The curse of plenty

If Kerala can't solve its water problem, who can?

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- THE steady downward trend of rainfall in Kerala for the past five years went unnoticed. The rapid fall in groundwater, too, didn't raise eyebrows. With 44 rivers and an annual average rainfall of 3,000 mm, Kerala goes to sleep with sweet dreams of water all around. But in February 2004, the state woke up with a bad dream. A drought in Kerala is shocking news, as is suicide by 11 farmers in Wayanad district (since April 2004). The state government claims a loss of Rs 2,844 crore due to drought. Farmers have to make additional investment to deepen borewells, with the water table touching the depth of 250 metres in some places.

This epitomises our polity's lack of foresight. Modern society has a bad habit of reaching for the last bit of resource very easily, assuming that additional capital investment will bring more of it. Kerala has reached for the last drop all too quickly. A sense of plenty has wreaked havoc, high literacy and science education notwithstanding. Since 1956, the state has spent Rs 3,245 crore on irrigation projects to service large-scale paddy cultivation. But the area under paddy has declined by more than 50 per cent area in the last 46 years. This excessive investment on irrigation hasn't helped the drinking water crisis. In Kerala, paddy helps recharge groundwater. So the loss in paddy area is opportunity lost in groundwater recharge too. Nobody's studied if the decline in rainfall is linked to a long-term metereological change. There is no sign of public research to find out how Kerala can manage its rainfall endowment.

It took a conflict with a soft-drink manufacturer to reveal the severity of groundwater extraction in the state. Excessive sandmining is also causing public protests -- experts fear that all sand in seven rivers in Greater Kochi region will be over in decade. But a powerful nexus wins over the science of riverflow.

It seems that all the science movement and education drive has gone to waste in Kerala. And its hourglass has no sand anymore.

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