Is God’s own country thirsty?

5 min read
water scarcity
Image: WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan

Increasing climatic variability with heavy rainfall events and high temperatures have upset natural seasonal and monsoon cycles. Kerala’s landscape itself has changed a lot in the last two decades stemming from a profound failure to use land resources sustainably.

During my last two decades of working outside the state of Kerala, I always took pride in being a native. Everyone used to be loquacious and appreciative of the state because of its rivers, weather, coconut trees, hills, high ranges, forests, seafood, landscape, its people, Human Development Index (HDI) and so on. Among this long catalogue, the state’s beautiful climate and monsoon charm occupied a central position in the discussions. 

Kerala has been blessed with good and well distributeod rainfall, and the state is under the protective care of the Western Ghats that ensure a balanced ecosystem. Historical data of the past seventy years shows the state has had the luxury of receiving more than 2500mm rainfall that none other states have had, barring those in northeast India. 

Unfortunately, the situation is not that ‘heavenly’ anymore and the state has experienced natural disasters in the last three years. Drought in 2017 and floods in 2018-19. Small towns and big cities now experience water scarcity as early as February. This has become the new normal. 

Why is this happening? Why does water scarcity persist even after being blessed with good annual rainfall? Who is the culprit and who is to be blamed?

It was shocking to see recent estimates that the per capita consumption of water of an average ‘’Malayalee’’ is more than 200 litres per capita per day! Increasing climatic variability with heavy rainfall events and high temperatures have upset natural seasonal and monsoon cycles. Kerala’s landscape itself has changed a lot in the last two decades stemming from a profound failure to use land resource sustainably.  Evidence shows that this availability of fresh water sources has been declining amidst growing demand for water due to high population density and changed water use habits. So bore wells have gone deeper, pumps are sucking harder, while traditional sources like dug wells gone defunct.

Kerala is one of the densely populated states with high employment rate whose economy runs on trade and services with diminishing agricultural production. The state’s ‘tragedy’ – becoming a consumerist state - was very evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when the state borders were sealed. The chief minister had to specially request for the allowance of food supplies from neighbouring states. Agriculture has shrunk to the core from 60% to near 10% of the state’s economy.

Continuous human exploitation of land and unsustainable practices have destroyed several natural water conservation structures such as paddy fields, wetlands, forests and other water bodies. These aquifers have helped to replenish the water table during the rainy season. The reclamation and conversion of paddy fields for housing and other commercial establishments have affected the natural recharge structures. Experts argue that policies like the latest amendment to the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008 have further compounded the problem. Moreover, there is an over-exploitation of groundwater resources without requisite steps taken to replenish the levels and this, in turn, has exacerbated the water crisis in Kerala. With increased population, changed topography and land fillings, all these natural storage structures that sponge up even the huge receipt of rainfall has all gone bust. Uncurbed deforestation, land degradation and increased human habitation have also reduced the land’s capacity to absorb rainwater. This vanishing mechanism to conserve water with Kerala’s downward-sloping topography drains the rainwater into the sea within 48 hours of a downpour without any storage. The “natural infrastructure” of Kerala is eroding fast and God’s own country deserves a break, just like the COVID-19 lockdown but significantly more. In the meantime, I harbour hope that political mindset will change and leadership will have resolve (as in Corona times), to sustain and check the catastrophes the state experiences.

It is high time to look ahead towards water security, food security and ecological security of the state with sufficient resolve and political will to check the catastrophes happening repeatedly. The natural resources that do exist in the state continue to be under-utilized and ill maintained. There is a dire need to adopt a more intensive integrated water resource management programs along with an intensive campaign to make citizen inculcate and practice the water management measures. This requires an urgent need to practice judicious use of ground and surface water, increase our water storage capacity, and reduce subsidies that encourage overconsumption of water. The government should generate awareness in the state about the importance of sustainable use of water, water conservation and rainwater harvesting. Initiatives need to be taken to enable community groups to identify the water crisis through education and training on water and climate change impacts. Citizens can be encouraged to take up rainwater harvesting measures. Strict enforcement of installation and maintenance of roof water harvesting structure both at urban and rural areas is needed. Besides, wide-scale adoption of community-based watershed management systems can also greatly help along with encouraging the recycling and reusing of water. 

With this realization, WaterAid India has been promoting water conservation measures such as dug well recharging, rainwater harvesting, check dams, gully plugs and pond restoration activities in Palakkad, Kerala under ‘Sustainable Access to Safe Water’ (SAS) project. These measures are implemented on a larger scale directly and through leveraging as part of source sustainability measures and thereby improving sustainable access to drinking water.