four areas – Kotagiri, Pillur, Hasanur and Punanjanur, and would be working on spreading awareness regarding the water situation in the Nilgiris, gathering data on water resources and usage and mapping water resources.

The programme began with an outline of topics to be discussed, types of water sources and their recharge systems, water cycle, ground water and the importance of springs. Senthil from Hasanur said that in some areas the people dig shallow pits for water, but water collects only the next day. The importance of engaging with the villagers was highlighted using this example as it is only traditional knowledge that allows the communities to know places where water can be found just a foot or two below the surface. In many areas, springs have lost their importance with borewells and handpumps being the main source of drinking water. The participants also observed that a lot of wells were present along the banks of a stream.

Vellaiyan mentioned an area in Pillur where water welling out of the ground at one point tastes salty but a nearby spring has better tasting water. Gokul responded that water is an universal solvent and minerals from rocks leach out into the water giving it a distinctive taste and that taste also depends on the amount of time that the water has been in contact with the rock. Gokul explained about hill wetlands which, thought very small in size, are crucial for regulating the flow of water downhill, preventing flash floods. During the presentation, he shared pictures of a spring source in Coonoor and then the landscape showing them how the area above the spring needs to be conserved to ensure a perennial spring. Springs are the lifeline of hill communities and though, traditionally springs have always existed, the question is how many of them are alive today and what is the quality of water it is discharging. ACWADAM, an organisation working across India on water-related issues water, estimated that India has 2 million springs. But there isn’t any specific data on the number and quality of these springs. One of the tasks that the water team is engaged in is to map springs in as many areas as possible in the Nilgiris.

 Gokul explaining geology
Gokul explaining geology

The next section of the training dealt with geology. The formation of the five types of springs – depression, contact, fracture, fault and karst, was explained. Springs in the NBR are mostly depression springs or contact springs and discharge varies with the amount of rainfall in the catchment areas. Tectonic plates, rock types – igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary, its formation and subsequent degradation into soil (rock cycle) were also discussed with the aim of bringing home to the volunteers the larger picture of which a spring is a part and the factors that impact a spring.  After this training, they were able to look at water in the larger context of a landscape rather than an isolated resource.

The second half of the day was dedicated to water quality and the session was conducted by Bala. The participants were aware that if water is not clean, there is the danger of diseases and that disease incidence increases during monsoons when a lot of dirt and contaminants are washed by rainwater into the water source. Contamination of water can be anthropogenic (caused by man) or geogenic (as a result of rock properties). This makes it crucial that the communities be able to monitor water quality and know the significance of each substance present in it. Water quality checks for physical, chemical and biologic characteristics of water from a single source. The physical parameters tested are pH, turbidity, colour, odour, hardness, etc. The chemical parameters tested are nitrate, chloride, iron, fluoride, phosphate, heavy metals and toxins, etc. Long term consumption of water with high levels of any of these elements will have adverse effects on health. Examples were given of too much of nitrate in the water causes eutrophication (reduction in oxygen supply to tissue), resulting in blue baby syndrome and excess of fluoride causing erosion of bones and teeth.

Testing water quality
Testing water quality

Shivanna from Punanjanur said that a seepages and wells in his area had water with a reddish tint and with an oily film on top. Bala explained that in the absence of industrial pollutants, this would be because of an excess of iron in the water. The soil in that area would be clayey, which has low oxygen content. This causes ferrous oxide from rocks to easily leach into the soil and water. Such water would have an oily film on top, be coloured red or yellow, and also have a distinct metallic taste. The simplest way to remove excess iron is to agitate the water stored in tanks so that atmospheric oxygen mixes with it and iron precipitates out.

The presence of biological factors such as bacteria, virus, fungi, and algae are also tested for. The most important among these is faecal coliform bacteria. The presence of coliform bacteria indicates that faecal waste is contaminating water. One of the reasons for this is faulty containment structures (septic tanks) that allows untreated waste water to leach into ground water. Compounding factors would be lack of vegetation, the roots of which would have been able to clean the water before it reached groundwater, or the extreme proximity of the septic tank to a water source.

Happy Valley - habitat restoration site
Happy Valley – habitat restoration site

The volunteers went to Happy Valley in Kotagiri for a short field visit on the first day. They observed the spring and spring box in the valley, the adjoining wetland and the catchment area. The Happy Valley restoration project was explained to them and how restoring an area of less than an acre above the wetland had improved quality of water in the valley and also made the spring a perennial one. The volunteers were given the questionnaires related to springs inventory, wells inventory and water quality. Data to be collected included geolocation of the spring, type of spring, dimensions of spring, volume of discharge, infrastructure, sanitation, seasonality, details of ownership, usage and details of surroundings. The questionnaire related to water quality requires the use of the multi-parameter testing device that measures total dissolved substances, pH (acidity/alkalinity), electrical conductivity, salinity and temperature of a water sample; all of which will be recorded.

MGR Nagar - measuring spring discharge
MGR Nagar – measuring spring discharge

Despite rainy and foggy weather conditions on the second day, the group went for a field visit to Coonoor where the water programme has been active for many years. They visited the spring box at MGR Nagar and a well in Edapally where a practical demonstration on completing the springs and wells inventories was conducted. The volunteers will be starting work immediately in and around a total of about 75 villages. Data collected over time by them will contribute immensely to developing village water security plans and increasing knowledge about water resources in the Nilgiris.

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