Thiruvananthapuram: Once a water-surplus state blessed with bountiful rains and a network of rivers and streams, Kerala is fast heading to a grim water crisis triggered by environmental degradation, climate change and poor resource management.
Kerala’s water statistics show that the availability-demand gap is widening every year turning it into a thirsty state, especially during the summer season with wells, ponds and small rivers drying up in many parts.
According to experts, massive destruction of forest over decades, unrestricted sand-mining from rivers and failure to evolve a long-term water management policy are the major causes for the unfolding crisis.
The State Planning Board puts the state’s fresh water availability at 77.35 billion cubic metres (BCM), including the regenerated flow from groundwater. But only 60% of this quantum is utilisable with about 40% lost as run-off.
The utilisable resource is estimated to be 42 BCM against the present demand of 49.70 BCM, which will go up steadily in the coming years.
The state’s public water storage capacity at 1,478 million cubic metres is rather small considering the precious wealth lost as run-off.
“Water-shortage is the biggest problem that Kerala is facing now and it will worsen sooner rather than later, unless a mass movement for conservation is launched,” conservation campaigner and water-management expert N. K. Sukumaran Nair told PTI.
It is a widely-accepted fact that denudation of state’s massive forest coverage is the single most reason for water crunch.
Deforestation has grievously harmed the capacity of forest-soil to absorb water, keep it in sub-soil, slowly allow them penetrate down and ultimately seep into the ground or run off to streams and rivulets in upper reaches. Mining of sand-beds of rivers is another major cause for the present crisis, allowing water to flow off and degrade its quality.
According to Nair, unharmed river-beds serve as a natural reservoir. When water level keep up in rivers, it would replenish the water-tables on banks resulting in uninterrupted supply of clean water for drinking and irrigation even at the peak of summer.
The construction-boom in the state, however, has turned river-sand as costly material, the supply of which is maintained by a flourishing illegal sand trade despite the state restrictions.
A few years back, a prolonged water crisis was something unthinkable for Kerala, which receives an average 3,000 mm of rainfall through South West and North East monsoons, replenishing a natural grid comprising 44 rivers, 900 small tributaries, streams and rivulets and eco-friendly storage system of canals, wells, ponds.
“Of course, the problem is far too complicated to be solved though quick-fix solutions. But, there are things to be done urgently while evolving a long-term policy for sustainable utilisation and management of this most basic and essential natural wealth,” Nair said. Conversion of vast stretches of paddy fields into cash-crop gardens or building sites has also inflicted severe damage to water sources.
According to experts, the water crunch was not a problem peculiar to Kerala, but Keralites feel it all the more severe as this is something new to them when compared to neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu.
Recent statistics put the country’s average per capita availability of water has sharply fallen from 5,200 cubic milli metre to 1,820 cubic millimetre in the last 50 years, and with projected population figures, it may slip in the coming decades.
Studies have also pointed at the grim prospect of about 30% of the country’s geographical area and 60% of polulation facing absolute water scarcity in another 50 years. “It is evident from all-India figures that it is a national crisis and which calls for national planning and implementation,” Nair, also chairman of the Pamapa river protection council, said.
Realising the magnitude of the problem, the state has launched a massive campaign to polularise ‘rain water harvesting´ through state agencies like Jalanidhi with the involvement of NGOs and corporate houses.
According to Planning Board, about 4,000 rain water harvesting structures had been created so far. The Government has also amended the building rules to incorporate provision of roof-top rainwater harvesting in houses and other commercial buildings.
The worsening water crunch has also had its social and political fallout. The state had been witness to struggle by local resistance groups against some leading soft drink companies alleging exploitation of scare ground water sources by them.
Relying heavily on hydel power, the water shortage has its energy consequences as well for Kerala. Often in the past, the state had to go through power cuts when the monsoon failed. Thanks to normal monsoon, the state had been able to maintain its generation capacity to optimum level with the shortfall being met from the share received from the central pool. However, recent decision of the Centre to cut the states’ share sharply is worrying the state.