How the floods have worsened Kuttanad's water pollution crisis

The locals at one point used to drink from the backwaters, but the city waste and sewage have started accumulating in this low-lying region.   
How the floods have worsened Kuttanad's water pollution crisis
How the floods have worsened Kuttanad's water pollution crisis
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The lake-facing houses in Kuttanad have a kind of bathing ghat in front of them. Men and women can be seen washing clothes and utensils utilising the backwaters. Household activities for the people dwelling here are done in the open and visible to the public.

Kuttanad lies at the heart of the backwaters in Alappuzha district and is called the ‘Rice Bowl of Kerala’. However, despite being rich in backwaters, the irony is that Kuttanad has always been a water-starved region. And the deluge has only added to the distress of the people here.

The problem is complex. While no adequate pipelines have been built for water distribution in Kuttanad, the existing ones are drenched and damaged, thanks to the clayey soil. This type of soil is peculiar to the Kuttanad region, one of the most low-lying regions in the country.

“We have been facing this situation for ages, there was never a permanent solution. Even at the relief camps, our cause of worry was always about this. No one ever addressed it, there have been temporary solutions though,” says Laly, a native of Chennamkary.

Boats collecting water from the kiosks and distributing water for houses are a common sight in Kuttanad.

Post floods, people returning home have been waiting for water bottles being distributed in boats.

Kuttanad had faced floods in July forcing scores of families to shift to relief camps. The relief camps were in boats and ferries as reaching the non-flood affected areas was not possible. The crisis had begun then.

After the deluge, the water crisis has only worsened.

“One is that the water sources have been contaminated. The flood waters have brought waste from the other places making the lake water unusable for washing clothes. Still, for the people who returned from the relief camps, there is no other option but to use it,” says R Visakhan, former president of the Kainakiri Panchayat.

Prasad, a native of Kainakiri, says, “During my childhood, I used to drink the lake water for it had such purity. Now that the water is polluted, we still use it for purposes, other than drinking. Public taps provide water once in a week or so, something which we can’t rely on… sometimes it would be at intervals of months.”

Now, animal carcasses floating in the flood waters have made the situation worse. “The decaying of the carcass has happened in the water only and not in other parts of the state, we use that water for many purposes,” says Prasad.

Why Kuttanad has turned into a water-polluted area

Houseboats have become the face of backwater tourism but has added to the woes of the people. With nearly 3,500 boats being operated on the backwaters of Kuttanad, the toilet waste left behind by the boats is mixing with the water.

“The people of Kuttanad have been using public water bodies for their water needs. But over the years, in the past two decades- the water has become unusable. However, the people are still using it for almost all purposes since water availability has never been addressed. Unlike in the past, the density of population is now higher in Kuttanad. With the advent of houseboats, the scenario has become graver. Though it is mandatory that houseboats should have bio toilets, it is hardly followed. If the bio toilets are set up, they won’t be maintained nor will the authorities monitor it,” Visakhan says.

Apart from the growth of tourism, the use of chemical fertilizers for agriculture as well as the waste being dumped in Kuttanad from the cities, and that from Sabarimala- have rendered public water bodies unusable.

“Now that the number of industries is more, there is no proper waste treatment in the cities- which use the nearby semi-urban or village areas as waste dumping slots, the increase in the density of population…have all contributed to the water scarcity of Kuttanad. The drainages of all upper lands have also been opened to Kuttanad with the result that the sewage has started flowing in this area. Our land used to be called kidney of the earth, now we are damaging the kidney itself. There are no groundwater sources and there are no sand particles on our land but clay. How can we expect to generate water on our own land?” Visakhan asks.

The problem is particularly with lower Kuttanad under which fall panchayats like Kainakiri, Chennamkari, Chambakulam and Nedumudi.

“If availability of drinking water is a post-floods crisis in other parts of the state, for Kuttanad, it has always been there. When people began returning from relief camps, our greatest worry was how to arrange drinking water for them,” says Kainakiri Panchayat Vice-President Jijo Pallikkal.

The geography

The fully waterlocked geography of Kuttanad stands in the way of pipelines being laid extensively. “The existing pipelines were laid through paddy fields in the past. The roads were constructed multiple times in various ways over the pipelines. The clay surface does not provide a firm base for laying pipelines, most of the pipes have been damaged by now. There are even those which were laid 40 years ago. Besides, not all the pipelines have been replaced, some were using the fund of panchayats,” says a government official who didn’t want to be named.

“The pipes are laid at two to three meters in depth, Kuttanad has been naturally filled up every year by the accumulation of silt. Utilities were ignored when roads were constructed or repaired. The idea of a utility corridor has never arisen. Now that the old pipes are under the new roads, there are frequent damages. Proper trenching is needed for clay soil, but in Kuttanad, what has been done is pipelines were laid without proper specifications,” the official adds.

For Kuttanad’s population of nearly 2.5 lakh people, if 100 litres of water need to distributed, 24 million litres of water need to be produced. But the capacity of the plant at Neerettu in Thiruvalla from where the water is produced, is only 14 million litres per day. Out of this, more than 50 per cent would be lost by leaks without adequate pipelines for distribution.

“It is a funny system in Kuttanad, water is pumped directly to the customers. Everywhere else, it is through overhead gravity system. In Kuttanad, overhead tanks are just ornaments, gravity feeding is not possible anywhere,” says an Executive Engineer of the State Water Authority.


“The solution is to increase the production capacity with a well-thought plan on where and how to increase it. It won’t be advisable to increase it at one boundary, rather the production should be at the central point of demand so that transmission loss can be avoided. For Kuttanad, a commercial plant won’t work, but we have to go for reverse treatment. But RO is highly capital intensive. Also, there is zero coordination with various departments, the Public Works and Water Resources departments. Other than the pipelines, what remains are the tube wells, which have been worn out due to excessive use. If we operate a tube well for six hours, it needs 22 hours for rectification. Post floods, the pumping systems were submerged,” he adds.

Most of the people in Kuttanad had rainwater harvesting pits at their houses. The pits served as a source of water. But the floods devastated the rain pits, which led to the water getting contaminated. Now these pits also have to be rebuilt. 

This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.

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