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Kerala Fights Drought With 'Bounty Of Rain' Scheme

26/12/2016 9:04 PM IST | Updated 30/12/2016 9:50 AM IST

Kerala is extending a rainwater harvesting programme in the central district of Thrissur to all parts of the state following the successive droughts of 2015 and 2016.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier
Komalam Ramachandran of Naduvilkara in Thrissur district and her son in front of the well in their house

By S. Gopikrishna Warrier*, Thrissur, Kerala

The rains let down the people of Kerala in 2016. With both the southwest and the northeast monsoon failing the state that is called god's own country for its unending green stretches, the Kerala government has decided to scale up the well-recharging programme called Mazhapolima (Rain Bounty) from Thrissur district to all parts of the state.

According to the India Meteorological Department, the southwest monsoon from June to September was deficient by 34% and the northeast monsoon from October to December by 62%. Instead of receiving the annual average of 2,508mm till 14 December, the state has only received 1,532.5mm, a deficit of some 39%. Wayanad and Thrissur districts had the highest deficit in the southwest monsoon, and Kasargod and Kozhikode had the highest deficit during the northeast monsoon.

The idea is simple and cheap. Rainwater falling on the roof is channelled and collected through PVC pipes and directed into the dug wells.

With 62% of the state's population (2011 Census) sourcing their water requirements from dug wells in their home compounds, the state government recently decided to upscale the Mazhapolima model of rainwater recharging of wells to all parts of Kerala. Mazhapolima, a programme initiated by the district administration of Thrissur, has been found successful and effective in increasing the water in the wells in this central district of the state.

Shaken out of complacency

Since the state had always had sufficient water in the past, it was complacent about conservation. With the successive years of deficit rainfall in 2015 and 2016, there is an increasing demand for connecting rooftop water harvesting systems to dug wells and thereby preventing the wells from running dry in the summer months. The well-recharging programme initiated in Thrissur district is now being spread to all parts of the state.

"The Kerala government wants the systems of rainwater recharging of wells already installed in hundreds of government buildings to be repaired and made functional," Sekhar Kuriakose, member-secretary of the State Disaster Management Authority, which is initiating the government's programme after the state was declared as drought-hit in October 2016, told VillageSquare.in. "In the last few years, well recharge structures were installed in many public buildings. Many of them have become dysfunctional. As a first step, we want to make these systems functional."

Following this, the Kerala government wants to install well recharge systems in government buildings. This will be part of the Haritha Keralam (Green Kerala) programme initiated by the present state government, after it came to power in 2016, to strengthen rainwater harvesting in the state and also to strengthen environmental awareness. "We want to encourage the people of Kerala to install well recharge systems in their homes after we have made them functional in all government buildings," said Kuriakose. "We want the government to take the lead."

Thrissur example

However, independent of the rainwater harvesting into wells in government buildings, thousands of families in Thrissur district have already installed systems in their homes. According to Jos Raphael, director of Mazhapolima, more than 25,000 well water recharge structures have been installed in the district since 2008. These have been in private homesteads, institutions and government buildings.

The idea is simple and cheap. Rainwater falling on the roof is channelled and collected through PVC pipes and directed into the dug wells. The simpler version of the system does not have a water filtration unit. The first flush of rainwater, which will bring down the leaves and dirt accumulated on the roof, is let out through an escape valve before it is turned into the dug well. Adding a simple filtration unit—with gravel stones and charcoal—ensures that the debris is removed before the water enters the well.

With an average of 2500mm of annual rainfall in Kerala, a 1000sq. ft roof space can harvest more than 200,000 litres of water...

According to Raphael, the simpler systems can be installed with an investment of around ₹5000, and there is government support of varying degrees for different sections of society. "Our success with the Mazhapolima scheme has been the fact that we could mainstream it through many government schemes in the district."

With an average of 2500mm of annual rainfall in Kerala, a 1000sq. ft roof space can harvest more than 200,000 litres of water, Raphael estimates. Thus, the potential for channelling some of the water into the unconfined aquifer through the dug wells is huge with roof water harvesting.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier
Jos Raphael and his colleagues have implemented the Mazhapolima (Rain Bounty) programme in Thrissur

Increased availability of water

K.T. Shanti of Arimbur village, whose house is on a small plot of land adjacent to the rice fields, says that their well that used to run dry in the earlier years has not done so after the water harvesting was done. Nearby, Thoppil Aravindakshan's family says that their well has never gone dry in the one year since the installation of the system. Their well usually dries in summer.

K.M. Surendran, former president of Arimboor panchayat, says that during his tenure he had encouraged people to install these systems. However, those were the years of sufficient rainfall, and the response was not as positive as in the recent years where the rain has been low. This year has been the second year with deficient rainfall in Kerala. In 2015, the deficit was 15.7%, therefore adding to the 2016 crisis.

The impact has also been felt in government institutions. The public health centre (PHC) at Manalur draws its water requirement from a large, deep well constructed with laterite stones. The ground on which the PHC stands was bought from an agrarian family and the well had been there since the time the family was staying. The rainwater harvesting system has a filter, which is well maintained by the administrators of the PHC, indicating their interest to keep the system running.

Similarly, the well that serves the needs of the students and teachers of the Joseph Mundassery Memorial Higher Secondary School at Kandassankadavu has been fitted with a Mazhapolima system. The school headmistress, Latha Devi, says that the system gave the school management that the confidence that the well will continue to meet their water needs.

Effective in all ecosystems

According to V.P. Dinesan, senior principal scientist at the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode, the Mazhapolima model of well recharging has been found successful and effective in all ecosystems of Kerala—the highlands, midlands and the coastal areas.

While in the highlands and the midlands, the recharge helps increase water in the open dug wells, in the coastal area the flush of fresh water also helps in keeping out salt water ingress. With increasing exploitation of groundwater in the coastal areas, there is pressure on the equilibrium between saltwater and freshwater, with the water in many wells becoming saline in recent years. Reinforcing the fresh water flows into the wells have pushed the saltwater interface away and kept the water sweet and potable. "The salinity in our well water has decreased," Komalam Ramachandran of Naduvilkara, the land with an estuary with tidal action and the coast on either side, told VillageSquare.in. "It has only been a year since we installed the system, and we hope the water will further improve."

The 2016 drought is changing water complacency. Conserving rainwater as it falls could become the new normal as the people's response in God's own country.

For Roy Joseph, an Ayurveda physician living near the edge of the rice fields in Arimbur village, the inflow of fresh water has helped reduce the iron content in his well. "We never had a problem with the quantity of water in our well," he said. "But the problem was quality. The water was yellow to brown because of high concentration of iron in it. We were forced to pump water from a well at a distance for our needs. We not only connected our roof water into the well, but also ensured that the overflow from our overhead tank went into it. The result is that our well water has become clearer today and we use it for all our needs except for drinking."

The Mazhapolima model of a combination of own money, plus panchayat and government funds, seems to be a successful model for institutional scaling up of the well recharge programme across the state, according to Kuriakose. In fact, the state government may even approach donors to boost funding.

Working through the panchayats is the best way forward, agrees Dinesan. Government-channelled funds can be used to support the programme through the panchayats, according to him.

According to Raphael, the biggest obstacle to the spread of the Mazhapolima concept was not been the lack of resources or governmental support. Harvesting rainwater was a low priority because of the state's one-time average of 2500mm of rainfall in a year. The 2016 drought is changing this water complacency. Conserving rainwater as it falls could become the new normal as the people's response in God's own country.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is a Chennai-based journalist.

This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.

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