Below Sea Level
By M Suchitra
15 July, 2003
It's God's own land, the
Immodest Green of Arundhati Roy. The palm-fringed emerald islets are
surrounded by vast expanses of water. The picture-perfect beauty makes
Kuttanad the very essence of Kerala's backwater experience. It is a
waterlogged stretch of about 1,10,000 hectares; and 50,000 ha of the
region are even 60 centimetres to 220 centimetres below sea level. For
the better part of the year, most of the land is submerged. It has the
distinction of being one of the few areas in the world where farming
is carried out below sea level. Four major rivers in the State
the Pampa, the Meenachil, the Achankovil and the Manimala flow
into the region. For about 1.8 million people of Kuttanad, it is water,
And yet, when it comes to
drinking water, they need to wait for the call that heralds water supply
twice a week, often at night. The water call sometimes comes over the
telephone, too! The officials at Kuttanad Water Supply Scheme (KWSS)
located 40 kilometres away in Thiruvalla will telephone the panchayat
president when water comes in the pipe. He will then pass on the message
to the houses where telephones are available. Men, women and children
jump into their changaadams (tiny rowboats). Across the canal, they
rush to the public water tap. When the tap runs dry, they pick up their
pots, sometimes half full, and return home to resume their interrupted
slumber. "We get piped water only twice a week, that too for an
hour often at night," says Omana, one of the inhabitants. "Though
surrounded by water, we live like sparrow-hawks; always looking out
for drinking water."
A boat ride will take you
around the vast and beautiful stretches of backwaters. You will see
women washing clothes, cleaning vessels, and collecting water for cooking
and drinking all from the same canal along which your boat speeds
by. At places, toilet waste is let out into the same canal. Many households
have toilets built with direct outlets into the canals and streams of
the backwater system. You will also be aghast to see villagers using
the dark oily water polluted by pesticides from the rice fields. Solid
waste from the medical colleges at Alappuzha and Kottayam, sewage from
the municipalities of Kottayam, Thiruvalla, Changanassery and Alappuzha,
the oil and faecal waste from about 300 house boats which ply between
Alappuzha and Kumarakom all find an outlet in the Vembanad lake.
"We have developed immunity
to all poisons," Kuttappayi, an inhabitant of the Kainakari village
islet says cynically. "Even a cupful of pesticide would not kill
us. Our daily intake of poison through water is much more than that."
Kuttappayi's friend, Sabu, echoes him: "We are so used to the highly
polluted water that if we drink pure water we may get dysentery."
Kainakari is only one of 54 villages in the backwaters of Kuttanad in
central Kerala that face an acute water scarcity. Kainakari, with over
6,000 households and 30,000 people, does not have even one public tap
to supply safe water. Although the state government had commissioned
a huge overhead tank in 1989 spending Rs. 70 lakhs, the tank has not
seen a drop of water since it was built.
According to surveys by the
Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode,
more than 80 per cent of the people in Kuttanad rely on the contaminated
canal water for their daily water requirements. About 40 per cent of
them use the water without boiling it first. Interestingly, there are
people who actually prefer the canal water to piped water. Says Chandramati,
a housewife from a not-so-well-off family in Arayiram Kara, Kainakari,
"If food is cooked in piped water, it gets spoilt by midday, but
if it is cooked in canal water, it lasts till night."
have, in fact, only worked to hurt Kuttanad's fragile ecosystem. For
instance, the Thannermukkan bund was constructed across the Vembanad
lake in 1975, constructed to obstruct saline water intrusion into the
paddy fields during the dry season, and thus bolster paddy cultivation.
"The natural flushing in the entire Lower Kuttanad affected by
tidal movements has ceased and water levels in the upstream region have
dropped," says Madhusoodana Kurup, a fisheries expert of the Indo-Dutch
team that conducted a water balance study in Kuttanad during 1988-90.
The result is that the waterbody tends to become stagnant, leading to
pollution. Aquatic weeds have also grown to epidemic proportions.
The economic rationale of
private owners of paddy fields therefore suggests that they convert
their fields to non-agricultural purposes. They are not concerned about
the ecological and environmental imbalances caused, the resultant societal
loss of the economic functions of the wetland nor the economic value
of the bio-diversity of wetland ecosystems.
The environmental and ecological
crisis that Kerala faces is so acute that about two-thirds of the State's
population does not have access to safe drinking water. Kerala, one
of the wettest regions in India, gets an average rainfall of about 300
millimetres of rain spread over a six or seven-month period. Despite
this heavy rainfall, an acute drinking water shortage is felt even in
the lower areas.
During the last three
decades, as many as 30 committees have studied the problems of Kuttanad
and submitted their reports to the state government. But so far, no
effective measures have been taken by the authorities. "All these
committees comprised experts from various fields, but not a single person
who really understands the peculiarities of Kuttanad," complains
Prof. John Mathai, an environmentalist who lives in Melppadam, an area
of Upper Kuttanad. According to him, Kuttanad is always illogically
compared to Holland, which is also situated below sea level. "Those
who formulate various projects for Kuttanad seem to think that what
is feasible in Holland should work in Kuttanad too! This is nonsense.
The climate, the vegetation, the way the rivers flow everything
Although exclusive water
supply projects, like the KWSS, have been implemented, they have failed
to meet the needs of the area. Water is treated and stored in tanks
in Thiruvalla and Changanassery, 25 km to 40 km away from Kuttanad,
and is first supplied to the residents. With the towns growing in size
and population, there is an increased demand for water. Result: Kuttanad's
problem worsens. And tubewells are no solution either. The groundwater
is far too acidic.
Even a few years ago, most
inhabitants relied on the natural ponds and tanks maintained by each
household for potable water, and the canals running by the side were
used for bathing and washing. However, new roads and the large-scale
reclamation of paddy fields for construction purposes have led to the
blockage of canals at several places. Viswambharan Nair, a retired village
officer in Kaavaalam, believes that the arrival of the Kerala Water
Authority's supply taps compounded the problem. "People neglected
or abandoned the ponds hoping that tap water would be available through
the year," he says.
Father Thomas Peelianickal,
vicar of Fathima Matha Church in Pulikunnu, believes that rainwater
harvesting is the only possible solution to the drinking water scarcity
in the area. "People think drinking water is a commodity that should
be supplied by the government. This attitude should change first."
During the Sabarimala pilgrimage
season, some four million people cross the Pamba river to reach the
hill shrine, and the river turns into a cesspool of human waste, raw
sewage, and domestic and commercial garbage. Because pilgrims defecate
on the river banks and in the vicinity for miles together, faecal matter
gets washed into the river water. "True, some temporary steps are
taken to provide basic sanitary facilities to the pilgrims. But, all
the waste generated reaches the river which finally gets into the Kuttanad
water system,'' complains N.K. Sukumaran Nair, General Secretary, Pamba
Smarakshana Samiti, an NGO instrumental in getting the Pampa included
in the National River Conservation Programme (NRCP).
According to Kerala State
Pollution Control Board statistics, the coliform bacteria count in 100
millilitres (ml) of water in the Pampa at Sabarimala is 200,000. When
the river reaches Edathwa in Kuttanad, the count is 48,700.
No wonder then, outbreaks
of epidemics like rat fever and diarrhoea have seen an alarming increase.
According to statistics available with the district medical officer,
Alappuzha, 18 persons died of wheel's disease till October in 2002.
The count for 2001 was 23. The total number of those suffering from
diarrhoea in 2001 was 19,570. Statistics at the Alappuzha Medical College
show an increase in filariasis, schistosomiasis, typhoid, jaundice,
intestinal cancer, gastroenteritis and cholera. Says R. Visakhan, president
of the Kainakari panchayat, "A few months back, ministers came
visiting because of a cholera epidemic. After the epidemic passed, no
one bothered at all. There is no attempt to address the root cause:
the scarcity of drinking water." Over the past 10 years, diarrhoeal
diseases resulting from inadequate water and sanitation have killed
over 5,000 in Kuttanad.
Kuttanad is a testimony to
misplaced and impractical developmental schemes. The backwaters itself
are vanishing due to encroachment. The Vembanad lake has been reduced
to one-third its size, with 65 per cent reclaimed by the government
or people. Only 23 per cent of the backwaters remain in Kerala and a
part of this is under bunds and barriers. Fish species get extinct in
bunds, as there is no way for them to disperse and breed. The land of
rivers and eternal monsoons is currently dependent on tankers supplying
drinking water. Now, the demand for water is constant and thirsty people
are willing to pay as much as they are willing to live. In the lowest
income groups, people pay a wholly disproportionate share of their income
to locally run private water companies. All in all a tragedy.
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