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Ponds are more than receptacles of water

By Jyothi Krishnan

Panchayats in Palakkad district are working towards better water management. But their focus is on structural measures like cement and stone linings for pond restoration. They are not addressing the conservation of catchment areas or preventing changes in land use in an area where fields are being given over for construction or being mined for sand, clay and stone

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Water conservation has been on the government’s agenda for some time now. Since the introduction of decentralisation in the state in 1997, gram panchayats have been actively involved in generating locally appropriate development plans. During the first phase of decentralisation, which coincided with the Ninth Plan period (1997-2002), every gram panchayat in Kerala brought out a development plan for its region, known as vikasana rekha in Malayalam. In many panchayats, the plan generated a lot of locally relevant information on agriculture, irrigation, social welfare, etc.

In the vikasana rekhas of the 92 panchayats in Palakkad district, almost all water-scarce panchayats devote at least a few pages to the water issue, and the status of ponds. Almost all lament the degradation of local ponds. Some carry a detailed listing of the ponds, with their respective areas. Pond protection features prominently in almost all local development plans.

Falling water levels in waterbodies during summer, in particular the drying up of major streams and rivers, have alerted panchayats to the importance of water conservation. While the drying of streams and rivers is not unique to Palakkad district, it is exaggerated here as the region gets far less rainfall than other parts of the state. The Bharathapuzha, the second largest river in Kerala, flows primarily through Palakkad district. But the river resembles a channel of sand in summer, with a thin flow of water trickling through it.

It’s the same with smaller streams in the region. Farmers in Kollengode and Elavenchery recall that even 25-30 years ago, these streams used to flow for most of the year, except during the peak summer months. Today, they flow only during the monsoons.

Very often, reduced stream and river flows coincide with reduced rainfall. However, it is now acknowledged that there is no simple linear relationship between rainfall and stream/river flows. Infiltration, percolation and sub-surface recharge play an important role in maintaining perennial water flows in these waterbodies. Activities undertaken on land that negatively impact the process of percolation and recharge affect the availability of water, whether in streams, ponds, wells or rivers.

In Palakkad, ponds play an important role both in soil and water conservation. Their main function is the intermittent storing of run-off and replenishment of the water table through water percolation. In addition, pond bunds and the surrounding areas are home to a diverse mix of trees which also helps increase moisture and water percolation, particularly in the case of ponds located higher up.

Such a dispersed system of water storage helps store rainwater for the drier months. Ninety per cent of the area’s total rainfall is concentrated during the seven months from June to December. The slowing of run-off reduces the impact of flooding downstream during heavy downpours. It also checks soil erosion, particularly as the uplands have lost most of their tree cover.

A silted up pond

Three factors challenge the functioning of ponds today. The first is their existing physical condition. The silting up of ponds and poor state of the bunds has greatly reduced their storage capacity.

This is largely an outcome of two factors. One is a change in land use patterns in pond catchments. Apart from ponds that were located in the valleys, the catchments of all other ponds were undulating and comprised both cultivated and non-cultivated land.

In the higher reaches, non-cultivated land included patches of forest, sacred groves, degraded forests, etc. Tree cover on this land has decreased substantially over the last few decades. Houses have been built, blocking or diverting drainage away from the pond. A large number of monoculture plantations of coconut and mango have also sprung up. And, more recently, there have been instances of sand mining and rock mining, particularly in the higher reaches. All of this has affected the inflow of water into ponds.

Then there are the canals that provide additional water to the region; water from canals is now being used to fill up the ponds. Indeed, ponds are today considered purely containers of canal water. This view is endorsed in the development plans of panchayats, even in irrigation project proposals. The implication is that they are merely storage devices; their role in soil and moisture conservation is not being fully appreciated. They are not seen as part of the larger landscape, only as isolated receptacles of water.

This is unfortunate, for intermittent and widespread water storage is one of the best ways in which water scarcity can be countered.

While panchayats are committed to the protection of ponds on paper, the measures taken in the name of pond protection do not address the above factors. Pond protection has translated to the building of stone walls on the insides of ponds. These “side protection walls”, as they are called, consist of stones packed together, with the outer surface given a layer of cement. The justification is that pond bunds are prone to erosion during heavy rains, particularly as regular maintenance is never undertaken. This approach attempts to address the problem of pond degradation through structural measures.

It has been argued that pond restoration and rehabilitation must be undertaken only after an ecological profile of the pond has been established (Shah and Raju 2001). This implies assessing the state of the catchment, land use patterns, rate of soil erosion, and gulley formation in the catchment.

: A gulley leading into the Arayankulam

Such an approach would place as much emphasis on the restoration of pond catchments as the restoration of ponds per se. Often, erosion of the pond bund is at the end of a long path of erosion points in the pond’s catchment. Merely constructing a stone bund without addressing the problem of soil erosion serves little purpose. Yet, this continues to be the favoured approach, as it is easy to plan and implement and the panchayat can claim to have carried out “pond protection”, thereby discharging its responsibility towards ensuring water conservation. It would be far more difficult, for instance, to undertake land use planning in pond catchments to avoid obstructions in natural drainage. This would mean regulating the actions of individuals who own land in the pond catchment -- a much more difficult task.

Farmers observe that construction of houses in pond catchments has reduced the inflow into ponds. Drainage channels that used to carry run-off to ponds have been blocked within individual house compounds. In the past, for instance, excess run-off from the Kapanampotta pond was carried to Talachera via a drainage channel that passed a housing cluster of agricultural labourers. An increase in the number of houses along this stretch has led to the gradual abandoning of this practice.

Farmers speak of numerous such examples. While growing population has led to a spurt in the number of houses being built (aggravated by the strengthening of the nuclear family norm), no thought has been given to ensuring that inflows into ponds are protected.

A more recent and disturbing trend is indiscriminate mining of sand and soil. Sand mining has been rampant in many rivers in Kerala since the 1990s. This was particularly so in the Bharathapuzha river in Palakkad. The demand for sand was fuelled by the boom in construction activities across Kerala. Growing demand for sand, soil, bricks and stones has led to an extension of mining activities on agricultural land, along the banks of smaller streams, on poromboke land, and on degraded rocky patches. Sand and soil are also mined from pond beds. In 2002, such instances were not very common in Kollengode and Elavenchery. Today, many more pond owners allow private individuals to mine sand from their pond beds.

Those requiring sand and soil get in touch with the pond owner and bring in a JCB to dig out the sand. The owner receives a lumpsum amount, and during the mining activity, his pond too is deepened. The deepening, however, is not uniformly done, leaving large pits all over the pond bed. In many cases, the pond’s bund is destabilised in the process.

A destabilised pond bund

The digging up of pond beds also turns the water very muddy, making it unfit for bathing.

In some cases, sand and soil are mined not just from the pond but also from the surrounding catchment area.

Soil mined from the catchment of a pond

In the case of Arayankulam, which is located at the head of a valley alongside the Chulliar irrigation canal, the mining has been severe. Since the pond is situated in the higher reaches, its catchment is sloping hilly terrain. Until the 1960s, the area was heavily forested; today the land has been dug up and scraped away.

Degraded Arayankulam catchment

The owner of Arayankulam has entered into a contract with sand miners who have been mining sand from the pond for the past year. This has resulted in deep pits being formed on the pond bed. Part of the paddy land that used to be irrigated by the pond has been given over to brick kilns. The pond bunds still exhibit a variety of trees, making this the favoured roosting spot for many birds in the area.

Transporting sand mined from fields, ponds and streams

Far more widespread in the region has been the mining of sand and soil from paddy fields for brick kilns.

Tekkinchira padashekharam (cluster of paddy fields), in Kollengode panchayat, is located at the foothills of the Tenmala mountains which feature considerable deposits of sand and silt. This padaskekharam has the largest number of brick kilns -- 60 in all. It is also one of the largest padashekhara samitis in the state, covering an area of 650 acres; it has 225 members. The adjoining padashekhara samitis of Vazhapuzha and Tondekkad also support a large number of brick kilns.

The clayey soil found in paddy fields is ideal for brick making. When the owner lets his land out, he could get between Rs 50,000 and Rs 500,000 depending on the depth of soil to be mined. The sand miners usually dig to a depth of 3-10 feet, depending on the availability of clay.

The contractor comes in with his team of labourers (mostly from Bihar and West Bengal) and the digging begins. In order to make bricks, clayey soil must be mixed with different soil types, which may not be readily available. So they dig it up elsewhere and transport it here. There are contractors who arrange for sand to be brought in from other areas.

And so the top soil is destroyed, the land flattened, and paddy yields drop. All this is ignored in the face of the money that suddenly becomes available. Of the 60 brick kilns here, only around 10 are run by people from the area.

This is also an activity that requires a lot of firewood to be burned. There are people who procure the firewood and deliver it to the brick kilns. In fact, one of the farmers we interviewed is in the business of delivering firewood to brick kilns. This steady commercial demand for firewood will have a negative impact on any possible regeneration efforts in the region.

Red and green: A familiar combination these days

Sand mining and brick making carry on almost unregulated; the former has been on the increase since 2005. Neither the panchayat nor the government has taken any serious note of these destructive activities. About six months ago, certain prohibitory measures were initiated, with orders demanding the termination of such activities being issued from the village office and tehsildar’s office. As a consequence, people started mining at night. And they got away with it.

As we moved away from the Chulliar canal towards Vazhapuzha, where there are a lot of brick kilns, the scene was depressing. We passed a large peepul tree standing silent witness to the kilns that are located at the head of the valley, where paddy used to be grown only a few years ago. Mounds of sand had been dumped onto the paddy fields; there were three thatched sheds where the brick kiln workers stayed as they worked. We met the person who appeared to be coordinating activities at one of the kilns. He told us he had taken the land on lease from the farmer a year ago. He had to pay a lumpsum to the owner, and then to the workers. In addition, he said, he had to bribe officers at the panchayat and village office; even the police. It was a difficult job, he explained, but the money that came in was substantial.

The practice of mining clay from paddy fields to make bricks is not new to Kerala. Certain pockets have already suffered tremendously from this activity. The paddy belt in Trichur district is one such area where fields have been rendered unfit for future cultivation. A number of local protests have been initiated here demanding that the activity be stopped. But while the Kerala Land Utilisation Act prevents the use of paddy land for non-agricultural purposes, it is very poorly implemented.

Stone quarries are another development that destabilises upper catchments and affects drainage into ponds. The number of quarries is multiplying all over the state. Once again, the impact on downstream water availability was never considered.

Land use changes, particularly changes that alter the very appearance of the land, are disturbing. Indeed, they have been so drastic that people living in the area forget how the land looked in the past. Many ponds have been filled up and used as housing plots or land for commercial establishments. This is especially so with ponds located along roads, or near towns. There is no clear estimate of the number of ponds that have been filled up in such a manner.

Buildings stand on what was once a pond

A hotel constructed in the catchment of a pond in Kollengode

Rapid urbanisation is putting pressure on sand, soil and water -- most of it on privately owned land. There is no comprehensive data on the cumulative impact of such changes to the land. Following widespread deforestation of forests in the state’s highlands, this land use conversion poses a huge threat to sustainable water supplies.

Amidst all these changes, the panchayat continues its lackadaisical approach towards pond protection -- constructing side walls along ponds! A critical review of land use changes, especially severe cases of land conversion, must begin immediately. During the ’70s and ’80s, it was hoped that large dams across rivers would take agriculture to new heights. Three or four decades later, none of the dams in Kerala function to full capacity. Large-scale deforestation in dam catchments has led to high levels of siltation and reduced the storage capacity of almost all reservoirs. The dams in Palakkad district are no exception. Almost all the Bharathapuzha’s tributaries have been dammed, drastically reducing their flow. Water flows in smaller streams have decreased too. This, coupled with the drying up of ponds and wells, paints a dismal picture.

There is urgent need for a new approach to water resource management. The idea of local-level water resource management has received some attention since the implementation of decentralisation, particularly in policy guidelines in the Eleventh Plan period when panchayats were asked to prepare detailed watershed plans to help guide the formulation of local development plans. Unfortunately, these plans have not changed the way land and water are being used today.

Despite the difficult water situation in most parts of Palakkad, sustainable management of ponds could help us start afresh. It is not too late for panchayats and the government to take this up as a challenge.

(Jyothi Krishnan is a researcher on natural resource management and is presently Research Associate with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Team Leader for the MGNREGA Evaluation Project in Kerala. This is the fourth in her series on Kerala’s traditional ponds, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)
Infochange News & Features, December 2010