Climate Change

Drought grips Kodagu: Cauvery river runs dry, posing threat to wildlife and livelihoods

Coffee farms & tourism, Kodagu’s mainstays, are running into losses; land sharks responsible for exacerbating drought, say locals

By Coovercolly Indresh
Published: Thursday 02 May 2024
Traditional coracle boats moored on the banks of Cauvery in Kaveri Sangama in Kodagu, back in 2014. Photo: iStock

Karnataka recently saw its capital city come close to a Day Zero. Now, another well-known area of the state is staring at acute water scarcity. Southern Karnataka’s Kodagu district, famous for its coffee estates, is facing an unprecedented drought.

Once characterised by six months of continuous rainfall, the district — home to Talakaveri, the origin of the iconic Cauvery river — now faces a grim reality as the river has dwindled to a trickle, leaving behind parched landscapes. This has dire consequences for human settlements, coffee crops as well as wildlife.

The ‘Ganga of southern India’ presented a stark image of desolation at Dubare, a renowned farming camp nestled in Kushalanagar taluk (sub district).

The riverbed, once full to the brim, is now littered with exposed rocks that are emblematic of the Cauvery’s diminished state.

The Dubare breeding centre’s resident elephants, reliant on the river for sustenance, now grapple with scarcity as their thirst remains unquenched.

The absence of water has not only deprived wildlife of essential resources but also disrupted livelihoods dependent on the river’s vitality. Tourists, once drawn to the allure of elephant baths and river adventures, are now witness to a stark reality where rafting businesses languish, boat operators idle and guides struggle to eke out a living.

For coffee farmers, the backbone of Kodagu’s economy, the drought poses a dual threat. While the scorching sun accelerates coffee blossoms, the absence of rain spells doom for the crop, leaving farmers grappling with uncertainty and apprehension over potential losses in the coming year.

Concerns reverberate among locals and visitors, lamenting the drastic transformation witnessed firsthand. Once a symbol of abundance and vitality, the Cauvery now stands as a testament to the looming crisis, prompting fears of what the future holds as the drought intensifies with each passing day.  

Groundwater levels have witnessed a notable decrease over the past decade. Data spanning from 2014 to 2023 indicates a consistent decline in the static water levels of both dug wells and borewells.

According to records from the district groundwater office, borewell groundwater levels plummeted to 15.7 metres (m) in 2023, from 13.4 m in 2014. A minor improvement was noted at 12.9 m in 2018.

Similarly, the groundwater level in dug wells exhibited a downward trajectory, decreasing to 6.7 m from 6 m during the same period, with a temporary upturn observed at 5.8 m in 2021.


Sowmya KG, a senior geologist at the district groundwater office in the town of Madikeri, emphasised the direct correlation between the hydrological cycle and precipitation patterns.

She highlighted how increased water extraction during drought periods exacerbated the decline in water levels, underscoring the significance of rainfall deficits in impacting groundwater reserves.

Concerned activists attributed the water crisis in Kodagu to various factors, including rapid urbanisation, excessive exploitation of water sources, and altered rainfall patterns attributed to climate change.

Environmental advocates have urged the adoption of a catchment area conservation policy to protect the region’s essential river catchments. They advocate stringent measures, including limitations on land conversion, controls on urban expansion, and regulation of tourism activities, to safeguard Kodagu’s delicate ecology.

Smelling the coffee

The district boasts nearly 30 per cent of India’s coffee production, with an approximate production of 120,000 tonnes. But it is now reeling under problems. The blossom showers, which are a lifeline for coffee during March and April, have not been received by many villages in the district. The coffee plants are drying up.

Chammatira Pravin Uthappa, a small coffee grower in Ponnampet, told Down To Earth (DTE) that coffee estate owners are facing hardships they have not seen in decades. He said, “If the plants dry, we have to plant new saplings. They take at least another five years to crop.”

The growers were already in distress due to a shortage of labourers and increased production costs. But the drought made matters worse.

“We are suffering from depredations by wild elephant herds. Now, if drought also affects us, we will be on the streets,” Uthappa added.

He pointed out that the increased commercialisation of the district has also contributed to the drought. The lush greenery is being converted into homestays and resorts to attract tourists. Unscientific excavation is a major challenge for the district environment, Uthappa added.

Meanwhile, the Kodava National Council (CNC) has flagged the proposed conversion of approximately 2,400 acres of coffee estates near Siddapur in Kodagu district into housing layouts.

CNC has denounced the move as detrimental to the region’s ecological integrity and cultural heritage. The committee has called for an immediate halt to such large-scale land conversions and stringent action against those involved in the alleged malpractice in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union ministers, and state authorities.

The sprawling Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation coffee estate, situated in close proximity to the Cauvery basin, stands poised for transformation into residential enclaves, signalling the loss of invaluable green cover and exacerbating concerns over environmental degradation.

CNC President NU Nachappa underscored the grave repercussions of rampant urbanisation on the fragile ecosystem of the Cauvery basin. The proposed conversion, he told DTE, not only jeopardises the natural habitat but also exacerbates the looming water scarcity crisis, threatening the very existence of ancient streams and the revered Cauvery and its tributaries.

He drew attention to a similar encroachment near the revered Iggutappa temple in Kakkabe, in Madikeri taluk, where an additional 300 acres are slated for conversion into residential plots.

Nachappa emphasised the urgent need for a thorough investigation into the activities of land sharks. The unchecked expansion of tourism, he said, poses a further threat to Kodagu’s delicate ecosystem.

Suspicions loom over potential encroachments on forest land and the Maldare Wildlife Zone near Siddapura, exacerbating the existing human-wildlife conflict and compounding the ecological challenges facing the region.

The CNC president urged authorities to intervene decisively to halt the conversion of coffee plantations into residential areas, holding accountable all responsible parties, including real estate developers and complicit officials.

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