Rain Rich, Water Poor

India’s lush state of Kerala lacks water

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Annieamma Joseph’s annual bout of self-pity would begin in early February. At 4 a.m., the shrill ring of her alarm clock would stir the mother of two out of a deep sleep. While the last rains of the northeast monsoon could hardly be described as a distant memory, she would rub her dry eyes as the quest for water dominated her thoughts. Struggling to her feet, she would trudge downhill to fetch it. Despite the dark, she could feel a thick layer of dust coat her feet. And this was just the beginning. Not until early June would the southwest monsoon end the four-month dry season.

“Then I’d think about my responsibility for my boys,” says Mrs. Joseph.

“Who else will do it? I’m their mother, I’ve got to.”

She would rise early to beat the rush to the public well — its recharge capacity had decreased as of late and there was no telling how long the water supply would last. If she waited until dawn more than likely she would have to trek another 15 minutes downhill to the next well. A little less sleep, therefore, seemed a fair tradeoff for the security of having drinking water.

Water conservationists agree the world’s basic human needs for water can be met by improving usage efficiency, passing and enforcing water quality standards, extending infrastructure and tapping new sources of water supply, such as rainwater harvesting. These are not the most easily implemented action steps, for sure. Yet, with appropriate investment of capital and political will, they claim, the goal is attainable, even in Mrs. Joseph’s village of Kallupalam, tucked high in the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.

For that to happen, however, water must be treated less as a commodity that is infinitely replenished and more as a public trust — no one’s property, yet everyone’s property — so that accountability for its management and use ultimately rests with the local community.

In Kerala, poor management of natural resources, shortsighted agricultural practices and political inaction are pushing the limits. How is it possible that Kerala — which receives an annual average rainfall of more than ten feet, nearly three times higher than the national average — has the lowest per capita water availability in India, even lower than the northwestern state of Rajasthan, home of the Thar Desert?

While not equipped to solve the state’s water problem, social service agencies of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church are tackling the issue, helping local communities such as Kallupalam meet their water needs in an appropriate and responsible manner.

Read any glossy tourist literature about Kerala and one overriding marketing message shines through — the state is blessed with an abundance of water. “God’s Own Country,” as Keralites proudly refer to their state, is “a strip of green land” that boasts “a paradise” of “serene beaches,” “tranquil backwaters” and “lush hill stations” all within “a two- to four-hour drive of one another.”

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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Water Socioreligious programs