The thirst of Upper Kuttanad remains despite a generous monsoon
They are like shipwrecked sailors — water as far as the eye can see but not a drop to drink.
Scores of poor families in the Upper Kuttanad villages of Peringara, Niranom, Nedumpram and Kadapra in Thiruvalla taluk know the pain.
The unfortunate people, a majority of them farm workers, live atop bunds, earthen protection walls surrounding this granary of the central Travancore region, below the sea level.
“We have lost faith in politicians and successive State governments for their hollow election promises to address our drinking water needs,” Kunjamma, a middle-aged farm worker at Chathankary village, says.
“Whether monsoon or summer, the people of Upper Kuttanad are left to bear the bane of drinking water scarcity, despite being surrounded by water round the year. Absence of governmental initiatives, coupled with unscientific infrastructure projects, over the past several years is the reason for the problem,” Sreedharan Nair, a septuagenarian farmer at Nedumpram, says.
The criss-crossing roads and reclamation of paddy fields for construction have blocked several canals and other natural flood-escape routes.
The stagnant water in various canals is polluted and not potable. The canals have become dumping grounds for garbage in certain areas, besides being recipients of sewage pipes. Toilets directly empty waste into the canals.
Potable water has become a precious commodity in this paddy bowl, as the reddish yellow well water with a bad taste and odour is unsuitable for consumption.
The recent floods have further contaminated well water, leaving the people to depend solely on the Kerala Water Authority for their daily drinking water needs.
Peringara, Kadapra, Niranom and Nedumpram panchayats and many areas in the lower Kuttanad region are experiencing an acute drinking water shortage.
Though the water authority says pipelines cover the entire Upper Kuttanad region, water supply is disrupted often.
Though the four Upper Kuttanad villages require 75 lakh litres a day, the utility can supply hardly 30 lakh to 35 lakh litres for technical reasons, its officials in Thiruvalla say.
Niranom, Kadapra and Peringara have been identified as the worst affected. Certain parts of Niranom have been getting water only once in 10 to 14 days, Sam Eapen, Peringara panchayat president, says.
Many people, especially the poor, take water from shallow canals for domestic use. They employ crude methods to “purify” the water collected from nearby canals and wells.
Many households have set up their own small water purification system by passing the polluted canal water through different “filter chambers” filled with sand, crushed granite and charcoal.
The families of farm workers along the Chanthathode canal in Peringara panchayat have “developed” their own makeshift water filter systems. They collect the contaminated canal water and passing it through pots filled with sand and charcoal separately. They say that sometimes, they have to repeat this crude filtering method twice or thrice when the canal water turns squalid.
A drinking water management and sanitation scheme of Bodhana, social service wing of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, in certain Scheduled Caste colonies has turned out to be a solace.
The Bodhana project helps develop low-cost, location-specific models of water purifiers for Upper Kuttanad.
Jinu Thombumkuzhy, project coordinator, says the project was first launched in the Manalel Scheduled Caste colony in Thalavady panchayat five years ago. A three-tier chamber filter with 300-litre storage capacity was installed near a well as a pilot project. The people supported the project by procuring charcoal, crushed granite and sand for setting up the purification chamber.
A unique combination of sand, metal chips and charcoal is used in a particular ratio to develop the filter media. The muddy water turns clear as it passes through the filter chambers.
The treated well water was found superior in quality in a test at the Bodhana laboratory. Representatives of the organisation collect water samples every week for testing, Mr. Thombumkuzhy says.
Bodhana is planning to provide homestead water filters to 200 families in Niranom panchayat, he says.
The people of Upper Kuttanad have been in the habit of rainwater harvesting for the past several years.
They stretch white cotton dhothies in open spaces to filter rainwater and store it in large vessels, which has been a practice prevalent in the area.
Many row country boats to far-off places to fetch water during the summer.