The thin crop of green on the river bed of the Bharathapuzha made for an unlikely sight in March. It had been four months since Kerala’s second longest river had gone dry. Originating in the Anamalai hills in Tamil Nadu in the Western Ghats, Bharathapuzha flows 209 km through Kerala before joining the Arabian Sea. The failed monsoon in 2016 had turned long stretches of the river into a bed of sand in December, months before the onset of summer.

In the last week of March, however, a dense aromatic grass sprouted on small patches of the river bed in Kuttipuram in Malappuram district. It was vetiver grass, also known as khus in some parts of India. A major ingredient in Ayurvedic medicines, perfumes, soaps and shampoos, there is a large commercial market for it. Normally grown on the banks of the river, this year, farmers planted vetiver on the river bed itself, sinking borewells right there to find water to irrigate the crop.

Eight farmers of Palapetty village had planted vetiver on six acres of the river bed in Kuttipuram. Said Sajayan, one of the farmers: “Vetiver is an environment-friendly plant. It ensures moisture in the soil and prevents soil erosion.”

But environmental activists believe that borewells on the river bed will lead to Bharathapuzha’s destruction. It will lower the water level, damage the aquifers, cause the collapse of the groundwater system, and lead to salt water intrusion into the river.

“We know that the plant acts against soil erosion,” said Ummer Chirakkal, an environmental activist. “But we oppose encroachment and digging of borewells on the riverbed, which will result in the death of the river.”

MPA Latheef lives on the bank of the river in Kuttipuram in Malappuram district and is the co-ordinator of the district environmental society. “No one dared to dig borewells here before,” he said. “It is an indicator of the acute water crisis.”

Illegal vetiver cultivation on the bed of the Bharathapuzha river. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Deficient rainfall

Kerala is reeling under the worst-ever drought in 115 years.

It began with a deficient southwest monsoon during the four months from June 1 to September 30. All the 14 districts received below average rain – the deficit ranged from 24% in Ernakulam district to 59% in Wayanad district.

The northeast monsoon between October 1 and December 1 in 2016 also failed to bring cheer as the state recorded a rainfall deficit of 67%. Altogether, the state got 185 mm of rainfall, which is about 33% of the normal rainfall of 480.7 mm.

In March, there was some relief when summer rain lashed almost all parts of the state, except the northern district of Kasargod. Against the average of 18.1 mm of summer rain, the state received 83.5 mm this year, a massive increase of 362%.

“The increase in summer rainfall was due to the temperature contrast between sea and land,” said S Sudevan, director of the Indian Meteorological Department.

While the rain brought some cheer to farmers, it was not enough to offset the failed monsoon seasons of 2016, or recharge well, lakes and rivers, he said.

The impact of deforestation

The double whammy in 2016 continues to baffle scientists. Sudevan said that it was very rare to observe deficient rainfall in both monsoon seasons. “A major reason for this phenomenon might be the development of cyclonic storms like Vardha which hit Chennai,” he said.

Given Kerala’s downward-sloping topography, all the rainwater drained into the sea within 48 hours of the downpour. “We do not have sufficient mechanism to conserve water,” said Dr PS Harikumar, senior principal scientist at the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, a state-government funded research organisation in Kozhikode. Over the years, the state has seen extensive deforestation to create space for more paddy cultivation. This has reduced the land’s capacity to stem the overflow of rainwater, Harikumar added.

A diesel-powered water pump to operate borewells in Bharathapuzha. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Massive losses

According to the State Revenue Department, the drought has destroyed 30,353 hectares of agricultural land, including 26,400 hectares of paddy crops. The total loss was estimated to be around Rs 225 crores.

The state government had issued a moratorium on agricultural loans taken by farmers, sought central government assistance for drought relief, and set up water kiosks to ensure uninterrupted drinking water supply.

In order to protect labourers from sunstroke, the labour department has rescheduled day-time working hours and has asked employers to give workers a mandatory break between 12 noon and 3 pm, till April 30.

The drought has affected the state’s longest river, the Periyar, too. A report in The Hindu suggests that the river could soon go dry, affecting drinking water supply, power generation and irrigation. The low level of water on that river has already forced the tourism department to halt boat services on Thekkady lake.

The death of a river

Bharathapuzha, also known as Nila, is the lifeline of Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu and Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts in Kerala. Environmentalists have been raising concerns over the slow death of the river for quite some time.

An expert committee appointed by the government of Kerala as far back as 1997 cautioned that “the Bharathapuzha system is seriously affected by unsustainable exploitation of its resources and over utilisation of its surface and ground water resources.”

The sinking of borewells on the river bed is likely to exacerbate the problem, say environmentalists.

The state government has begun a crackdown on such borewells. A revenue official said on condition of anonymity that encroachments on the river bed are illegal since it is the property of the state government. The official said that his department was closely monitoring the construction of open wells and borewells by private parties.

The eight farmers from Palapetty village, who travelled 30 km to Kuttipuram for vetiver farming, were shocked when revenue officials came and seized their water pumps and pipes. “We did not know that it was a crime to use the river bed for agriculture,” said Sajayan. “What is wrong in utilising underground water?”

The farmers had invested close to Rs 6 lakhs to cultivate vetiver. “Now we cannot water the plants,” said Sajayan. “All our money will go down the drain.”

Latheef said that he was worried about the fate of the Bharathapuzha. The 50-year-old has grown up along the river. “I don’t know how long my favourite river will survive,” he said. “If we do not prevent degradation of our forests, land and rivers, we will face drought every year. Nature is giving us indications, and we have to act immediately.”

The dry river bed of the Bharathapuzha. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.