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“The poverty of the people in Idukki has increased. More than 80 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood. But agriculture production costs are very high; labor charge is high, [as are] pesticides and manures. And the average yield is very low compared to other parts of the country and world. So, the people have been compelled, out of their tragic situation, to cut down trees.

“It’s a main reason for the water shortage,” the priest adds. “Trees play an important role in preserving the water in the area. This is a steep area with valleys and mountains. As the rain falls, the water immediately flows out. We have no effective preservation methods. But we can encourage reforestation and water preservation methods. We need to excavate ponds on agricultural lands, build water tanks and check dams. We also have to ensure that organic fencing grows thickly around the perimeters, prevents soil erosion and helps water go down into the ground. But it’s costly, and we don’t have much financial stability.”

Nearing Nedumkandam, the tiny car rides up on the tail of a giant truck teetering with freshly logged rosewood. Unable to pass, the priest hits the breaks at the last moment, affording an all too close-up view of the timber and back of the truck. To be pressed into pulp or carved into furniture, the logs will find their way to Kerala’s lowlands, along with everything else.

All the waste from the higher ranges — plastic, food waste, human waste, fertilizers applied in the rubber and tea estates — comes to Kuttanadu,” laments Father Thomas Peelicanickal, executive director of Kuttanadu Vikasana Samithy (KVS), the official development agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Changanacherry.

“Kuttanadu has become a waste bin. Four rivers pass through the area,” he points out. “We’re below sea level, more than seven feet. Water gets stagnated here and only slowly flows to sea.”

KVS promotes sustainable development practices in the region, one of the few places in the world where agriculture is carried out below sea level.

While the high range has done low-lying communities such as Kuttanadu no favors, the water problems the area faces are equally self-inflicted. In large part, they stem from the agricultural crisis that has gripped the state since the 1990’s. Taking desperate measures in desperate times, small, poor farmers have become much more dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This has destroyed the fragile nutrient balance of the soil, poisoned the water supply, indebted the small farmer and exposed the population to untold health risks.

“What’s the saying?” asks Father Peelicanickal, “‘Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.’

“Before, people used to drink water from the open space: rivers, lakes, the small canals going here and there giving water to every paddy field. It was comparatively pure water — potable. But from this hybrid agriculture and all this so-called scientific agriculture, the Kuttanadu people’s health was lost, drinking water lost. All kinds of communicable disease and cancers, everything came together.”

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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Water Socioreligious programs