Travails of a waterscape

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2008

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God's own country is an epithet commonly used for Kerala. Boat races, idyllic waters, emerald green paddy fields, carelessly strewn banana plants attract tourists who laze on boat decks and survey the tranquil rural scenes. But they do not know that all is not well with Kerala's famous wetlands. Vembanad lake in Kuttanad district is a case in point.

Sprawling over 150,000 hectares, it is the largest tropical wetland in India's southwest coast. Ten rivers that originate in the Western Ghats flow into the wetland. Vembanad supports a diverse water fowl and fish population. In the past, farmers were careful in not upsetting the wetland's ecology. But trouble began in the 1950s when large portions of Vembanad were reclaimed by farmers as part of the Grow More Food campaign launched by the post-independent state to deal with grain shortage.

As pioneer farmers drained water and land-filled the drained portions, they created an agrarian aberration farms below sea-level. The paddy fields they created were lower than water levels that bordered them and fitted well with the idyllic environs.

The crisis But the economics of wetland cultivation makes it far from lucrative. Production costs have spiralled while cultivation has declined. Migration of farm labour, a historical trend that has intensified in the post liberal era, is a decisive factor in the decline. Fish stock has decreased due to land reclamation and pollution. There is high level of duck mortality.

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Idyllic no more pollution from houseboats
is one of Vembanad’s worries
Vembanad is today extremely polluted. People staying close to borders of the lake do not have proper sanitary facilities. Most house boats dump tourist waste directly into the water. The Pamba river brings waste from the famous pilgrim centre, Sabrimala. There is some respite during the monsoon months. But vector-borne diseases spread during this season. For instance, chickungunya and dengue touched epidemic proportions in the past few monsoons. Municipal and even hospital waste is dumped into the lake without proper treatment. Add to this, pesticide residues from paddy fields. All this has serious implications on health, especially because a majority of people drink Vembanad's water.

The processes that contribute to the health crisis are also conservation challenges. Water stagnation along with reduction of salinity (due to manipulation of sea water flow for paddy cultivation) has created what scientists term as eutrophication. The process involves nutritive pollution that creates conditions conducive for algae-like plants including weeds. Such growth stifles dissolved oxygen. In Vembanad the widespread presence of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a good indicator of eutrophication. This has lead to loss of aquatic life especially fish. Treating such water is extremely difficult.

Health and Conservation Conservationists have a common phrase threats posed by humans to ecosystems. If people are to have stakes in conserving coastal wetlands, this phrase has to be altered as 'threats also posed by ecosystems to human health'. If people are to participate in Vembanad's conservation then one needs to go beyond building economic stakes. Farmers and Vembanad's fisherfolk can be good conservation partners if authorities implement sanitary and drinking water schemes in a decentralized manner, and also regulate pollution by industries. But then all responsibility is not that of the authorities. People should develop a sense of hygiene and a culture of conservation.

The authors are with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore

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