Kuttanad in Kerala is a picture-perfect location with vast waters surrounding its palm-fringed emerald islets. This region of the Alappuzha district in Kerala lies more than two metres below sea level and has the lowest altitude in India.

It is serviced by the state’s significant rivers Pampa, Meenachil, Achan Kovil and Manimala in addition to Vembanad-Kol wetland, India’s second-largest wetland ecosystem. Luxury houseboats occupy the lake and several canals link it with the rivers, while numerous cottages and eateries dot the islands.

Kuttanad is a waterlogged region that spreads over about 1,10,000 hectares. Of it, more than 50,000 hectares remain submerged in water for most of the year. Widely known as the rice bowl of Kerala, it is one of the few places in the world, and the only one in India, where farming activities are being held below sea level. The region has more than 18 lakh residents, and most of them are agricultural workers who do not own the rice fields where they work.

Kuttanad residents use country boats to reach a remote island in the backwater region facing severe climate change challenges. Photo credit: Syed Shiyaz Mirza

According to KG Padmakumar, special officer and director of Kuttanad-based International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming, the once abundant paddy cultivation has given the region its name. It is a massive area of reclaimed land which remains supported by fragile dikes from vast amounts of water.

But the region that once attracted settler farmers from outside is now seeing an exodus as many local people, unable to withstand the effects of climate change and human factors, are abandoning the region. Everybody who can, is leaving now and Kuttanad is turning into a cluster of ghost villages surrounded by water, said Santhosh Eruthiyel, who recently left Kuttamangalam Island in Kainakary panchayat to go to Cherthala. On the other hand, Cherthala region, 30-km away, faces no issues of waterlogging and food. As per the state government’s estimate, over 6,000 families of Kuttanad have abandoned their houses and properties in the last two years.

Climate refugees

The waters in the rivers and the Vembanad Lake ecosystem, which were an icon of prosperity are now turning into a threat to the lives and livelihood of the people.

Eruthiyel, who lived in Kainakary all his life, is now nostalgic about his abandoned house, which once had beauty and tranquillity. “It was after the massive Kerala floods of 2018 that my family decided to leave,” he said. “We have been facing at least half a dozen floods a year for over a decade and things got aggravated after the 2018 floods. Now, everything remains submerged for a long time. How can you cook and eat in a kitchen filled with water? Nights are fearful as water can enter anytime without warning. Whenever there is rain, the outer bounds of the paddy fields suffer breach, risking numerous lives.”

A professional electrician, Eruthiyel, bought a piece of land at Poojaveli in Cherthala and built a house and now sleeps without fear of the waters threatening to disrupt nights.

But for Vinodini Raju, her husband and two school-going daughters who live in the waterlogged Kanakaseri Island in Kainakary panchayat, there is no means to abandon the house built using bank loans and find another outside the region. Most parts of their house, including the kitchen and toilet, remain inundated for over seven months of a year, said her daughters Pooja and Anamika, who study at the higher secondary level.

The same is the case of Shyja and her husband Jyothish of Meenappulli, whose house is almost entirely inundated. A cook with a houseboat, Jyothish was laid off and unemployed after the Covid-19 lockdowns put a halt on domestic and foreign tourists coming to the region.

For sixty-two-year old widow V Sasiamma, some government aid turned out to be a bit of luck just ahead of the southwest monsoon. She left her home in Kainakary, which had recurring floods, to buy a plot of land in Muhamma near Cherthala town.

When contacted by Mongabay-India, Kuttanad taluk officer TI Vijayasenan confirmed that there is a trend among families, who can afford it, to buy land outside Kuttanad and build houses there. People are migrating to nearby Cherthala, Alappuzha and Changanassery. “The poor have nowhere to go, and they are becoming victims of frequent flooding. The government is now evolving strategies to prevent flooding in Kuttanad, but those may take time,” he said.

“We have become climate refugees,” said PB Vijimon, who recently bought land in Kalavoor in Alappuzha and started constructing a new house there. “We are losing our land. In addition to climate change, unscientific construction of large-scale tourism resorts, roads, bridges and other infrastructure facilities have contributed to the present grim situation. Lack of river management and backwater region protection facilities are making the situation worse.

P Prasad, a Cherthala-based real estate broker, said he has been receiving numerous inquiries from people of Kuttanad who have no option other than relocation.

“For us, life is not the same since the devastating deluge of 2018,” said MD Salim, a rice farmer of Kanakassery. “We are forced to either flee and rent or buy a house in less flood-prone nearby areas or continue to live here fearing floods of different magnitudes whenever it rains.”

Floods changed everything

The wetland agriculture system of Kuttanad is a unique one that facilitates paddy cultivation below sea level on small patches of land created by draining delta swamps in brackish waters. “The whole Kuttanad has over 500 years of history of draining delta swamps manually by poor Dalit workers who remained slaves of powerful landlords. The whole region is artificial and is made of reclamation using traditional means,’’ said Padmakumar of International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming.

Here the agricultural system is divided into three segments: wetlands are used for paddy activities and catching fish while the garden lands are used for coconut, tuber and food crops plantation. In addition, water areas are being used for inland fishing and shells. “The rice and fish cultivation had ensured livelihood to most people here while houseboat tourism has evolved in recent years as a new form of livelihood,” explained Padmakumar.

Most people in Kuttanad agree that flooding was a part of their life for centuries. They knew how to live with water all around them, even during heavy monsoons. To them, water proximity was always a regular thing.

But since the floods of 2018, the character and after-effects of rains and floods have started changing. Since 2018, Kuttanad has been witnessing frequent floods with high devastation capability. Even when other parts of Kerala are not experiencing any kind of waterlogging, flooding is happening in Kuttanad.

A house destroyed during floods, at Chennamkari in Kerala’s backwater region Kuttanad. Photo credit: Syed Shiyaz Mirza

“After 2018, I could not sleep on rainy days,” said B Asokan, who now lives in Muhamma. “Instead, I would sit guard checking whether the water level is rising more than normal. During one such night, the water level increased suddenly in 2020, and my wife and I fled, carrying our eight-year-old grandson. We could not take anything when we fled. Now, my house of decades is destroyed, and there is not even a stone left from it.”

Now, the heavy rains and resultant floods are impacting livelihoods as well. Last year, farmers here did not earn anything from paddy farming due to the significant scale collapse of bunds and the pandemic-induced lockdown. However, those who leased paddy lands had to pay the landowners. Farmers and experts say that the land areas in Kuttanad are fast sinking, and even ripples caused by moving boats cause water to enter the compounds.

Kuttanad people are living on land and houses they inherited from their ancestors through generations. As no one from outside wants to buy their property because of the frequent floods, selling and moving out has turned impossible.

Around a decade ago, the state government had plans of implementing a package worth Rs 1,840 crore, that was developed by experts, led by internationally known scientist MS Swamminathan. However, nothing concrete has taken place so far.

Because of floods and inundation, people who can afford it are building new houses on large pillars and keeping their rooms far above the expected rising water level. Now the demand is that the government must construct such houses for the poor.

“Until a decade ago, we had a proper drainage system that could minimise the duration of flooding,” said KV Dayal, a local environmentalist. “Unscientific developmental projects like big bunds, massive roads and bridges have disrupted the existing systems. Flood management systems are required now, and they must consider the region’s fragile ecosystem too.”

Sixty-one-year-old P Sisupalan, a resident of Kuttanad, attempted rebuilding his home after he turned homeless in the 2018 floods. However, the 2019 floods washed away the new house’s foundation, and then he completely abandoned the idea.

Farmers of Kuttanad are repairing a broken bund to prevent heavy water flow from Vembanad lake to a human settlement at Pulinkunnu in Kuttanad during the southwest monsoon season. Photo credit: Syed Shiyaz Mirza

Local people say more families would be forced to migrate in the coming months as the government has done nothing so far to restore the ecology of Kuttanad and make it flood-free. “Climate change is now getting aggravated along with after-effects of wrong notions of development,” said VN Jayachandran, president of the district unit of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, the state’s popular science movement. “We do not know how long the place will remain habitable with hardly any measures to protect the low-lying areas. Those people who have no other place to go are forced to live here.”

Scarce drinking water

Though it is surrounded by water, Kuttanad is known for drinking water scarcity. In almost all parts, piped water is available only twice a week, that too for an hour, often at night. So people are buying drinking water by travelling to other locations using their country boats.

A house submerged in the loose soil of Kerala’s backwater region Kuttanad. Photo credit: Syed Shiyaz Mirza

In many parts of Kuttanad, sewage is being released into the same canals from which people are drawing water for drinking and cooking needs. In many households, there are toilets built with direct outlets into the canals and streams of the backwater system. Water in the rice fields is polluted by pesticides.

Solid waste from medical college hospitals at Alappuzha and Kottayam, sewage of municipal towns of Kottayam, Cherthala, Thiruvalla, Changanassery and Alappuzha, the oil and faecal wastes from about 300 houseboats which are being operated between Alappuzha and Kumarakom, all find a dumping place in the Vembanad lake. During the famous Sabarimala pilgrimage season, the river Pampa turns into a sewage drain.

As per surveys conducted by the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management in Kozhikode, almost 80% of the people in Kuttanad rely on the contaminated canal water for their daily water requirements.

Infrastructure development has not only destroyed Kuttanadu’s fragile ecosystem but also made the climate change situation worse. The famous Thanneermukkam bund was constructed across the Vembanad Lake in 1975 to prevent saline water intrusion into rice fields, especially during dry seasons, thus enhancing rice farming.

“The natural flushing through tidal movements which existed in the entire Lower Kuttanad for several centuries has ceased since its construction,” according to Madhusoodana Kurup, a fisheries scientist who conducted a water balance study in the region in 1988-’90.

“Kuttanad is a victim of misplaced and impractical developmental schemes. The backwaters themselves are vanishing due to climate change and human interventions. The government must evolve strategies that can involve the spirit of human coexistence with water and low-lying areas,” said the International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming’s Padmakumar.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.