The district has the highest number of borewells in Kerala, which experts say is one of the main reasons for the groundwater depletion.

Kasargod Borewell diggingPicture: Thagaval-uzhavan, Wikimedia Commons
Delve Environment Tuesday, September 22, 2020 - 18:37

Ashokan, a small-scale farmer from Maniyampara village in Kerala’s Kasaragod district, spent almost Rs 1 lakh to dig three borewells, but he still did not get water. “Earlier we had an open well, a pond and a suranga in our land. We also fetched water from a nearby river. But in the last few years, everything dried up. We had no other option for irrigation, so we decided to dig borewells but it was all in vain,” he says.

Joseph, another farmer who owns a rubber plantation in Kasaragod’s Pallathadka, has two borewells on his land. They are used for irrigation purposes because there are no water sources nearby. At times, one of the borewells dries up.

Ayesha, who lives near Badiyadka in the district, had dug a borewell a few years ago. But when her new neighbour dug another borewell in 2019, her well slowly dried up within a year. This caused a rivalry between the neighbours. “Every household in the locality has a borewell. They dug so close to ours, that is why our well dried up,” Ayesha complains. There are many others in the district who raise similar concerns.

All these experiences are a part of larger issues facing Kasaragod district.

Kasaragod faces severe drought in the summers. A study by the Groundwater Estimation Committee (GEC) under the Centre’s Water Resources ministry, conducted in 2017 and published in 2019, says that the district is on the verge of groundwater depletion. In the six blocks of the district, Kasaragod block has extracted 97.68% of groundwater already. The block has been categorised as Critical. Kanhangad, Karadka and Manjeshwar blocks are categorised as Semi-critical. Kanhangad (77.67 % extraction) and Karadka (82% extraction) were safe zones in 2013, but by 2017 their condition had deteriorated to Semi-critical. The extraction in Manjeswar block is 83.96%.

While the study threw light on a critical issue faced by the district, awareness about the urgency of the situation does not seem to have reached the grassroots yet.

Groundwater extraction through borewells

Kasaragod district has the highest number of borewells in the state. Groundwater extraction in the district is 80%, according to groundwater department studies. Over the years, people have started digging more and more borewells abandoning open wells. Though water supply is available in city areas through the Kerala Water Authority (KWA), many households depend on these wells. In rural areas, these wells are very common.

Out of six blocks in the district, one has been categorised as Critical, three as Semi-critical and two blocks as Safe, the GEC study says. The study also states that groundwater availability for future use is 5,176 HaM, which is the lowest in the state. Still people go on digging borewells, even though there are a lot of regulations. Overuse of these borewells results in an alarming depletion of groundwater.

Speaking to TNM, EP Rajmohan, special officer of Kasaragod Development Package, a project for the development of the district says, “People are not aware of the situation, that’s why they dig more borewells. The aquifers found beneath the rock layers are drawn using borewells. These are found in the cracks of rocks. These aquifers are formed over many years, maybe even centuries. They can get depleted. There are borewells that dry up after a few years, some dry up sooner. Think of it like a water tank, where the water can get over. Recharging of these aquifers rarely happens or may take another century, surface water doesn’t reach there.”

“Water literacy is something that we lack, that’s why people keep on digging borewells. People don’t understand that we’re exploiting the water. If a household has a borewell, they use water from it throughout the year. Instead they can use open wells during the rainy season and when it dries up, they can depend on borewells,” he adds.

Restrictions over borewells

Like Ashokan, there are many in Kasaragod who dig more than one borewell. Moreover, in some of the housing colonies each household has a borewell.

“We have imposed certain rules for the construction of borewells. Earlier a permit from the panchayat was required, for which the Groundwater department had to give clearance. Now we have formed a district level technical committee headed by the Collector, where we scrutinise all borewell applications and site inspection reports. Only after that we give permission,” Ratheesh O, Assistant Executive Engineer and District Officer, Groundwater Department Kasaragod, explains.

“Now we don’t give permission for irrigation, commercial and industrial purposes in all the four blocks. Borewells are allowed to be constructed only for drinking water purposes. Earlier we had panchayat level schemes to construct borewells for drinking water in certain areas. But now we make sure that they are allowed only in areas where KWA water connection cannot be given,” the officer adds.

However, this information doesn’t seem to have reached the grassroots level.

Krishna Bhat, a farmer from the district, says, “Only during summer we have to take permission from the panchayat, in the other seasons we can dig borewells. There’s no limit.”

Many other farmers in the rural areas of the district also seem to have no knowledge about the restrictions nor about conservation of groundwater.

“There is a rule that borewells cannot be constructed in critical and semi-critical blocks. But many people breach this,” Rajmohan says.

In July 2019, Ashok Kumar Singh, central government delegate who reached the district to review the situation, said that Kasaragod is among the 255 districts in the country that face severe drinking water shortage. Palakkad was another district from Kerala on the list.

Reasons for groundwater depletion

Excessive usage of borewells is the main reason for the groundwater depletion, but people turn to borewells when they don’t get water in open wells.

“One of the reasons is the monsoon cycle. Though the quantity of rain we get has remained the same over the years, the duration of rains has decreased. The amount of rain we used to get in six months earlier, the same amount we now get in three months,” Rajmohan says.

“Apart from that, we have a sloping terrain which doesn’t hold the rain water. Within a few hours, the water flows towards the sea. In Kasaragod, the upper crust of the soil has already disappeared. When you travel through the district, you can see just black rocks where there is no soil. So, the surface is unable to hold water,” he adds.

Rajmohan also cites unscientific construction as another reason for the groundwater depletion. “We have constructed many roads, Kasaragod is possibly one of the districts with a high number of road networks. This also causes soil erosion. We should consider the environmental aspects in any construction. Also we still consider rains a headache even after facing severe drought. We make holes in our compound wall so that excess rain water flows away. We can’t tolerate waterlogging even for a few hours. Only if water stays in the soil for some time will our groundwater be recharged. Interlocking in the compounds is also a great danger. Water will not stay in the ground. It will flow into the sea if we don’t make any efforts to hold it back. All this happens due to lack of awareness,” he reminds us.

Experts have already cited excessive sand mining in Kasaragod district as another major reason for the drought.

“Our rivers have shrunk. Kasaragod has 12 rivers, the highest in the state. But water has dwindled in all of them due to sand mining and caused groundwater depletion. There was a time when sand from the district’s rivers were distributed to all other districts of Kerala. Now the quantity of sand has reduced, so mining has also come down,” Rajmohan says.

Shree Padre, water conservation activist and renowned journalist, points to lack of awareness as the main reason for the overexploitation.

“As far as Kasaragod is concerned, general awareness is very low. The seriousness of the issue hasn’t reached the common people,” Shree Padre says.

“Most of the reasons for the water scarcity are man-made. But lack of northeast monsoon rains (Thulavarsham) is another key reason. That is the last recharge before the long summer. If that’s reduced, it affects the water availability considerably. So suddenly when they face drought, everyone goes in for borewells,” he adds.

What next? How to recharge groundwater?

Shree initiated a water conservation movement in his village Padre by constructing temporary check dams and renovating existing dam-like structures that can hold water and help recharge the groundwater.

“In my village Padre, a few of us got together and started a movement called Neera Nimmathiyathra Padre for water conservation. Earlier, people were not very interested. We campaigned for the construction of temporary check dams, which is very affordable. We motivated many people who live near streams to construct them. That is the traditional method of recharging that was followed by our ancestors. We also have many traditional structures like kattas and madakkas that can hold water, we should maintain all of those. We also started the check dam festival in our village first,” he says.

Shree says that an apolitical people’s initiative to recharge groundwater is the need of the hour. “In a housing colony called Uliyathadukka, the residents pooled in and constructed one borewell rather than each of them digging individual ones. Such models can be adopted by others too,” he suggests.

Rajmohan also asserts that constructing check dams, permanent and temporary, is the last resort to save the district. “We have around 650 streams contributing to the 12 rivers in the district. Since the water holding capacity of the soil has reduced, our last resort to recharge groundwater is to contain the water in these streams and rivers. We have about 1,000 structures to store water, including check dams, regulators, etc. We have constructed new ones as well as renovated existing traditional check dam kind of structures that were used for agricultural purposes,” he says.

He also says that water literacy should be part of the school curriculum and points out that awareness should reach the grassroots, adding that people should take up conservation as their own responsibility.

“We also need to construct temporary check dams, using stones, mud or wood, in streams when there is water. Individuals who live close to these streams should do it themselves with an awareness that it is their responsibility to recharge groundwater sources. Last year, the district administration started the Thadayana Utsavam (Check dam festival), during which we created around 2,000 temporary check dams. We also developed a new type of structure called ring check dams,” he adds.

The officer says that the conservation efforts in the district have been found to be very effective. However, it is doubtful how effective the local self-government department will be in creating awareness over this.

“The groundwater department has a scheme for groundwater recharging. We mainly do that at the government level, we’re not able to do it for the public. There are panchayat schemes to recharge wells, but we have doubts about how effectively they’re doing it. Main problem is that people aren’t aware of it,” Ratheesh says.

He adds that many conservation activities that are going on under the district administration have been found to be effective.

“We continuously monitor the water level and record the data. As a result of the conservation activities we did last year and due to good rains, this year we have noticed that the water levels are better. Water levels will increase if we continue to do the recharging,” he says.

“This 2017 GEC report was published in 2019. As part of Jal Shakthi Abhiyan, Kasaragod block was selected and a team from the Centre visited here for further inspection. Under the leadership of District Collector Sajith Babu, we have also framed a water use policy,” he adds.

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