It is a striking paradox that Kerala, the land of 44 rivers, famously lush monsoons and internationally heralded social development figures, struggles when it comes to the conservation and management of water resources in the state. Contrary to what one would expect, the state, despite its abundant water resources, is challenged by an alarmingly frequent fluctuation between periods of severe drought and instances of flooding, sparse safe drinking water coverage and a general depletion of water resources as a result of unsustainable usage, frequent pollution and man-made encroachment.
The present situation is telling. Just six months ago, Kerala suffered the worst instance of flooding in recent memory, where in just the period between 1 August and 19 August, 2018, the state received rainfall at a level that was 164% (amounting to 771 mm) over the normal average for that window. Fast forward to today — in what is surely cruel irony — the state now faces a prolonged period of drought, as many of our major rivers have begun to dry up on account of miserly rainfall in aftermath of the floods. Not that drought is a new infliction on our state. Indeed, just in 2017, the state suffered the worst instance of drought in 115 years as a result of a paltry monsoon. With changing climatic factors acerbated by man-made environmental destruction, these incidents are likely to get even more severe in the near future.
At a time when nearly 88.5% of rural India enjoys access to safe drinking water, in rural Kerala the figure hovers around 29.5%, the lowest across any major state in the country. In urban Kerala the situation is not much better with just over half of our households (56.8% as against the national average of 95%) having the luxury of access to clean drinking water. In fact in a grave indictment of just how severe the situation could be, a 2014 study conducted by the Kerala Agricultural University has forecast that by 2021 (just two years from now), there will be a gap of 1,268 billion litres between the supply and demand for water and that my own Thiruvananthapuram would be the third most vulnerable district in the state.
But we don’t have to wait for 2021—in many parts of Kerala the crisis has already taken root. As the MP for Thiruvananthapuram, I have personally received petitions from aggrieved constituents asking for my intervention to solve water crises in their locality. And today, the sight of water tankers rushing to address the water woes of many of our localities has become a common sight.
So, we must go beyond the initial assumption of Kerala being a water-rich state and recognise that we do have a serious problem on our hands. It will take the committed efforts of all stakeholders—the government, policy makers, and civil society stakeholders — to address the situation in a timely and effective manner.
Residents of Thiruvananthapuram must first look towards the immediate conservation of local water bodies, which help service the localised water needs of Kerala. And they must demand greater accountability from their local elected representatives towards this end. Take the Vellayani lake, the largest freshwater body in Thiruvananthapuram and therefore, integral towards meeting the drinking water requirements of our district. In 1926, it spanned 750 hectares. Today, it has drastically reduced to a mere 400 acres. Pollution from urban and agricultural sources combined with poor management, protection and conservation efforts has resulted in a drastic deterioration in water quality. Sand-mining, illegal encroachments and unauthorized construction are other major threats that the lake is facing.
In 2017, I had raised this issue in Parliament and urged the Modi government to designate the water body as a Biodiversity Heritage Site under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, so as to ensure greater resources (including Rs 75 crore) to help preserve the lake. However, the Modi government, in its response, highlighted that the onus was on the state government to send an official proposal, which it had not done.
Similarly, there are other schemes such as the Big Lake Development Programme and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) through which we can generate adequate resources to help conserve our lake. But for all of this, the first step must be taken by our state government — and surprisingly, there isn’t any pressure on them to do so. If every member of the public were to petition our respective local representatives to take up this issue, it might help make it a matter of urgent priority for them.
Kerala must also swiftly leverage the potential of the host of water conservation techniques that have been employed across the country. Given that the state receives nearly 3000 mm of rainfall annually, one potent strategy that is already being tried out is rainwater harvesting. One success in this regard is the ‘Mazhapolima’ campaign that was adopted by the Thrissur district administration in 2008 that has achieved remarkable success in recharging ground water levels through rain water harvesting. Leveraging funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREG) programme, the administration has, in the last decade, installed 30,000 harvesters across the district at a cost of just Rs 4,500 each, of which only 25% of the cost is borne by the beneficiary.
The collaborative nature of the Mazhapolima project also serves as a useful reminder of a third component that is often underrated but is crucial in this regard — community engagement and raising public awareness. The Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority has already launched a ‘Jala Saksharatha’ (water literacy) campaign in a bid to promote awareness on water conservation across the state. We need to augment such official measures with private initiatives, and we should start with the schools. Some of our country’s historic public health campaigns that were waged against issues like tuberculosis and the harmful effects of tobacco consumption were carried forward by school children who took the message of the campaign from the classroom back to their homes and started throwing out their parents’ cigarettes! Influencing children at an impressionable age helped the anti-tobacco message spread effectively and ultimately gave the country some spectacular success in tackling these issues.
Just as every drop is precious, each step to preserve it matters. I believe it’s not too late to win the war for water. But we must start to fight it now.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University; and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.
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