Water at the end of the tunnel: How Suranga, Kasaragod’s water tunnels, help fight drought

For Kasaragod, the district with the highest borewell density in Kerala, suranga hold the key to sustainable water supply in the decades to come.
Water at the end of the tunnel: How Suranga, Kasaragod’s water tunnels, help fight drought
Water at the end of the tunnel: How Suranga, Kasaragod’s water tunnels, help fight drought
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In the small Kasaragod village of Kundamkuzhy lives 65-year-old C Kunjambhu, a man who has dedicated his life to the search for water.

It is thanks to his life’s work that many of his fellow village residents can always find water, not only for drinking but also for their farms. Ambu Ettan (ettan meaning elder brother), as the residents call him with respect, is a professional suranga digger, a practitioner of one of the oldest water harvesting systems in the region. 

A suranga is a narrow horizontal tunnel, barely two-and-a-half feet wide and just over five-and-a-half feet high, dug into laterite hills until a water spring is found. The typical suranga can run from anywhere between 30 metres to 300 metres into a hill.

A 300 meters long suranga 

Called Suranga in Kannada and Thurangam in Malayalam, these unique tunnels are one of the most sustainable water management systems used in and around Kasaragod district for generations.

As water percolates through rock and flows into the tunnel, it is carefully channelised in a narrow stream to a small mud reservoir, built near the tunnel. Once water starts flowing from a spring, there is a steady supply of fresh water for years, without having to use pumps and electric motors.

A mud reservoir that collects water from suranga 

While the origin of surangas in Kasaragod is a mystery, similar structures are found in parts of Iran. They are called Qanats and are believed to have been developed by Persians for irrigation in hot, arid areas.

In his 50-year career, Ambu ettan has dug more than 1,000 suranga. Armed with only a pickaxe and a candle, he has sometimes dug tunnels as deep as 300 metres all alone. “Digging such deep tunnels is not an easy task. It needs patience and a strong mind,” says Ambu ettan.

“Beyond 100 meters into the tunnel, the oxygen supply drops. Sometimes I feel suffocated as I go deeper. There are worms that come out of the soil that can make your skin itch. I have to cover my body with kerosene to keep myself protected,” he explains.

Kunjambhu inside one of the suranga he dug

Rise of borewells

As arduous as the task of digging a suranga is, it is the approaching death of his profession that Ambu ettan is most worried about.  

“I have dug more than 1000 suranga with these hands of mine. I remember how my friends and I were such an integral part of our agricultural society. It was only as I got older that bore wells became the alternative for surangas. Soon we started losing our jobs. I didn’t have an option but to adapt myself to modern techniques to make a living.”

Though Ambu ettan now hires out his services to help borewell diggers locate underground springs, he says he is reluctant to be a part of the borewell culture because of the devastating effect it has on the local environment.

“There are more than 15 bore wells around my house. This is very harmful as they can completely drain out ground water. 15 bore wells can completely deplete water levels in open wells around them. They disturb the layer of rocks beneath the upper crust and too many of them in the long run can make an area prone to earthquakes,” he claims.  

For some years now, suranga have been losing popularity in the region as borewells are much cheaper to dig. “Borewells dug using machines cost an average of Rs 120 per foot. To construct a suranga, which depends solely on manual labour, will cost around Rs 500 per foot,” says Ambu ettan.

As their popularity has dropped a growing number of suranga have been abandoned in the district, and some of them have even caved in over time.

Abandoned and dying suranga

But such cheap water extraction comes at a price, warns Ambu ettan. “When you dig a suranga you only hurt the skin of the earth. But when you drill a borewell, you are cutting right through its heart. It cannot sustain the impact.”

Danger of borewells

It’s not just Ambu ettan who is alarmed at the rapid growth of borewells in Kasaragod. There is a growing chorus of expert and activist voices in the district that warns against widespread dependence on borewells.

For instance, Shree Padre, a journalist who has widely written on water issues and is known as the Waterman of Kasaragod, warns that when some people in a region use borewells, over time everyone becomes dependent on them – as the water table drops and surface water systems run dry.

“When a bore well is dug, the water comes from beneath the rocky surface of the earth, where it has collected over years. For the same reason this water is not easily replenished. Over time, borewells start sucking water from nearby wells and ponds, draining the ground water through fissures that link the upper crust with the rocky layer. This leaves many surangas and open wells dry,” he explains.

A family in Kumbla that depends on Suranga for irrigation 

Alarmingly, Kasaragod is one of the most over-exploited areas in Kerala in terms of groundwater extraction through borewells. There are 33,842 borewells drilled by public authorities alone, while there is no reliable count of the number of private ones in the district.  

Kasaragod’s drought issues

What makes this shift to borewells so problematic is that Kasaragod often suffers drastic water scarcity through the summers, despite receiving an average of 3,300mm of rainfall annually.

As V Kunjambhu, Regional Director for the Central Ground Water Board explains, Kasaragod’s mostly consists of inclined terrain with rocky soil. “Therefore rain water gets collected in the ground only in small quantity. 80% of the rain water is lost as run off. The presence of hard rocks makes infiltration of rain water a difficult process.”

MA Rahman, an environmental activist and documentary filmmaker, says that widespread deforestation since the 1960s has worsened the problem, with rainfall rates dwindling since the 1980s.

“Kasaragod is now home to extensive cashew, arecanut and rubber crops. To expand the cultivation of these crops, the district saw large scale deforestation during 1960s. Clearing of trees was mainly done in the catchment areas. This resulted in widespread loss of natural vegetation and over the course of time surface water depleted,” he explains.

How suranga can help

Shree Padre explains that, given the specific conditions in Kasaragod, suranga are much better suited for providing the people of the region a steady, perennial source of water than borewells.

Kunjambhu in a tunnel that he built all by himself 

“Suranga is a god-given gift for the farmers who live in the hillocks of Kasaragod. There are huge practical difficulties in digging an open well or a borewell in hillocks, as they run the risk of sudden collapse. A farmer can himself dig a suranga in a month’s time. It is a very economical choice for them, and once it is dug there is no money spent on maintenance. Also, water need not be pumped from suranga unlike bore wells. Farmers save a lot of money on electricity there.”

Kunjambhu, though, adds a caveat to the advantages of suranga, explaining that for the water tunnels to work effectively the system of reservoirs that accompany them has to rejuvenated.

“Suranga should be understood as a water drainage system. The flow of water is systematically channelised through a tunnel and the water has to be collected in a small mud reservoir. There are about 5000 surangas in Kasaragod district. But most of them are, in fact, made and left without reservoirs. When surangas are not built with reservoirs the ground level water which is channelised through the tunnels are lost again to nearby water bodies,” he explains.

“We have to convert suranga into a more regulated system using shutters and valves effectively to collect ground water and preserve for future use. We are working towards it”, said V kunjambhu.

While many in Kasaragod may have transferred their faith to borewells, events like this past year’s drought, Kerala’s worst in over a century, bring the focus back to suranga. But the dwindling number of skilled diggers puts the system at risk. But thanks to folks like Ambu ettan, the system of suranga still finds an important place in Kasaragod.

So, it is heartening when Ambu ettan declares, “A borewell is like a beacon of death for the earth, while the suranga can keep her breathing… And I will continue my journey into the depths of the earth as long as I can.”

Edited by Rakesh Mehar 


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