Water woes in Kerala’s wetland

Kuttanad region, famous for cultivating paddy below the sea level, is reeling under a severe drinking water crisis caused by water pollution, high salinity, and changing weather patterns. Hiran Unnikrishnan and Sam Paul A. travel to the region that spans 62 grama panchayats in Kottayam, Alappuzha, and Pathanamthitta districts to understand the issue up-close

March 29, 2024 08:04 am | Updated 08:04 am IST

Prasad, a resident of Chungathu Muppathu in upper Kuttanad enters the Kottayam -Alappuzha boat channel on a country boat with vessels full  of drinking water collected from a public tap.

Prasad, a resident of Chungathu Muppathu in upper Kuttanad enters the Kottayam -Alappuzha boat channel on a country boat with vessels full of drinking water collected from a public tap. | Photo Credit: VISHNU PRATHAP

A narrow, broken road runs alongside Nattuthodu, a canal clogged with water hyacinth and mucky water. It leads to the 1,100-acre Ayyanad paddy polder, where golden yellow rice plants are almost ripe for harvest, in Pulinkunnu grama panchayat in Kuttanad region, Alappuzha. After working under the relentless sun, a small group of visibly exhausted labourers, some with muddy legs, have gathered on the veranda of their co-worker P. Shantha’s small single-storey house to catch their breath. 

The middle-aged woman goes inside, returning with a jug of water and a couple of steel mugs. In a hushed tone, she says, “If the supply does not arrive, we will run out of drinking water by the evening.” 

Shantha’s four-member family has been relying on private water supply for several years for drinking and cooking, whether in the rainy season or summer. There is no well or piped water system in the region. 

“Despite having plenty of water around, in the form of canals and lake, it’s not fit for consumption. Every fortnight, we spend ₹500 to buy 500 litres of drinking water that is delivered on a goods carrier from Changanassery, 18 km away. For all other purposes including washing clothes, utensils, and bathing, we use the contaminated water from local water sources. There is no other choice,” explains Shantha. 

Almost everyone in Pulinkunnu and nearby Kavalam has similar stories. With public taps running dry and water supply by local governments irregular, people are forced to spend anywhere between ₹1,000 and ₹3,000 a month on drinking water. Plastic water tanks, ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 litres, placed along the roadside, serve as a stark reminder of the severity of the situation. 

The Kuttanad wetland system, part of the Vembanad wetland system, is famous for cultivating paddy below sea level on land created by draining delta swamps in brackish waters. The farming system was declared a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) over a decade ago. 

As Kuttanad, known for idyllic backwaters, rivers, canals, and vast paddy fields, faces the dire consequences of changing weather patterns, for the people of the region who live across 62 grama panchayats in Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Pathanamthitta districts, fluctuating weather patterns, alternating between torrential downpours and drought, and intrusion of saline water from the sea are at the forefront. Adding to their woes is the worsening drinking water problem caused by water pollution, high salinity, and drought. 

Waiting for water

Country boats carrying water-filled tanks sailing across Vembanad Lake and goods carriers transporting potable water are a common sight. Packaged drinking water is in high demand in Kuttanad. 

At Hotel Deepus, near Mini Civil Station in Mankombu village, Alappuzha district, a dozen 20-litre cans filled with water are on display by the main door. “It will all be sold in no time,” says Narayanan K., the 80-year-old owner of the restaurant. “There was a time when we used to drink directly from rivers, canals, ponds, and other waterbodies. However, due to pollution, even well water is not safe for consumption anymore,” says the elderly man. 

After the devastating 2018 floods, many water sources in Kuttanad taluk in Alappuzha district, such as ponds, wells, and rainwater harvesting pits, were destroyed or left unusable. Recurring floods exacerbate the situation. While residents blame the government for failing to ensure drinking water supply in the region, experts point out the lack of proper waste management in various sectors including water transport, houseboat tourism, and agriculture, which contribute to pollution in Kuttanad. Absence of efficient water management is also an issue. 

“Kuttanad receives an average of 250-300 cm of rainfall annually. Still, the region is water-starved,” says Jibin Thomas, coordinator at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) Kuttanad centre. Thomas blames the crisis on a lack of coordination in water conservation and management.

“Kuttanad has some sort of water distribution infrastructure but lacks quality water sources. The lack of waste management in Kuttanad and surrounding areas is intensifying water pollution in the region. Natural waterbodies need to be revived. A dual water supply system should be introduced with one source designated for drinking and the other for other purposes,” he says. 

People parched

While the people of Kuttanad taluk are concerned about the lack of quality drinking water, the scenes from upper Kuttanad in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta are rare in mid-summer; in early March, they are unprecedented. 

A long line of country boats is stranded on the desiccated brown banks of a canal running through Chungathu Muppathu, a village on the banks of the Kottayam-Alappuzha boat channel. The landscape surrounding the waterbody is arid: The absence of rain has caused water to evaporate and the land to crack. When the water level in the canal drops far enough, people have few options. They can pay indefinitely for water delivery services on country boats or wait for the tap water. 

In her 77 years of living here, Mary Joseph of Akampadathu House, Chungathu Muppathu, Kottayam district, has never witnessed anything like it. Amidst this punishing heat, she finds herself unable to draw water even from the muddy canal in front of her house. 

“Everything is dry, brown, and very sad,” she remarks. On alternate mornings, she despatches her grandson, Albin, on a country boat with a few vessels to draw water from a public tank located on the opposite side of the Kottayam-Alappuzha boat channel. When the young man in his early 20s arrives at the spot, he’s not alone. All 35 families residing on the other side of the boat channel will rely on this single tap this summer. 

“Drawing water has been quite a struggle this year. Unlike previous years, we do not have access to the water in the canals, which are generally used for bathing and washing clothes,” Mary adds, alluding to the dry waterbodies. 

According to Prasad, who operates a petty shop near a footbridge that grants access to the other bank of the boat channel, the recent heatwave has exacerbated the situation. “With the canals beginning to dry up so early, the few household wells here too have fallen into disuse,” he adds. 

The load on agriculture

For most of the monsoon in 2023, C.G. Muraleedharan, a 58-year-old paddy farmer from Malarikkal village, an emerging destination known for its water lily flowering season, remained optimistic. However, compared to the average rainfall of the area, there was a decrease by 35% in 2023. Aside from only a handful of days, the flow in the Meenachil river and its connected canals was at a historic low. 

But the farmer believed things will soon return to normal. “I thought the lack of water would be temporary,” he says. But without rain, the water evaporated, and the land cracked. 

Historically, access to water in Malarikkal had never been an obstacle in this low-lying patch of land, which lies between the Meenachil and Kodoor rivers. Cultivating paddy twice a year is a way of life for those living here, and their primary concern, for a long time, has been to control the excess water gushing from upstream. 

Muraleedharan realised the full extent of what he was about to lose only by the second half of February 2024 when his 50-acre rice fields did not turn their usual luxuriant green. “The unrelenting sun has scorched and stunted my paddy in several acres,” he laments. 

There is still a month left for the crop to be harvested, but Muraleedharan is uncertain how much of his crop will survive this prolonged heat. “If the summer rains do not arrive, this will affect the next crop as well. The ground is too acidic and dry to begin the next season,” he adds. 

As the drought intensifies over upper Kuttanad, the entire local economy has been affected. Fishing, agriculture, livestock, and even toddy tapping are all suffering in the region. “Even the coconut trees are running dry. The yield per tree has decreased to less than a litre per day against the average volume of 1.5 litres. The tappers are struggling to meet their daily quota of 5 litres,” says Saneesh Mohan, who runs a toddy shop near Paral, Changanassery. 

Seventy-year-old Vasu, a veteran toddy tapper in Malarikkal, also attests to the sharp fall in toddy production. “It’s been quite a struggle. But having done it for over five decades now, I am just keeping on with this,” he says, as he navigates his boat through a partially dried canal that connects the J-block polders, one of the biggest polder networks in the region, to the waterbodies around. 

“It’s always a tricky balance,” explains K.G. Padmakumar, Director of the International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming in Kuttanad. According to him, the first sign of a failing well tends to be linked with the falling water level in Vembanad Lake. 

Possible solutions

“While closing the Thannermukkom bund (Thanneermukkom barrage was constructed across Vembanad Lake between Thaneermukkom in Alappuzha and Vechur in Kottayam to prevent the intrusion of brackish water into Kuttanad), we should follow the water cycle instead of the calendar. This year, the bund was closed in December, but during low tide. This has significantly affected the water level not just in Vembanad Lake but the entire landscape,” he points out. 

As of March 4, the water level above sea level in the lake system stood at 25 cm compared to 38 cm recorded during the same period last year. “The early summer rains, which should have begun in the first half of March, too are missing this time,” he adds. 

Although the region faces an acute shortage of safe drinking water, the Kuttanad drinking water scheme, launched in 1973 to provide water to people in 13 grama panchayats in Kuttanad taluk, remains an unfinished project. Last year, the government accorded administrative sanction for the revised estimate of the project. The ₹387.91-crore Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board-aided project being implemented in six phases, however, is making slow progress. The proposed water distribution network includes a 46.2-km main supply line and 895 km of sub-main and branch lines. 

With traditional water sources declining and people struggling to access clean water, experts at the MSSRF and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation, suggest setting up rainwater harvesting systems extensively to deal with the water crisis.

An expert team from IIT Bombay, which surveyed the Kuttanad region a few years ago, also called for a decentralised water supply alternative like rainwater harvesting system to address the acute water shortage experienced by the region. 

“Rainwater harvesting systems are ideal for the unique landscape of Kuttanad. They are easy to maintain and can also help during floods. The government should prioritise the installation of rainwater harvesting systems,” says Jojo T.D., project manager at ATREE, Alappuzha unit. 

ATREE has installed 580 rainwater harvesting units with the support of LIC Housing Finance Ltd, benefiting around 1,700 households. MSSRF has installed around 150 units ranging in size from 10,000 to 50,000 litres. 

It last rained in parts of upper Kuttanad a few days ago, although the nearly half-hour showers that fell evaporated almost immediately on contact with the parched earth. Before that, the region hadn’t seen any rain since January. As the land dangerously dries up, people desperately wait for the summer rains to arrive. But the skies remain a vivid, cloudless blue, at least for now. Shantha and others living on the banks of Nattuthodu, meanwhile, pin their hopes on the Kuttanad drinking water scheme to get access to clean water. 

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.