The parching of India`s Venice

  • 29/04/1995

The parching of India`s Venice The Neyyar, a small river in southern Kerala which originates from the famous Agastya hills, has been almost completely destroyed by merciless sandmining over the past few years.

The Bharathapuzha, Kerala's longest river, has been the font of inspiration to several Malayalam writers. Reams have been written about this river, which is known simply as Nila (blue) in central Kerala. Ironically, it has now become "Kerala's longest catastrophe".

The Pamba -- also known as the Southern Ganga -- the 3rd largest river in the state, has many as 288 tributaries. But the wells on its banks have dried up and crops destroyed due to the sinking of the water table, a dangerous consequence of the dessication of the river bed due to largescale sandmining.

Illicit brick kilns have mushroomed all over the lower reaches of the Periyar, Kerala's largest river, threatening the very survival of an entire river basin.

One by one, almost all the 44 rivers in Kerala are facing the terrifying prospect of dusty death -- extinction through the instruments of deforestation, sandmining, river bank brickmaking, and pollution.

Forty-one of these rivers flow westwards from the Western Ghats to the Arabian Sea. Kerala, a narrow coastal strip 650 km in length and 60-65 km wide, is nourished by this large network of living rivers.

The threat to the rivers began with largescale deforestation in the early '40s due to massive encroachment and settling as part of the "grow more food" campaign. Besides this, various government-sponsored projects such as acacia, eucalyptus and teak plantations and dam construction have hastened the destruction of tropical rainforest regions in the Western Ghats. Vast forest areas have become shaven, skeletal hills. Although the State Forest authorities claim that Kerala has a "sufficient" forest area of about 12,000 sq km the true picture is very different.
Stripped bare In normal conditions in tropical rainforest conditions, about 60 per cent of rainwater is converted to groundwater due to infiltration. The groundwater in forest areas is released as numerous brooks and springs which maintain the flow of rivers throughout the year. However, denuded hills and decimated forests only promote floods and soil erosion. In such cases, rainwater would tend to remain on the surface, resulting in a weak river flow.

The Bharathapuzha river could become the first casualty of relentless deforestation, with hardly any forests in its 6,188 sq km ha? catchment area. When the natural forests of Akamala, Valayyar and Nelliyambathi were ruined, the perennial streams which were once the strength of Bharathapuzha, also sank without a trace. The river is today a vast dry bed from where thousands of truckloads of sand are removed daily.

Studies conducted by various agencies have recommended immediate measures for the afforestation of the catchment areas of Bharathapuzha. Besides afforestation, argues T N N Bhattathiripad, director of the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Technology Mission, Palakkad, a complete ban on sandmining from river beds, and on the construction of check-dams at particular points, could prevent the death of the Bharathapuzha.

The mission has constructed a check-dam in Lakkidi. "The dried up wells of the nearby areas are being used again, which is a positive sign about the resuming of depleted groundwater table," says Bhattathiripad. "But, unless a complete ban is imposed on sand mining, even check-dams would be a waste," he warns. Despite all the proper apprehensions, sanddigging continues apace.

"When a forest is depleted from the upper reaches of a river and sand is removed from the lower reaches, there is no need to have any additional reason for the death of a river," says Narasimha Prasad of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikkode.

Sandmined to sudden death
While deforestation is a gradual process, sandmining invariably leads to rivers dying without preamble. Sandmining began on a largescale in the early '80s as an inevitable consequence of wildfire construction following the deluge of Gulf money into Kerala.

Laws and measures to control the destruction of rivers remain on paper, and protests, usually piecemeal, from various environmental groups find no response. Even local people, who stand to profit from sandmining in the short-term, do not support these protests.

Over the past decade, parceling out rivers for sandmining is a major revenue source for local bodies such as panchayats and municipalities. Not surprisingly, seasonal bans on sandmining by the state government are just political gimmickry, despite the supposedly high environmental awareness in the state.

In July 1993, the state government banned sandmining in 9 major rivers: Bharathapuzha, Periyar, Chaliyar, Pamba, Kallada, Vamanapuram, Chandragiri, Karamana and Meenachal. But this ban was soon lifted as contractors mounted pressure on the government.

Sandmining permits
The Cheruthuruthi panchayat, located on the banks of the Bharathapuzha, awarded sandmining permits worth Rs 7 lakh last year. The Shornur panchayat sold it for Rs 15 lakh; in Pattambi and Desamangalam, it was 1.3 lakh and 2 lakh respectively, and in the Panjott panchayat, the amount was Rs 5.2 lakh. Obviously, the Bharatapuzha seems fated to an early and speedy death.

Many labourers all over the state have taken to sandmining. More than 2,000 truckloads of sand are gouged out and removed daily from 20 different points on the river Pamba, headed for various parts of southern Kerala for the construction of buildings and roadlaying. Sand from Pamba has also been used for filling paddy fields in various parts of upper Kuttanad (a landfill region which poses an environmental problem, the destruction of wetlands). Thousands of truckloads are taken to Tamil Nadu from Bharathapuzha and about 100 truck loads are removed from Punaloor's Kallada river alone. Frenetic digging is on in the upper reaches of Vamanapuram river in southern Kerala.

Vast tracks of fertile land are being reduced to so-called "dark areas" (areas of depleted water table). "When sand is removed from the river bed, the hydrolic gradient(what the fuck doth this term mean?) increases dangerously. This reduces the capacity of river water in recharging ground water," says T N N Bhattathiripad.

Those who live along the streams and rivers in Kerala are alarmed at the inevitable consequences of rampant largescale sandmining. The farmers who live near the Pamba and other major rivers of Kerala do not get sufficient water for agriculture even after drilling borewells down to 200 feet and more.

With the sinking of the river beds, the filtration tanks of various government-sponsored drinking water schemes in hundreds of small towns and villages all over the state are dry and perched ineffectively above the water level. With the onset of summer, villages and towns have been deprived of drinking water. The state of bridges is also precarious due to the rapid decline of river beds.

The villagers of Ameravila and nearby areas of Neyyattinkara in southern Kerala are suffering the results of the degeneration of the Neyyar river bed: salinity in their wells. It is believed that the saline water that has entered the lower reaches of the river Neyyar has begun to penetrate into the depleted groundwater table. Villagers are desperately seeking other sources of water for drinking and farming.

Largescale sand extraction from the Pamba river caused the river bed to dip by 120 cms between May 1987 and January 1992, according to a study conducted by the Central Water Resources Commission, situated on the banks of the river at Edayaranmula. At certain locations like Parumula, the sinkage has been touched almost 4 metres over the past 5 years.

The Aranmula Uttrattathi Vallamkalai on the Pamba river, Kerals's famous snake-boat race, ended in a tragedy last year when rival groups clashed. The dug up river bed created an uneven racing track which catalysed the incident. "We had warned the authorities about this years ago," says N K Sukumaran Nair, secretary of the Pamba Parirakshana Samithi (Pamba Protection Council), a voluntary organisation which has been relentlessly campaigning against the mismanagement and overexploitation of the Pamba.

Pollution in the Pamba
The contamination of the Pamba's water by millions of Ayyappa devotees who visit the Sabarimala shrine during the winters is beyond the river's self-purification ability. During the last season, the Travancore Devasom Board estimated that around 50 million pilgrims have already visited this temple, situated in the upper reaches of the Pamba.

According to studies conducted by the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES), the river is alarmingly contaminated with more than 10 contagious waterborne diseases. "The deterioration of the Pamba is ultimately going to affect Kuttanadu, the predominant wetland ecosystem of Kerala, where the Pamba finally ends up," warns Babu Ambatt of the Centre for Environment and Development, Thiruvananthapuram.

While relentless sandmining destroys the river beds, the illicit brick kilns that have mushroomed all along the banks of Kerala's rivers have begun to eat into the banks. Large numbers of brick kilns have appeared along the banks of the Bharathapuzha in Lakkidi, Ottapalam and Shornur. Brick kilns work continuously at Neyyattinkara and nearby areas on the sides of the Neyyar river and near Kallada river in Kollam district.

About 25,000 labourers from Tamil Nadu are reportedly working in the adjoining panchayats on the sides of the Periyar river in Ernakulam district, where over 2,000 illicit brick kilns have already consumed about 2,000 ha of paddy fields, and have created serious environmental problems for the local people. Constructed below the water table in the neighbouring compounds, these brick kilns force-drain the water from the wells. The consequent absence of water has also began to affect the yield from coconut trees, nutmeg, pepper, and other cash crops.

As a result of this brick kiln mayhem, the river banks are disappearing, ultimately shrinking to ponds of mud and stagnant water. The Thamraparni river, which flows through Tamil Nadu near the southern border of Kerala, is the first martyr of brick kilns. A few years of continuous brickmaking on its banks has mutilated the river into a shapeless grouping of mud pools.

The measures laid down by the Department of Mining and Geology are ignored by the brickmakers. Rule 59 of Kerala's Miner Mineral Concession Rules bans digging within 75 m of roads, rivers, residences, schools, etc. But the rules remain on paper, and the reality is quite different.

The ruining of the river beds has vast and ugly corollaries. A recent study conducted by the Surface Water Division of the CWRDM reveals that in almost all of Kerala's rivers, the sinking of the river beds has led to salinitising of the hinterland of up to 20-25 km during high tide in summer. In the Challiayyar river, the lifeline of the city of Kozhikode, salinity was traced 22 km from the sea coast. The Edayyaranmula Hydrological Observation centre discovered salinity at Aranmula on the Pamba river 2 years ago. "According to the measures laid down by the WHO, water containing more than 500 ppm (parts per million) salinity is not advisable for drinking. But the salinity content of the drinking water in Kozhikode itself was about 4500 ppm," says E J James of the CWRDM.

In addition to these factors, most factories and industries functioning along the river banks find it convenient to regurgitate industrial waste into these rivers. The lower reaches of the Periyar are considered contaminated with toxic effluents from various fertiliser and pesticide factories located near Cochin. The freshwater ecosystem of the state is a silent victim to the degeneration of river basins.

A stark example of the inevitable dying of the freshwater system is a small tributary of the Pamba which snakes through the Pathanamthitta district. It is called the "Varattar", which means "dried river". This dead river is now a track-like muddy area where villagers cultivate tapioca and sugarcane. It is pointed out that the Varattar became a martyr to the degeneration of the Pamba basin. This ought to be a warning about where Kerala, once known as India's Venice, is headed.

---Joseph Anthony is a freelance writer based in Kerala.