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Rain Rich, Water Poor

In India’s tropical state of Kerala, residents are thirsty

Annieamma Joseph’s annual bout of self-pity would begin in early February. At 4 a.m., the shrill ring of her alarm clock would stir the mother of two out of a deep sleep. While the last rains of the northeast monsoon could hardly be described as a distant memory, she would rub her dry eyes as the quest for water dominated her thoughts. Struggling to her feet, she would trudge downhill to fetch it. Despite the dark, she could feel a thick layer of dust coat her feet. And this was just the beginning. Not until early June would the southwest monsoon end the four-month dry season.

“Then I’d think about my responsibility for my boys,” says Mrs. Joseph.

“Who else will do it? I’m their mother, I’ve got to.”

She would rise early to beat the rush to the public well — its recharge capacity had decreased as of late and there was no telling how long the water supply would last. If she waited until dawn more than likely she would have to trek another 15 minutes downhill to the next well. A little less sleep, therefore, seemed a fair tradeoff for the security of having drinking water.

Water conservationists agree the world’s basic human needs for water can be met by improving usage efficiency, passing and enforcing water quality standards, extending infrastructure and tapping new sources of water supply, such as rainwater harvesting. These are not the most easily implemented action steps, for sure. Yet, with appropriate investment of capital and political will, they claim, the goal is attainable, even in Mrs. Joseph’s village of Kallupalam, tucked high in the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.

For that to happen, however, water must be treated less as a commodity that is infinitely replenished and more as a public trust — no one’s property, yet everyone’s property — so that accountability for its management and use ultimately rests with the local community.

In Kerala, poor management of natural resources, shortsighted agricultural practices and political inaction are pushing the limits. How is it possible that Kerala — which receives an annual average rainfall of more than ten feet, nearly three times higher than the national average — has the lowest per capita water availability in India, even lower than the northwestern state of Rajasthan, home of the Thar Desert?

While not equipped to solve the state’s water problem, social service agencies of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church are tackling the issue, helping local communities such as Kallupalam meet their water needs in an appropriate and responsible manner.

Read any glossy tourist literature about Kerala and one overriding marketing message shines through — the state is blessed with an abundance of water. “God’s Own Country,” as Keralites proudly refer to their state, is “a strip of green land” that boasts “a paradise” of “serene beaches,” “tranquil backwaters” and “lush hill stations” all within “a two- to four-hour drive of one another.”

As far as the casual visitor can tell, the alluring description rings true. Kerala is lushly green. Kerala enjoys two monsoons that soak the state for half of the year. And with some 20 reservoirs — the majority of which are dedicated to hydroelectric power and irrigation, not drinking water — it has one of the highest reservoir densities in India.

A scan of a topographical map of southern India puts Kerala’s relationship to water into some perspective. Buttressed by the Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west, Kerala averages a mere 50 miles in width. As if in a gravity-assisted cannonball run, storm runoff takes but 48 hours to race down the highlands and flow through the midlands and western lowlands before emptying into the sea. And when the riverbeds turn dry in the summer months, the sea returns the favor and pushes inland, contaminating drinking water and destroying crops.

But Kerala’s general topography has not changed in any measurable way over the generations. The mountains still slope steeply. Two monsoons still come and go annually. The lowlands still flood with salt water. Why the water shortage?

Clues may be found in the atmosphere and beneath the earth’s surface, where the depth of the water table in Kerala has been steadily falling for decades. But the solution has everything to do with understanding the changing relationship between Kerala’s population and nature at the ground level.

Population density is a logical starting point for any discussion on water scarcity, and in Kerala, rightfully so. The state has the highest density in all of India at 870 persons per square kilometer (about .39 square miles), 2.5 times the national average.

The assumption has always been that total water use increases proportionally with population growth. More mouths to feed mean greater demand for all natural resources.

“While that assumption drives much of our policies [on water and energy] in the United States and around the world, it’s not necessarily true for water,” explained water expert Dr. Peter H. Gleick, MacArthur Fellow and cofounder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development at a recent talk in San Francisco.

“In fact, if you look at the curve for the United States, that was true for a while, but we have broken the link between [an] exponentially growing population and exponentially growing economies and the increasing demand for water.”

Unfortunately in Kerala, that is not yet the case.

During the monsoons, the dirt roads leading to the mountaintop village of Santhigram are impassable. And in the dry summer months, rutted and eroded, they test the best four-wheel drive vehicles. But all year-round, they afford panoramic views of fields of cardamom, coffee, nutmeg, plantain and tapioca. For the 530 families who make these hillsides home, the picturesque landscape produces more pain than pleasure.

That is what Highrange Development Society (HDS), a social service agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Idukki, learned when it conducted a survey of the area a few years ago. The organization identified Santhigram as the community most affected by the shortage of water in the eparchy. Frankly, HDS could have skipped the survey and just chatted with 46-year-old Lissama Mathew — or her doctor — to reach the same conclusion.

Mrs. Mathew still remembers the exact date, 15 November 2007, when her neck, head and shoulder injuries began to heal. That was the day HDS, which aims to empower the rural poor of Kerala’s eastern Idukki District, broke ground on construction of the 15,000-liter rainwater harvesting tank (about 3,963 liquid gallons) that now sits in her backyard, sandwiched between her home and the cowshed, rabbit cages and goat pen.

A metal gutter descends from her roof to the top portal of the tank, funneling enough rainwater harvested during the monsoon to satisfy her family’s domestic water needs for the entire dry season. For the mother of two, this has meant the end of lugging heavy water buckets on her head for nearly two miles uphill and, as a result, the end of physical therapy at the hospital.

“With two elderly parents, two young children and a working husband, what option did I have?” Mrs. Mathew recalls. As if by muscle memory, she rubs the back of her neck. “The doctor understood.”

In almost any direction, evidence of HDS’s efforts to confront water scarcity, as well as other rural development issues in Santhigram, abound. A stone bund lines the perimeter of Mrs. Mathew’s neighbor’s property. HDS had laid over 766 yards of bunds — embankments made of soil or stone — and bushy organic fencing across Santhigram’s slopes to limit soil erosion. In the shady field below, a ditch the size of a suburban swimming pool lined with a blue plastic lining formed a water preservation pond. The murky bath will irrigate crops during the dry months. Around the bend, a well recharging project implemented by HDS has raised the water level of the Kavanattu family’s open well by four feet, and no time too soon.

“Our climate has changed. Rainfall is less predictable than when I was growing up,” says Sunny Varkey, 45, who has witnessed the water level of his family’s well fall markedly over the years. “Agriculture now uses more water — that lowers groundwater levels — and more chemicals, which makes it harder and harder to maintain the fertility of the soil. It’s brought us some tough times.”

With the rest of his family by his side, Mr. Varkey points over the valley to a barren ridge line way out in the distance.

“But that’s the big reason,” he adds.

Unprompted, he scurries inside his home and returns with one of his children’s books from school. He flips through the pages until he finds what he is looking for and points to the chapter titled “Prevent Deforestation!”

The roads in Idukki District are hairpin tight, clogged with plodding trucks and laden with blind curves more frightening than any hair-raising thrill ride at a carnival. But that does little to restrain Father Sebastian Kochupurackal, executive director of HDS, from pressing on the gas pedal of his compact car as he zips to a regional meeting of community organizers at St. Sebastian’s Church in Nedumkandam, or from making conversation along the way.

Lifting his right hand dangerously off the wheel, he motions out the window toward fields of rubber trees.

“In earlier times, we had a lot of forest here,” explains Father Kochupurackal. “But nowadays, forest means big business.

“The poverty of the people in Idukki has increased. More than 80 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood. But agriculture production costs are very high; labor charge is high, [as are] pesticides and manures. And the average yield is very low compared to other parts of the country and world. So, the people have been compelled, out of their tragic situation, to cut down trees.

“It’s a main reason for the water shortage,” the priest adds. “Trees play an important role in preserving the water in the area. This is a steep area with valleys and mountains. As the rain falls, the water immediately flows out. We have no effective preservation methods. But we can encourage reforestation and water preservation methods. We need to excavate ponds on agricultural lands, build water tanks and check dams. We also have to ensure that organic fencing grows thickly around the perimeters, prevents soil erosion and helps water go down into the ground. But it’s costly, and we don’t have much financial stability.”

Nearing Nedumkandam, the tiny car rides up on the tail of a giant truck teetering with freshly logged rosewood. Unable to pass, the priest hits the breaks at the last moment, affording an all too close-up view of the timber and back of the truck. To be pressed into pulp or carved into furniture, the logs will find their way to Kerala’s lowlands, along with everything else.

All the waste from the higher ranges — plastic, food waste, human waste, fertilizers applied in the rubber and tea estates — comes to Kuttanadu,” laments Father Thomas Peelicanickal, executive director of Kuttanadu Vikasana Samithy (KVS), the official development agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Changanacherry.

“Kuttanadu has become a waste bin. Four rivers pass through the area,” he points out. “We’re below sea level, more than seven feet. Water gets stagnated here and only slowly flows to sea.”

KVS promotes sustainable development practices in the region, one of the few places in the world where agriculture is carried out below sea level.

While the high range has done low-lying communities such as Kuttanadu no favors, the water problems the area faces are equally self-inflicted. In large part, they stem from the agricultural crisis that has gripped the state since the 1990’s. Taking desperate measures in desperate times, small, poor farmers have become much more dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This has destroyed the fragile nutrient balance of the soil, poisoned the water supply, indebted the small farmer and exposed the population to untold health risks.

“What’s the saying?” asks Father Peelicanickal, “‘Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’

“Before, people used to drink water from the open space: rivers, lakes, the small canals going here and there giving water to every paddy field. It was comparatively pure water — potable. But from this hybrid agriculture and all this so-called scientific agriculture, the Kuttanadu people’s health was lost, drinking water lost. All kinds of communicable disease and cancers, everything came together.”

At an alarming rate, unprofitable rice paddies, critical to groundwater recharging, have been converted to more profitable crops like banana and rubber. Rice paddies have also been repurposed for other uses, such as urban expansion, sand mining and waste disposal.

“In certain areas, there’s no raised land. So they want to bring in soil from the eastern side and fill all these paddy fields for hotels,” says Father Peelicanickal. “This is a great loss to the country and nature. Environmentally, it’s wrong. We have to protect this land. We cannot develop this area like Mumbai or Kochi. It’s a special area. Development should not hinder the environmental ecosystem. Every drop of water is valuable and every inch of land, too.”

Having already helped construct 800 tanks in the local community, KVS has become a major proponent of rainwater harvesting, a technique Keralites have just embraced.

“It’s the only solution,” asserts Father Peelicanickal, who faults the government for allowing the public water system to fall into disrepair. Only 20 percent of all households in Kerala are supplied drinking water by the Kerala Water Authority; 80 percent rely on open wells or, as Father Peelicanickal claims, contaminated groundwater.

“The government is spending lots of money, but nobody gets water,” he bristles. “The pipe system started 30 or 40 years ago and it’s only around the roads. But most people live in the interior, where there are no pipes and no piped water. So they take polluted water from the river. Still, the pipes already beneath the soil are broken. So the same water from the river comes through the pipe. Some days they boil the water, but not always and not always long enough. E.coli is prevalent here. Eighty percent of the local population suffers from waterborne diseases — whatever you gain from labor and agriculture is spent in the hospital.”

This past February, the dry season has returned to Kallupalam. But while a layer of dust has coated the surfaces of pictures and tables in the home of Annieamma Joseph, something is different.

The Joseph family is busy around the house. Mrs. Joseph’s son, Bibin, carries a bucket of water to the cow trough. Dirty clothes soak in a basin awaiting a final rinse. The bucket by the latrine sits ready, filled to the brim. For the first time, the family opts to use the latrine during the summer months. And by the door to the kitchen, a black rubber hose hangs over the lip of another large blue plastic drum.

“This is the first dry season I have felt relaxed,” says Mrs. Joseph.

Last September, thanks to a $20,000 grant from CNEWA, Mrs. Joseph and 44 other families in Kallupalam have water available in their homes. With electricity in the village unreliable, a diesel-powered engine pipes water from a community well to a large tank just above the Josephs’ home. From there, a network of pipes — and gravity — does the rest.

A five-person committee, headed by Father Mathew Thadathil, the parish priest, oversaw the 10-month project. Grants paid for all the materials and skilled labor. The villagers contributed unskilled labor.

Each home has a water meter to gauge usage. Users pay 1.5 rupees per liter (less than a cent for a third of a gallon), which covers the cost of maintaining the system.

“If we didn’t undertake this project, they would still have no water in Kallupalam,” says Father Thadathil. “You know, the village made many complaints to the local authority. But everybody wanted money. They were not interested in implementing the project; they have interest in getting money. And if it was a private project, it may not be quite as successful.

“But because it’s a communal project and under the supervision of the church,” the priest adds, “the villagers knew it would work well. So they’re very happy, and they use it properly. It’s a new beginning.”

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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