Drought
Thrissur is on top of a list of urban agglomerations that recorded highest population growth between 2001 and 2011.

As I stood atop the six-storeyed apartment building in which my mother had bought a flat, it was easy to see the wisdom of Rama Varma Kunjhipilla Thampuran (1751-1805). This King of the Cochin State, more popularly known as Shaktan Thampuran or the Powerful King, had moved his capital from Kochi to Thrissur.

His wisdom in moving his palace from the coast to a location in the midlands of Kerala was strategic – reducing his exposure to raids from the sea by the colonial adventurers of the days. Thrissur, however, may not have grown into a city today had Shaktan Thampuran not made this move.

From the top of the multi-storeyed building, I was seeing Thrissur from a height for the first time. The canopy of the coconut palm crowns below the terrace did not hinder the view up to the Kuthiran hills, as they stretched back into the Nelliampathies and the Anamalai mountain block.

Towards the foreground, the Kuthiran hills wrapped around the northeastern fringes of the city and lost their height towards Wadakancherry. In the west, the sole Vilangan hill stood like a sentinel. Historically, it has been used as a watchtower, for its line of sight up to the Chettuva estuary leading into the Arabian Sea.

In the western fringe, I could see the blue-green band of the Kole wetlands and paddy fields. Fed by rivers from the Western Ghats, this large patch of wetland in Thrissur district, is an interface between fresh and estuarine waters as they meet with the sea. In addition to paddy cultivation, the Kole wetlands support multiple livelihood options for those living around it.

Though I had grown in Thrissur (and those days Thrissur was still a town and had not been upgraded to a city), my view of the city was always from the ground. I had grown in a single-storey cottage and we could not see anything higher than the leaves of the coconut tree. It was decades later, after my father’s death, my mother moved into a smaller house in a taller building.

If my father was alive today he would be surprised hearing about drought and water shortage in Thrissur. During the lifetime of my father, and his father before him, in the city that the Powerful King built, water scarcity would have been the last of all concerns. With perennial rivers flowing by and innumerable water bodies and wetlands in an around the city, the wells may never have dried. If that was not enough, there was copious supply flowing through the pipes from the Peechi dam reservoir near the Kuthiran hills.

The irrigation cum drinking water supply Peechi project was among the earliest projects inaugurated after the Kerala state was formed in 1956. It symbolised the aspirations and dreams of the young state. In 1976, when my father bought the house and compound in Punkunnam, which became our home for decades, we had enough water in our laterite-lined well. As a backup we had water supply from Peechi reservoir. 

The situation is different today. Wells are running dry. Peechi water supply does not reach many in the city. Even if it is does, it is not of good quality. Borewells – unheard of in Thrissur during my growing years – are going deeper. The situation may worsen by summer, which in Kerala is from March to May. The Kerala Government already declared the state as drought affected in October. The southwest and the northeast monsoons were deficit by 39%, and even  after adding the smattering of winter and pre-monsoon rains Kerala received only 1869 mm, the lowest rainfall since 1951.

Annual rainfall in Kerala from 1951 to 2016 (Source: IMD)

But is it merely the drop in rainfall that is causing the problem?

A look at Kerala’s historical rainfall data from 1951 (see graph) shows that there have been years with low rainfall, though not as low as 2016. Even 1800 mm is higher than what most parts of the country receive. For a state with 44 rivers, breaking into estuaries in the coast, there should have been some water in the reserve. Reducing forest cover, changing land use, decreasing ecological health of rivers, land filling of estuaries, increasing urbanisation and conversion of paddy fields, all ensure that the water that falls flows into the sea quickly, thus reducing the water availability in all parts of the state.

This trend has been worse by the increased disregard for the environment in the recent years, and thus the impact of reduced rainfall in 2016 is likely to be felt drastically in the summer of 2017.

Interestingly, Thrissur district had the second-highest rainfall deficit during the southwest monsoon, the main rain bearer for the state. For Thrissur city this is being compounded by the fact that its needs have risen. Recently, I was surprised to see the name of Thrissur on top of a list of urban agglomerations that recorded highest population growth between 2001 and 2011.

Ulka Kelkar, fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) in Bengaluru, had compiled this data from the census data of 2001 and 2011. Even though partially this can be explained by the fact that Thrissur got upgraded from a municipality to a corporation in October 2000 and therefore adding adjoining local bodies to the urban agglomeration, there is no escaping from the fact that Thrissur’s population has grown dramatically in the past decade and half.

The population of Thrissur urban agglomeration has grown dramatically between 2001 and 2011
(Source: Ulka Kelkar, ATREE, from Census data).

The rapid growth in population in the Thrissur urban agglomeration has been at the cost of its natural water sinks. When my father bought the house in Punkunnam, there were large paddy fields not very far from our house. Over the years, these fields were recovered acre by acre and turned into housing plots. The huge filtration bed disappeared in less than a few decades.

Similarly, the covered surface increased with most of the houses paving most of their homesteads. Rainwater flows out quickly from the city. If some of this running water could be made to walk, then irrespective of the drought the inadequacy of water availability could have been dealt with. 

Drought in Kerala is counter-intuitive news for the rest of the country. For the state promoted as “God’s own country” with images of backwaters and monsoon tourism, the idea of drying wells and dysfunctional taps do not fit in with the larger picture. The Powerful King who built the city, could not have thought an answer for this one.

This article was first published here.