Harvesting for the future?
Gone are the days of plenty in this part of Kerala. The story of Palakkad is an example of what is happening to the once water-rich State, says SREEDEVI MOHAN.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
Unimaginable in `God's Own Country' ...indiscriminate sand mining and a loss of green cover have made water sources dry up...
ON a hot and humid afternoon in Palakkad district's eastern village of Kallukad, Bhagyam was returning home. She looked exhausted after a day's work in her groundnut field. It was mid-June then and she was worried about the sparse monsoon, the future of her crops and the fate of her two school-going children. But she is happy and hopeful too. "Come and have a look at our tank, you will like it," she said, inviting me to her home enthusiastically. We walked through the dark and winding village road.
Bhagyam stays in a plot where there are six homes; one a tiled house and the rest thatched with palm leaves. It is a small homestead in the middle of farmlands and shrub jungle. And it is a special day their rainwater-harvesting tank has been completed. A 15,000-litre capacity, brand new "Ferro" cement tank stood in the middle of the plot. "Do you like it?" beamed Bhagyam.
A revolution in Palakkad
A silent revolution is taking place in the northeastern villages of Palakkad district of Kerala, perhaps one of the worst drought hit areas of the State. Gopalapuram, Kozhinjampara, Velanthavalam, Eruthyampathy, Plachimada and many more far-flung villages have been reeling under severe water scarcity. The 2004 drought is the worst in recent times. January to April saw widespread crop damage, severe drinking water shortage, farmers burning parched paddy crop and livestock dying. Lorries were providing drinking water. Rivers and all other water sources in the area had all dried up. One could see long queues of women and children by the roadsides waiting for the lorries to arrive. Palakkad was facing a huge crisis. And at Plachimada village, an unusual struggle was going on; a struggle to decide the ownership over water resources. Agitations, conventions and meetings apart, what could be done to ensure safe drinking water to these villages? What could be done to save the crops, especially paddy?
The experiment that is taking place in Bhagyam's village symbolises a new trend. For the first time Keralites are trying to understand and respect the value of water, of each precious drop. Palakkad is now trying out many methods of harvesting rainwater and implementing better management of watersheds. People, especially farmers, are beginning to understand the need to collect and conserve water. "We talk to local people and make them understand the need for collective action to conserve water. Committees or beneficiary groups are formed and then propose plans for their area," says Zeena, a social worker with "Mythri", an NGO working in the area.
"Based on people's proposals, a feasibility study is conducted and plans are chalked out," explains Sunil, a civil engineer working with the same NGO. The unique nature of this new Palakkad experiment is that no plan is forced on beneficiaries. Once the village/ward level groups are formed, detailing of the project is done. Usually the local people put in 10 per cent of the total expenditure. "The beneficiary input can be in the form of money, materials or work," says Zeena.
The rainwater harvesting method being implemented at Bhagyam's village is roof style water harvesting. Water falling on the roof-top is collected and routed through pipes connected just below the eaves. It is filtered and then collected in the tank. "There is only one tiled house in this homestead. Under the project we would like to provide tiled roofs to all the houses and then increase the capacity of the tank," explains Sunil. Bhagyam is enthusiastic about the idea. It will benefit her she will have a roof over her head, she will also have good water to drink and she will be spared the endless trips in search of water. "Did they tell you who built the tank?" she asked me. "We four women built it. We were so scared at the beginning. But slowly we picked up. Now I know how to put the bricks, mix cement, put the mesh and every work that is needed to make this tank," she proclaims confidently. Their work is impressive by all standards. These village women have definitely built up a pucca structure. "They handle the money also. A treasurer is selected from the group and all expenditure and accounting is handled by them," explains Vinod, director of "Mythri". "At first we found it very difficult to convince the villagers, especially the women, that they can do the construction work. But once they got into it, they really got involved," he explains.
Rock water harvesting
We move on to the next site. Eravattappara is a rocky village on the edges of the Western Ghats. The 40-odd houses are scattered on the undulating terrain. Joycee is waiting at the bottom of the huge rock, Eravattappara. She is a young woman doing voluntary work for the unique rock water-harvesting project being implemented in her village. It is indeed a huge rock and we find it difficult to climb it. " We have perennial water shortage in the area. We get only very little rain during the South West monsoon. If the North East monsoon also fails, we have had it," says Joycee. "Most of the people in the area have abandoned paddy cultivation. Now they are even abandoning cattle rearing because there is no water at all. What will we do?" she asks. As we climb up the rock, strong winds buffet us. And we get a panoramic view of the area. The mighty Ghats are on both sides and the 40-km Palakkad Gap is clearly visible. Below are expanses of fields and farms. Everything is blazing under the afternoon sun. A few villagers join us. "This new scheme which is coming up on top of the rock is a unique one. It will collect all the rain that falls on it," explained Robert, a farmer.
The rainwater that falls on the rock is routed to a collection pond at the bottom edge of the rock. It is done by making small diversions on the rock surface. The water thus collected is pumped up to a storage tank on the top of the rock, and this water is distributed through pipes. Using wind energy, the water collected in the pond is pumped up. The capacity of the collection tank is four lakh litres. "It is a unique concept; it is participatory and it is hundred per cent sustainable. I am thrilled about the project," says Vinod.
It is indeed a wonderful project, the first of its kind in water-scarce Palakkad. The charm of it is not just the concept, but also the manner in which it is being executed. An engineering graduate from a village nearby is in charge of the project. A committee is constituted and local people and panchayat members are active in it. The project money that is sanctioned by the district administration under the Western Ghat Development Programme is handed over to the beneficiary committee. The beneficiary share comes in as materials and man-hours. "It is a wonderful project and I am really looking forward to its completion. The work is being implemented The involvement and participation of the local people have given it an added dimension. I think this will be a model project for the entire country," explains the Collector, Sanjeev Kaushik, who often says his most important mission is to tackle the water problem in Palakkad and find sustainable solutions. The Eravattappara rock water harvesting project is one of those few examples where the local people are in a decision-making position. It seems that at last the official-contractor nexus is being broken, however small be the way it is done. In the Vadakarapathy Panchayat, 11 beneficiary groups have been formed and different methods of water harvesting, ground water recharge and eco-development are being implemented.
At Kollengode and Chittur
The Kollengode region in Palakkad is one of the worst drought affected places in Kerala. In the Kollengode Panchayat office, a meeting was taking place. The elected members, the block officer, agriculture and irrigation officers were all ears as the representatives of the Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC) stressed the importance of watershed management and the methods of implementation. The first requirement was to plot a map of the watersheds selected for improvement and conservation. There were no political speeches, no arguments. The atmosphere was that of a serious class and officers and politicians were equally attentive. An unusual thing to happen in Kerala; but the entire State, especially Palakkad, has gone through the worst and perhaps has learnt a lesson.
Palakkad, once water rich, and fed by the Bharathapuzha and its tributaries, was famed for its paddy fields, vegetable farms and lush forests. Gone are the days of plenty. "Our climate has changed, the rainfall has dwindled and the rivers have dried up. All this means that the agro-based lifestyle of the district is gone for ever," says Surendran, a farmer in Nallepully Village in Chittur taluk. Chittur, once known as the heartland of Palakkad's rice-cultivating belt, has lost its glory. "The 2004 drought was indeed severe, we lost most of our crops and even finding drinking water became a serious problem," explains Sudheer, a young agriculturalist. "Don't just blame the failing rains, we are also to be blamed. We never maintained the ponds and wells, We just filled them up indiscriminately," says Surendran. Palakkad, once famed for its ponds and tanks, has now lost most of them and the effect was a severe scarcity of water. At Thamarakulam (which means the lotus pond), Chandran and his workers were de-silting their two-acre pond. "Once the work is complete we plan to plant bamboo and different varieties of medicinal plants to create a green cover, so that the pond will be kept intact and the water will be clean. This pond will give us enough water for cultivation and other needs," hopes Chandran. He is the president of the Pond Conservation Committee. "Even though the funds came late, we are hopeful of finishing our work soon."
Palakkad's monsoon bounty
Palakkad receives around 2,400 mm of rain a year and both the North East and South West monsoons are important to the district. The Bharathapuzha, the longest river in Kerala, flows through the district. It has 14 tributaries. There are 12 reservoirs in Palakkad, of which seven are major ones. There are nearly 10,000 ponds and nearly 2,000 perennial streams. And according to the official figures, nearly 31 per cent of the total land area is under forest cover. Then how is the district also the most water-scarce and drought-hit?
The story of Palakkad is an example of what is happening to the once water-rich Kerala. Even though the district had abundant natural resources and human resources it remained an "under-developed" district of the State. Its tribal belt has one of the worst life indices in the State. Agriculture is the main vocation of the people. Forestry and fishing and allied sectors are also important. But infrastructure development and quality of life did not improve much over the years and the traditional sectors did not improve their performance. And small, decentralised and sustainable projects were never the priority.
"The Bharathapuzha is dying and all its tributaries except the Kunti are dammed. The major watersheds are mismanaged. Why do you talk about rich water resources?" asks Ravi who works with the Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samithy. What he says is true. The Bharathapuzha and most of its tributaries are under threat.
Indiscriminate sand mining
Indiscriminate sand mining and a loss of green cover in the Western Ghats have made rivers and ground water dry up. All the major rivers in the State are facing saline water incursion, sometimes even up to 25 km upstream. "We have lost groundwater resources, salinity is a huge issue and it affects our daily life and cultivation," says Radhakrishnan, a farmer on the banks of the Bharathapuzha. "It is panchayats that grant permission to sand mining, but illegal mining also goes on unchecked. All our rivers, the Bharathapuzha, the Pampa, the Chalakkudy, are under threat," says Suresh, an activist. In spite of the Kerala High Court and the Kerala Government intervening, sand mining control laws are seldom implemented.
Indiscriminate filling of paddy fields is another major problem leading to the water crisis. In 1957, in a total cropped area of 1,000 hectares, 767 hectares was under paddy cultivation; in 2003, it shrank to 311. In most parts of the State, two crops are grown in a year and in the fields water was retained for nearly three months at a stretch. "This helped to recharge ground water in the natural way. Converting fields into construction sites and roads led to an environmental disaster," says Surendran who still holds nearly 20 acres under paddy cultivation. "It is a difficult task in the period of high wages and low prices," he complains.
The odds of topography
The topography of the State is also not suitable for water retention. The steep slopes and hilly terrain allow water to rush down to the sea. The sea is just 80 km away from the Western Ghats. It takes 36 to 48 hours for rainwater precipitation in the High Ranges to reach the Arabian Sea! The decrease in the rainfall is also a cause for worry. From 1998, most districts of Kerala have been recording low rainfall. In 2003, Wayanad received less than 33 per cent of the expected rainfall. The district known for its plantations and paddy fields is today witnessing a spate of suicides by farmers, hitherto an unknown phenomenon in Kerala.
... but Palakkad has perhaps learnt a lesson ... water harvesting in earnest.
"To tide over the acute water crisis Kerala is facing today, proper water and land use management is required. Rainwater harvesting is not the only thing that needs to be implemented. A holistic approach to conserve water sources and the ecosystem is the need of the hour," says Dr. Unnikrishnan, Director, IRTC.
Kerala, with 44 rivers, hundreds of small rivulets and streams, 4.5 million wells, thousands of ponds and lakes and backwaters and nearly 3,000 mm of annual rainfall is perhaps one of the wettest and water-rich regions of India.
The targeted two-crore recharge pits and thousands of rainwater harvesting structures in the State may not be enough to make water available to all, but they are indications of a change ... for the better.
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