Water woes in wet Kerala

More than 2,000 mm of rain in 2003 but crops destroyed and farmers committing suicide; crores spent on 31 irrigation projects but villages going thirsty; 44 rivers but groundwater is sinking. After travelling through Kerala, T V JAYAN finds a drought amid water all around

see also:

Published: Monday 31 May 2004

Water woes in wet Kerala

-- With Parliamentary polls nearing, politicians turned the drought into an opportunity for wooing voters by running water tankers. Water scarcity was debated at street-corner campaign meetings, and rival political parties blamed each other and even the monsoon for the crisis.

The India Meteorological Department considers south west monsoon to be deficient if rainfall is below 20 per cent of the average annual rainfall. Since 1980 Kerala has suffered seven years of deficient rainfall and another five years of below normal rainfall, but it's surprising that even then no one saw this year's drought coming. An analysis of the south west monsoon since 1998 shows that except Thiruvananthapuram in 2001 all districts have been receiving highly deficient rainfall in most years (see table: Falling rains). The state government estimates that it has lost Rs 2,844 crore due to this year's drought. The same amount as the Central government's budget allocation for Jammu and Kashmir in 2003-2004.

Bitter harvest for farmers
The drought has made 42-year-old farmer John Peter a pauper. When he started farming six years ago in Vadakarapathi village in Palakkad district, he had Rs 4 lakh in his bank account. Today he owes Rs 2 lakh in debts. "All because I decided to take up farming as my occupation. With shrivelled coconut, tapioca and tindora plantations all around, my 10-acre land looks like a graveyard," he says. Last year Peter harvested 30 tonnes of tindora: this year he has got just five quintals. He drilled the bore well in his farm to a further 650 feet (over 200 m) this year but even then he gets just an hour's water to irrigate crops. And the bore well doesn't give drinking water - for that Peter and his family are at the mercy of tankers.

Peter is lucky -- he got at least something from his land. Thousands of farmers didn't bother to care for their crops because there was little water in the canals. Palakkad district takes pride in being Kerala's largest rice producer, but this time in its Chittoor taluk farmers harvested paddy much before the first grain sprouted so that they could at least save the hay for their cattle. "They did not have much choice," says Sudevan, a member of Karshaka Sangham, a CPM-affiliated farmers' organisation.

Palakkad with its large rain-shadow area should be getting bountiful water, but in its villages like Vadakarapathi, Ezhuthrampari and Kozhinjampara this was the fourth successive drought. Palakkad's trouble became worse when Tamil Nadu released less water from the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project in 2003. According to a long-standing agreement, Tamil Nadu, which gets water from the Chalakudi river basin in Kerala, is supposed to divert 7.5 thousand million cubic feet (TMC FT) of this water to Palakkad every year. But it only released 4.1 TMC FT till February which was too little for the thousands of farmers owning 20,000 hectares of paddy field. The entire crop was destroyed. "This canal system is important to us because it brings water to the remotest places. It irrigates paddy fields and also rejuvenates ponds and wells," says 62-year-old Kesavan, a farmer in Chandanapuram village in Chittoor.

In the high ranges of Idukki district, which produces 75 per cent of India's cardamom, farmers fear one-third of their crop will fail. "Cardamom needs 2,400 to 2,800 mm of annual rainfall. Otherwise the plants will stop yielding though they may not dry up," says P Basak, former executive director of Kozhikode-based Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM). But this year the drought was so severe that in Nedumkandam, which grows the maximum cardamom in Idukki, the plants dried up.

A sample survey done by B A Prakash, head of economics department, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, in 30 agricultural clusters across the state found that the drought had destroyed principal crops. Based on inputs from 900 medium and marginal farmers, the survey found that on an average a farmer lost Rs 17,524 because of damaged crops. About 81 per cent of the rabi paddy in the surveyed areas was fully or partially damaged, and production is estimated to fall by 46 per cent. Plantain and tapioca plantations too will suffer heavy losses, says the survey. Compared to seasonal crops, perennial crops like areca nut, pepper, coconut, cardamom and rubber suffered more damage during the drought.

Unable to accept the severe loss caused by the failure of pepper and coffee crops and the burden of loans, 11 farmers have committed suicide in Wayanad district since April 2004. The rate of suicides among the state's farmers has risen to 32 persons per lakh in 2002 from 13 per lakh two decades ago. Kerala has the highest rate of suicide in the country, but farmers killing themselves is all together a new trend in the state.

Water sinking, power out
Kerala was boiling in anger because of the drought. Chief Minister A K Antony was made aware of this rudely when he toured drought-affected areas in March 2004. Thousands of residents of Rosappookandam, a resettlement colony near Thekkady Periyar Sanctuary in Idukki district, waylaid him for hours and told him that they get drinking water supply only once a week. Antony promised that the problem would be solved soon, but "it is more than a month since he visited us and our grievance remains the same," says Shajahan, a tourist guide at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The 4,000-odd residents of Rosappookandam came here when the Idukki dam was constructed in 1974. And for these 4,000 residents, there is just one public tap. "We haven't got even one bucket-full of water since the tap was installed three years ago," says Shajahan. Right under the village, a pipe carries water to Tamil Nadu from the Thekkady reservoir. Shajahan feels the pipe is cruel joke on the village. "Look at the irony. Through a vent in the pipe, we can see water flowing 300 m below. We listen to the flowing water all the time but we do not have a drop to drink," he says.

If Rosappookandam has a water pipe but not water, Kuttanad in Alapuzha district has 1,100 square kilometres of wetlands but its 1.8 million people don't have clean drinking water (see: 'Waterhunt', Down To Earth, September 30, 2002). The Pampa, Achankovil, Manimala and Meenachil rivers empty freshwater into the wetlands, but ponds in most Kuttanad villages are so dirty that they can't be used even for washing. Since March 2004, the Kerala Water Authority (KWA) has been supplying treated drinking water to Kuttanad. It needs an estimated 18 MLD (million litres per day) of drinking water. But " KWA supplies eight to 10 MLD from its main treatment plant in Thiruvalla," says Thomas Cherian, executive engineer at Kuttanad Water Supply Scheme. Hundreds of country boats fill municipal water of the Thiruvalla pumping station in plastic tanks and haul them to villages located in the backwaters. "Year after year people in Kuttanad have been facing drinking water shortage," says Father Thomas Peelianickal, executive director of Kuttanad Vikasana Samithy, a non-governmental organization (NGO). Kuttanad, once called the rice bowl of Kerala, was lucky to harvest paddy this time but the yield was low because its water is becoming more saline.

As if running out of water isn't bad enough, a power crisis looms over the state. As many as 15 hydroelectric projects in the state, including the one at Idukki, produced 7,305 million units (MU) of electricity in 1998-99, the figure fell to 4,819 MU in 2002-03 and this year an all time low of 4,314 MU is expected from hydroelectric projects. This drop in power generation is blamed on poor rainfall. Considering that Kerala gets almost 60 per cent of its power from Tamil Nadu and other states, under-performing hydroelectric projects mean severe economic loss.

In Wayanad's forest reserves the drought brought a tragedy. With almost all water bodies in the sanctuaries drying up, forest department officials saved animals by digging artificial ponds and filling them with water transported by tankers. But not before five elephants and several bison died of thirst. Deers, which strayed into human habitats for water, were chased and killed by dogs.

Drought and disaster
Why didn't John Peter get enough water for his crops? Why do Kerala's people have to drink stale water supplied by trucks? Why did farmers in Chittoor harvest their paddy before time? Why does a state with 3,000 mm of rain each year -- almost three times more than the national average -- suffer droughts? It's true that Kerala has an extremely high population density (about 800 people per square km), but the water available through rainfall per capita per day is approximately a massive 11,500 litres. Why then can't several parts of the state get even 50-60 litres of water for domestic use per person daily?

"Inefficient water and land management practices are the principal causes for this crisis," says Srikumar Chattopadhyay, a scientist at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS).

"Soil in Kerala can retain water only for a maximum of three months. Unless, it is replenished periodically through precipitation many parts of the state will face acute water shortage," says A Achyuthan, a hydrologist and a former professor at National Institute of Technology in Kozhikode.

But for decades marshy lands and wetlands, which recharge groundwater and help in retaining soil moisture, have been reclaimed for constructing houses and setting up coconut and other plantations. Forests play a key role in holding soil together and retaining rainwater, but large-scale deforestation has been occurring in the state since the seventies. Forests help in orographic or convectional rainfall (rain in hills during evening). Kerala had an estimated forest cover of 44.4 per cent in 1900. Independent studies and satellite images show the forest cover came down to 14.7 per cent in 1983 and is 9 per cent now. But the state government, which regards plantations as forests, says the cover is 27 per cent.

Kerala has a high vertical slope and its average breadth is 50 km; because of this 41 of its 44 rivers originating in the Western Ghats empty into the Arabian Sea in less than 48 hours after a rain. Atmospheric scientist P R Pisharody has calculated that the momentum of raindrops falling over Kerala is about six to seven times higher than that in Britain.

Kerala has an estimated 77.35 billion cubic metres (BCM) of fresh water, but nearly 40 per cent of the water resources are lost as run off. This loss means only 42 BCM of water is available though the state needs 49.70 BCM for irrigation, domestic use, industries and other purposes annually. This shortage leads to people exploiting groundwater so severely that the water table in several districts has fallen to 200-250 m. Ponds and lakes too recharge wells, provide water for domestic use, irrigate crops and ensure groundwater isn't over-exploited. But there is no policy for preserving small water bodies.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.