Even as Kerala reels under severe drought, Gangadhar Rao never misses a day to irrigate thousands of areca nut trees, coconut trees and pepper plants on his 30 acres of farmland.

Rao is a farmer from Bedadka Panchayath in Kerala’s northernmost district of Kasaragod and depends on Suranga for all his water needs — irrigation and domestic — round the year.

Suranga is commonly found in the hilly regions of North Kerala and South Karnataka. It is estimated that Kasaragod district alone has over 5,000 Suranga.

Suranga in Kannada means tunnel. It is known as Thurangam, Thorapu and Mala in Malayalam.

Rao’s farmland has more than 30 Suranga, but a majority of them are dysfunctional. “We excavate new Suranga when water discharge from the old one goes down. Now I depend on just two Suranga,” says Rao.

“Crops in my land never faced the vagaries of summer thanks to Suranga that release copious amounts of water even at the peak of summer.”

A Suranga is constructed by the horizontal excavation of laterite hills until a good amount of water is struck. Water seeps out of the rock and flows out of the tunnel like a narrow stream. It is collected in a reservoir made of mud, known as Madhaka, just outside the Suranga. The water flows into the reservoir round the clock, and it doesn’t need electricity to pump.

A normal tunnel well is 500 cm to 700 cm wide and two metres high. The length varies between 200 and 300 metres. Longer wells contain many vertical shafts to ensure atmospheric pressure inside.

Digging a Suranga is a tedious task, combining traditional knowledge and the skills of a labourer.­ Of late, Kasaragod is facing a dearth of labourers with the technical knowledge to undertake the challenging job. The reluctance of youngsters to take it up as a profession has only worsened the situation. It is left to veterans such as Chaliyan Kunhambu to keep the tradition of Suranga excavation alive.

At 65 years, Kunhambu shows the energy and enthusiasm of a young man. He enjoys working from dawn to dusk, cutting the hard rocks with his pickaxe and never-say-die attitude.

He has dug more than 1,000 Suranga in different parts of Kasaragod and Southern Karnataka. Put together the length of all Suranga excavated by him and the total distance may exceed 45 km.

“Summer is the busiest season for me,” he says. “Because people begin to worry about water scarcity when summer sets in.”

Kunhambu has dug several of the Suranga on Rao’s farmland. So he visits the place occasionally to inspect the water flow. “Listening to the sound of flowing water in a Suranga makes me happy,” he remarks.

Chaliyan Kunhambu works inside a Suranga. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Last month, he took this correspondent to Rao’s farmland to show how a Suranga works.

Kunhambu slipped into a labourer’s attire and stepped into the tunnel with a pickaxe and a couple of lit candles. I held on to his hand.

After wading through for a few minutes, we reached the water source. “I dug this Suranga all alone,” he tells me, while shaving the laterite rock gently.

Kunhambu says Suranga provides the purest water because of the natural filtration process. “Trust me, it is pure and you can drink it anytime,” he says.

Ancient lifeline

Suranga is said to be similar to Qanat or Karez that existed in Mesopotamia and Babylon around 700 BC. Qanat is a deep well with a series of vertical access shafts that provides a reliable supply of water for human settlements and irrigation in hot, arid and semi-arid climates.

Suranga has many advantages compared to open well and borewell. It is easier as well as cheaper to dig in hilly regions such as Kasaragod. Kunhambu estimates the cost at Rs 1 lakh for a 60-metre long Suranga. “It is very low compared to the money needed to dig an open well or a borewell,” he says.

Suranga offers no less than a lifeline in a place where water scarcity is becoming more common. But because this old method of water extraction is poorly publicised outside the region, Shree Padre, a farm journalist and editor of Kannada magazine Adike Patrike, believes the Suranga is dying. “When I say it is dying, I mean further extension is diminishing.”

He believes that people have lost faith in traditional water resources with the advent of mechanical means of water extraction. “The excavation is labour-intensive and needs a lot of time. If you don’t strike water within a fixed time, the budget will inflate.”

Suranga, however, is highly sustainable, Padre says. “But we have to preserve it for future generations.”

Govindankutty, hydrogeologist and assistant professor at Government College in Chittur, Palakkad, can’t extoll the virtues of Suranga enough. “We can conserve a lot of water by reviving this age-old traditional water system. It is very important at a time when we face huge water scarcity.”

Kuttamperoor river in Alappuzha was recently cleaned. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Cleaning up their act

Elsewhere in Kerala, the severe drought has made the people realise the need to conserve water bodies.

Budhanoor Grama Panchayat in Alappuzha district recently cleaned a 5-km stretch of Kuttamperoor river, a tributary of Pampa and Achankovil rivers. Water weeds and waste dumped into the waterway for over a decade were cleared out. “The river was blocked with plastic bottles, containers, and food waste. The panchayat spent Rs 72 lakh on the project,” the panchayat’s president Viswambhara Panicker tells Scroll.in.

The cleaning drive had a huge impact. “Water surged in the open wells in the vicinity. It gave us huge relief from drought. The panchayat has been distributing water through tanker lorries for the last two months in the area,” Panicker adds.

Anpodu Kochi, a non-profit organisation based in Kochi, has decided to clean 100 water bodies in Ernakulam district over 50 days. The innovative programme titled Ente Kulam Ernakulam (My Pond Ernakulam) was officially launched on March 23.

“The cleaning effort is to fight the severe drought and drinking water shortage in the district,” the organisation said in a Facebook post.

A pond in Ernakulam cleaned by Anpodu Kochi. Image credit: Facebook

The revived ponds are being handed over to the public and reviews will be conducted once every two months to ensure proper maintenance.

Even political parties have joined the fight against drought. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the state’s Left Democratic Front government, has launched an ambitious plan to clean and conserve 1,500 water bodies across the state. CPI(M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has said a social movement on the lines of the literacy drive and the people’s planning initiative is needed to protect drinking water sources. “All Keralites should join the mass movement,” he has appealed.

This is the third part in a series on Kerala’s drought crisis. The first two parts can be read here and here.