Dumping of waste and rampant encroachment have completely choked the Konothupuzha, and it sees little or no free flow of water even during the monsoon

“The river has now been privatised,” says 84-year-old Kalu Kurumban. He leans back on his chair as he struggles to summon up memories of a river that had once saved him from policemen hunting down Communist sympathisers.

That was before the 1960s, when Konothupuzha meant everything to the people who lived on its banks. It was life, water and food, means of transport and the scene of celebrations, he says, describing how paddy fields on both sides of the 17-km river once echoed the songs of the farmers and was part of their daily lives.

What Mr. Kurumban refers to is the about the river being walled in by private property at several places along its course. But being walled in is the least of the river’s troubles as dumping of waste and rampant encroachment have completely choked it.

It is a far cry from the river that saved Kurumban and dozens of others from the police. While the police ransacked their homes by night they stayed in neck-deep water, hidden under water hyacinths.

Once a saviour, it has now turned poisonous. The river sees little or no free flow of water even during the monsoon in July and August, thanks largely to unscientifically-built bunds and shutters along its many stretches.

The shutters have been built to prevent salt water intrusion but have ended up blocking the flow of the river almost totally, says K. P. Varghese. He was part of a team from Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad which studied the condition of the river a year ago and submitted a report to the Ernakulam district panchayat.

At Irumpanam, where the river has nearly come to a standstill, the river has been buried under overgrown grass and waste heaps.

K.V. Thankappan, who lives by the river near Irumpanam, says the river supported a whole way of life of the people on its banks. Building materials were transported using the river and fishermen had bounteous catches ranging from snakeheads to catfishes.

The river courses through Udayamperoor, Amballoor, Mulanthuruthy, Chottanikkara and Thiruvankulam and Tripunithura. None of the respective local bodies have proper waste management systems in place and the constant pollution is a matter of concern. Waste flows into the river from automobile workshops, abattoirs, industrial units, markets etc and tests have revealed that organic pollutants constituted most of the river’s problem.

No recent studies have been undertaken on the condition of the river but the Parishad study showed that its water is absolutely unusable. Fish resources have depleted and the banks of the river experience serious drinking water shortage.

V. Sreedharan Nair, who owns more than two acres of paddy fields close to the river, says paddy cultivation has been given up for several years now largely because of pollution of the fields. It is estimated around 3,500 acres of paddy fields have been abandoned along both sides of the river.

The river runs from Champakkara Canal in the north to Puthotta in the south as it empties into the Vembanad Lake. A branch of Konothupuzha also joins Murinjapuzha, in Kottayam district.

The width of river varies between 10 metres and 80 metres and the depth is not more than a metre at most places.

Though the Parishad study recommended decongesting the river to create free flow of water, there has been no move yet from the authorities. District panchayat president Eldhose Kunnappilly says while the local body is keen to do something about the condition of the river, it does not have sufficient funds to undertake the work.

Building of outer bunds, a programme to restart paddy cultivation in fields along its banks, setting up of waste treatment facilities in markets and business centres along the river and removal of the shutter in Puthenkavu were among the recommendations to give a new life to the river.

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