Climate Change

Puri may have no water left in a decade

Rapid construction and encroachment in Odisha’s main tourist hub threaten water supplies

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Monday 25 February 2019
Puri Jagannath temple
A view of the Puri Jagannath ratha yatra. Credit: Getty Images A view of the Puri Jagannath ratha yatra. Credit: Getty Images

Tourism, which has fuelled the economy of Odisha’s Puri, may now leave the seaside temple-town dry. Relentless construction and encroachment to cater to tourists are siphoning off the city’s water supply.

Puri is home to the Jagannath temple while Konark, a few miles away, has the Sun temple. These, along with several other temples, and the beach ensure a steady footfall in the region.

The 2011 Census pegged Puri’s population at 2 lakhs, but the city houses more than 3 lakh visitors when the temple holds special rituals. A well-oiled network of hotels, guesthouses, monasteries, private homes and apartments cater to them. Unsurprisingly, all of them drawn into limited potable water source.

There has been no study into Puri’s potable, or sweet, groundwater level. State Public Health Department (PHD) officials fear the city may exhaust its supplies in a decade if it continues to draw on only two aquifers. Illegal occupation is a problem. And all this is compounded by climate change.

The sea may ingress into the coasts, affecting fresh water sources apart from endangering lives and livelihoods, says social activist Binapani Mishra.

Fragile topography

Developed along a rectangular stretch of beach dune, Puri is bound by the Bay of Bengal on one side. With a general elevation of about 7 metres, its topography is mostly dotted with dune peaks.

Puri’s humid, tropical climate draws an average 1,372 millimetres rain every year, which recharges two aquifers — Baliapanda and Talabania. At just 50 metres from the beach, however, these unconsolidated formations of sand, pebble, silt and clay are vulnerable to sea water ingression.

Construction and encroachment have been eating into Baliapanda and Talabania, which supply 24 million litres per day (MLD) of Puri’s 32 MLD water requirement. Growing commercial activities, especially in the hospitality sector, means water is being sucked out of the aquifers faster than they can replenish themselves.

Odisha has lost 153.8 km (28 per cent) of its coastline to erosion, according to a July 2018 study by National Centre for Coastal Research. Beaches have shrunk at Satabhaya and Pentha in Kendrapada district and Astaranga in Puri. Strong tidal waves ate away parts of the beach in 2006, 2016 and 2018.

“After experts from various institutes examined the phenomenon, the administration red flagged some areas along the beach. But no concrete steps have been taken to ascertain the real cause of erosion,” a district administration official, who doesn’t want to be named, says.

Decades-old warning

In 1991 the then-PHD chief engineer wrote to the district collector that encroachment over the aquifers at Baliapanda and Talabania was limiting the amount of land available to recharge aquifers with rainwater. If unchecked, this might create a water shortage, he warned.

In 2001 journalist Jagannath Bastia moved the high court. His public interest litigation sought that all construction and encroachments in Baliapanda and Talabania be stopped.

By 2003 the urban development secretary held several meetings and took four important decisions:

First, the district administration was to build walls around the water zones.

Second, encroachers were to be evicted immediately.

Third, the municipality was to cancel leases given to people in zones violating guidelines to protect underground potable water.

And fourth, Puri-Konark Development Authority was asked to identify unauthorised constructions, stop them and not approve any building plans in the areas.

Yet, the sand dunes covered by casuarinas and cashew nut trees that helped recharge groundwater at Baliapanda have been replaced by palatial hotels. Of Puri’s more than 1,100 big and small hotels, around 250 are in Baliapanda and Chakratirtha Road, which sits over Talabania. More are coming up, Puri Hotel Association officials say. Several government buildings and residential apartments have also come up in Talabania.

In 2003 the state pollution control board chairman wrote to the forest and environment secretary, seeking protection for Baliapanda and Talabania. The same year, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) echoed this and blamed construction and encroachment for eating into the area available to recharge groundwater.

The PHD operated 17 shallow tube wells simultaneously for 16 hours a day at Chakratirtha Road to pump out 14,000 cubic metres groundwater, severely threatening supplies, the CGWB said.

“The water table lies only half a metre above the mean sea level (MSL) during pre-monsoon. So, if pumping is not controlled in the summer, it may lead to sea water ingress,” according to its note.

It recommended the district administration to control groundwater withdrawal, restrict construction and ban encroachment in the zones; artificially recharge from a perennial source; and construct a planned sewerage system to avoid contamination to the phreatic aquifer.

To no avail

During the 2006 summer, Ganga and Jamuna — two 900-year-old wells inside the Jagannath Temple whose water was used in the offerings to the deities — dried up.

The matter was raised ahead of Puri’s famous Ratha Yatra and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik formed a probe committee. The five-member panel pointed to the falling groundwater level at Baliapanda. But nothing was done about it.

In 2017, the state Coastal Zone Management Authority dubbed sweet water zones as protected areas —no construction, encroachment or sale and purchase of land is to be permitted.

Inhospitable to water

Hotels in Baliapanda and Chakratirtha Road use motor pumps to draw groundwater, directly affecting the sweet water zone. Bastia identifies this as a major trigger for sea ingression. “At least 40 per cent of Baliapanda’s groundwater has already been contaminated,” he says.

Most hotels don’t harvest rainwater despite repeated reminders, according to an official source. Currently there are no fines for violating regulations.

“We have issued notices to more than 370 hotels for illegally using motors to draw groundwater,” PHD executive engineer Sarat Chandra Mishra says.

Rajkishore Patra, general secretary of a local hoteliers’ association, however says the administration must provide alternatives (like piped water), before banning motors.

The government took up a huge project in 2007 to build a fresh water reservoir in the city’s outskirts and pipe water to homes. The Rs 300-crore project at Samanga under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) is now almost complete, but has failed to reach water to most homes.

The project was supposed to divert water from a nearby river which itself remains dry most of the year, residents say.

The Puri municipality, meanwhile, has asked residents and business leaders to pass constructional plans only with rainwater harvesting.

“Unless the government takes strong actions against those violating building and encroachment rules and devises water-tight strategies to protect underground fresh water sources at Baliapanda and Talabania, the aquifers would be lost to Puri within a decade,” Mishra says adding that the civil society also must rise to the task.

(Reported with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network)

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