ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Harvesting the Rain

Despite its lush climate, Kerala has a water problem

Kerala, in southwest India, is famous for its rivers and lush vegetation, a landscape made possible by an annual rainfall greater than most Indian states — three times that of Karnataka to the north and twice as high as Tamil Nadu, which borders Kerala to the east.

Wayanad is Kerala’s wetter district, perched in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that is the source of many of Kerala’s rivers. And yet, there are many residents there who spend hours each day procuring drinkable water.

“Despite being a well-educated society, people have forgotten to implement a water management policy,” said Father Joseph Matthew, who directs the Center for Overall Development, a social works organ of the Eparchy of Thamarasserry, a diocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

For years, Lucy Joy walked about half a mile several times a day to a friend’s well to draw water for her family’s needs. “I’d walk with a pot of water on my head, which weighs about 15 pounds,” she said. “My daughter was always late for school; she also had to fetch water for the family.” Between 32 and 53 gallons of water are needed every day for the average-size family in Kerala.

The situation is the same for thousands of the region’s poorer residents. Though Celine Joseph’s house was surrounded by rubber plantations and other lush vegetation, there was no potable water. Several times a day, she made the two-mile round-trip trek to the nearest well. For bathing and laundry, she and her family would walk to a nearby stream.

The tanks have improved the lives of women, freeing them from the drudgery of long treks for water.

Lack of potable water affects many of the world’s poor. Of the world’s 6.6 billion people, roughly one billion lack access to drinkable water, according to the World Health Organization. About five million people die each year as a result, many from diseases such as diarrhea, schistosomiasis or trachoma. In India, the problem is exacerbated by overpumping of key aquifers and soil contamination from irrigation water. In Kerala, said Father Matthew, rainwater runs off the land into the sea, thanks to erosion.

CNEWA’s Ernakulam staff has teamed with Father Matthew to address the problem in his eparchy, identifying 50 impoverished families whose lives were encumbered by the daily search for potable water. Ten-thousand-liter cement storage tanks (about 2,640 gallons per tank) were built next to each family house. The tanks are fed with rainwater harvested on the roofs and gutters of each house and channeled to the tanks by leaders and pipes. Each household contributed labor and a small portion of the funds for materials, but the bulk of the cost was provided by CNEWA’s benefactors.

The tanks have allowed the families to focus their energies on other activities. Mrs. Joy now supplements her family’s meager income making small paper envelopes that she sells to health clinics — and her children arrive at school on time.

“Now, we can grow vegetables in a nearby garden,” she said. “We get organic food, safe drinking water and time and energy for me to work and our children to study. We will have a little extra cash every month to help toward the kids’ schooling. The tanks made this possible.”

The tanks fill up rapidly during Kerala’s monsoon season, in June and July, but in the dry months families must ration their water use carefully. In May, the tanks were nearly empty and the summer rains still a few weeks away.

This project has also led to spinoff cooperative initiatives. In the village of Mysoorpatta, the families that now have water tanks also have formed a savings club. Each household contributes 20 rupees — about 50 cents — each month, forming a pool from which loans can be made.

The participants have similar life stories. Their parents came to northern Kerala from Kottayam, which lies in the center of the state, hoping to find a better life during the hard economic times of the 1940’s. But mostly, these families and their descendants have remained poor, consigned to working the vast estates of the district as day laborers.

In such circumstances, small efforts like building water tanks can have outsized effects. The tanks have improved the lives of women, freeing them from the drudgery of long treks for water. After getting a tank last year, Thresiama Thomas was free to seek work. She ended up taking a job with the Center for Overall Development. Now, she spends time in the field, identifying needs particularly among the adivasi, tribal peoples living in remote self-contained communities. She also runs a small home business, sewing clothes and selling homemade soda water.

Father Joseph Matthew hopes the program will be emulated by others throughout Kerala.“What we need is a change in attitude, and I think this project can serve as a model on water management for the entire state.”

This is photojournalist Sean Sprague’s 50th contribution to ONE magazine. Jomi Thomas is a staff writer for CNEWA’s Ernakulam office.

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