As far as the casual visitor can tell, the alluring description rings true. Kerala is lushly green. Kerala enjoys two monsoons that soak the state for half of the year. And with some 20 reservoirs — the majority of which are dedicated to hydroelectric power and irrigation, not drinking water — it has one of the highest reservoir densities in India.
A scan of a topographical map of southern India puts Keralas relationship to water into some perspective. Buttressed by the Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west, Kerala averages a mere 50 miles in width. As if in a gravity-assisted cannonball run, storm runoff takes but 48 hours to race down the highlands and flow through the midlands and western lowlands before emptying into the sea. And when the riverbeds turn dry in the summer months, the sea returns the favor and pushes inland, contaminating drinking water and destroying crops.
But Keralas general topography has not changed in any measurable way over the generations. The mountains still slope steeply. Two monsoons still come and go annually. The lowlands still flood with salt water. Why the water shortage?
Clues may be found in the atmosphere and beneath the earths surface, where the depth of the water table in Kerala has been steadily falling for decades. But the solution has everything to do with understanding the changing relationship between Keralas population and nature at the ground level.
Population density is a logical starting point for any discussion on water scarcity, and in Kerala, rightfully so. The state has the highest density in all of India at 870 persons per square kilometer (about .39 square miles), 2.5 times the national average.
The assumption has always been that total water use increases proportionally with population growth. More mouths to feed mean greater demand for all natural resources.
While that assumption drives much of our policies [on water and energy] in the United States and around the world, its not necessarily true for water, explained water expert Dr. Peter H. Gleick, MacArthur Fellow and cofounder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development at a recent talk in San Francisco.
In fact, if you look at the curve for the United States, that was true for a while, but we have broken the link between [an] exponentially growing population and exponentially growing economies and the increasing demand for water.
Unfortunately in Kerala, that is not yet the case.
During the monsoons, the dirt roads leading to the mountaintop village of Santhigram are impassable. And in the dry summer months, rutted and eroded, they test the best four-wheel drive vehicles. But all year-round, they afford panoramic views of fields of cardamom, coffee, nutmeg, plantain and tapioca. For the 530 families who make these hillsides home, the picturesque landscape produces more pain than pleasure.
That is what Highrange Development Society (HDS), a social service agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Idukki, learned when it conducted a survey of the area a few years ago. The organization identified Santhigram as the community most affected by the shortage of water in the eparchy. Frankly, HDS could have skipped the survey and just chatted with 46-year-old Lissama Mathew — or her doctor — to reach the same conclusion.
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Tags: Kerala Farming/Agriculture Water Socioreligious programs