The Periyar would have been a major source of drinking water in the high ranges of Idukki district, now reeling under water shortage. However, the river, like many of its tributaries, has come down to a trickle; that too may disappear soon. The river has the most number of dams in Kerala in addition to the 10 check-dams on its course in the high ranges for supplying water to tea plantations.
Many drinking water projects in the river have been left incomplete, some have been abandoned. A major foreign-funded scheme, launched five years ago at the Ayyappancoil grama panchayat, linking to the Periyar, came to a halt once a large tank was constructed atop Kurissumala. It was designed to supply water to the adjoining grama panchayats of Kattappana, Kanchiyar, and Upputhara. Many small drinking water schemes have remained on paper for long. In rural areas, people walk long distances to fetch water in pots — a usual sight in the low and the high ranges in the district.
In Kattappana, the main sources of drinking water are ponds and borewells. In emergency situations, tanker lorries distribute water. Grama panchayat president Johny Kulampally says that households and hotels in the town depend on potable water supplied by private agencies, without any quality-check.
Many portions of the Kattappana river have been encroached upon. The river is now a dump for waste generated in the town, and severely polluted by pesticides applied on cardamom plantations. Jinu Kuriakose, a homemaker, blames the failure of the authorities in completing drinking water schemes. At Kallukunnu near the town, water is scarce, with hundreds of families depending on a sole scheme, which connects the place to a borewell at Valaiyakandam.
Thirty-five families of Valiyathovala, near the town, depend on potable water supplied by tanker lorries, which charge Rs.700 for 2,000 litres of water. In Erattayar grama panchayat, there are 52 drinking water schemes but tanker lorries have to be pressed into service when people protest.
Karunapuram grama panchayat, on the border with Tamil Nadu, has the largest number of borewells in the district. As per a rough estimate, each household has at least one borewell.
“Most houses have more than one borewell,” says a panchayat official. The entire belt is becoming a rainshadow area and an intensive greening programme to counter the climate change has been launched. The panchayat had once banned borewells, but the move met with opposition from people.
The plight of two major tourism towns, Kumily and Munnar, is no different. The Muthirappuzha river, the source of drinking water for many hotels and homestays in Munnar town, is highly polluted.
In Kumily, the tourism industry depends on the paddy fields in Onnam Mile to meet their water requirement. “On the water front, Kerala should learn some lessons from Tamil Nadu which is a water-starved State. In Cumbom, 10 km from Kumily, one gets a litre of purified quality drinking water, supplied by the government, at Rs.10. But in Kumily, you have to pay a minimum Rs.15 for a litre. Lack of planning has resulted in high pollution of drinking water sources in the high range,” says Joseph Mathew, a shop owner at Kumily.