The day the water tanker is expected in her Pallikkulam Dalit Colony in Karivellur Peralam gram panchayat of Kerala’s Kannur district, Soudamini, 60, gets up earlier than usual. She empties out as many containers as she can and, out of nervousness, steps out at the feeblest of honks.

“I cannot afford to miss the water supply so I feel extremely nervous on the days the tanker is due,” Soudamini said. “All wells around here have been dried up and we do not have any choice but to depend on the tanker supply.”

Karivellur Peralam has been reeling from a severe water crisis since March. Nearly all its ponds and wells have dried up. Such is the scarcity that even the tanker, run by the gram panchayat, can only provide 150 litres of water per household once in three days. “We are suffering a severe water crisis but our water distribution has been very effective,” said M Raghavan, president of the gram panchayat.

He blamed “environmental destruction” for the crisis, meaning the reclamation of paddy fields and the demolition of laterite hills across the gram panchayat, spread over 22 sq km. “No land reclamation or hill demolition is happening now,” Raghavan added, “but the damage is done.”

The crisis in Karivellur Peralam is particularly severe, but all 14 of Kerala’s districts, save for Wayanad and Pathanamthitta, are facing acute drinking water shortage, just eight months after the state witnessed the worst floods in a century last August.

To address the crisis, the Kerala Water Authority has deployed special teams to monitor the situation and the government has sanctioned Rs 5 lakh to all gram panchayats for distribution of water.

Pallikkulam Colony gets water once in three days. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Many factors

The ongoing crisis is the result of a combination of factors, including a poor northeast monsoon and the lack of a proper water conservation, experts said.

Kerala received 23% excess rainfall – 2515.7 mm – during the southwest monsoon, from June to September 2018, contributing to the devastating floods. The northeast monsoon, from October to December, however, yielded 3% less rainfall than normal. The situation worsened as the premonsoon season, which is from March 1 to May 15, saw 45% deficient rainfall.

“Groundwater levels dropped because of deficient rainfall in the months following the floods,” explained VP Dineshan, senior principal scientist at the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management in Kozhikode. “That is one of the reasons for the water scarcity. Kerala received 80% less rainfall than normal after the floods. We had more dry spells and it resulted in a drop in groundwater levels.” A study by Dineshan’s team found groundwater levels have fallen by 1-4 metres across Kerala.

A well that has almost dried up well in Karivellur, Kannur. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

When all 14 of Kerala’s districts last faced a water crisis in 2016, the government declared the state drought-hit. It has not taken any such measure so far this year.

No conservation

Scientists pointed out that Kerala’s unique topography allows rainwater to be quickly discharged into the Arabian Sea and the process quickens in the absence of rainwater conservation.

Kerala is a narrow strip of land. Between the Western Ghats in the east and the sea in the west, it is 140 km at its widest and 35 km at its narrowest. It takes rainwater from the Ghats only 48-72 hours to be discharged into the sea.

The destruction of forests, wetlands, sacred groves and laterite hills over the last few decades means rainwater is discharged without percolation into the plateau, said TP Padmanabhan, director of the Society for Environmental Education in Kerala. “This results in depletion of groundwater levels,” he added.

Ponds across Karivellur Peralam gram panchayat have dried up. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Before the ecosystem destruction became rampant, Padmanabhan said, 40% of the rainwater reached the Arabian Sea, 20% got evaporated, and 40% percolated down and replenished the water table. “Rate of percolation decreased with the destruction of the ecosystem,” he added. “Low percolation and depletion of the water table explains why we are facing a water shortage just eight months after the floods.”

Paddy fields, forests and laterite hills act as aquifers and help replenish the water table during the rainy season. But Kerala has lost a “humongous amount” of forest cover and paddy land in the last 30 years, Dineshan said. “The state had a 70% forest cover in 1900, but migration and land acquisition saw it shrink to just 27% in 2014,” he added. “The area under paddy fields shrunk from eight lakh hectares in 2000 to just two lakh hectares in 2014.”

Similarly, laterite hills across Kerala have been destroyed and built over. To build the Kozhikode airport alone, Dinesh said, over 40 hills were levelled in the 1990s. “When we lose one hill, we lose a huge amount of water,” he added.

A destroyed laterite hill in Karivellur, Kannur. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

No scarcity

Just 3 km southwest of Soudamini’s colony is Chamakkavu, a sacred grove near a Bhagawati temple that is home to many plant species. It is a natural aquifer that keeps the area’s water table intact.

“One acre of sacred grove gives water to four ponds and 40 wells,” reads a board hanging from the fence of the grove. “This six-acre sacred grove gives us abundant water supply. Let us preserve this wealth.”

People living near the grove said they never face water shortage during the summer. “These trees hold water and replenish the water table,” said Ramachandran, a resident. “This sacred grove is our lifeline and we are committed to protect it.”

Chamakkavu near Vellur in Kannur. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

In recent years, Padmanabhan said, Kerala’s people have come to understand the crucial role of laterite hills, paddy fields and sacred groves in protecting the water table. “Though it is too late, we have to resist moves to erase hills, reclaim paddy fields and destroy forestland,” he said. One cannot live in this world without water. So we have to act now to avoid a catastrophe.”

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