Water Bodies in Wayanad

Wayanad is a green, hilly and beautiful part of North Malabar. The average rainfall is 2,246 mm annually, though there are parts of Wayanad which go up to 3,136 in the western part, and low as 1,377mm in what is considered as the “dry zone.” There were according to soil conservation officer, PU Das,   65,000 open wells. According to him, the present agrarian base of the district is cash crops, (tea, coffee,  cardamom and pepper)  but the actual degradation of soil occurred with the cutting of trees in the colonial period, for purposes of establishing tea and coffee plantations.

Agriculturists and traders from Koduganad  had also made their presence felt 600 years ago. Chettiars from Coimbatore, Erode and Salem were successful  partly because water could be easily harvested from the carbonated soil. Das believes that soil preservation is the answer to dams. He says that Wayanad requires 21 TMC (thousand million cubic) feet water, including 17 TMC for 75,000 hectares of arable land. 2.2 TMC is required for 8.5 lakh people and 1.8 TMC for industrial and other uses. The various water storage structures can only provide 5.5 TMC. Therefore, by encouraging biodiversity and the absorption capacity of the soil, water can be conserved.

Wayanad is a multicultural and religious society, as Muslims came in  to Wayanad from Mysore, either by escaping wars with the British during Tippu’s reign, or as employees of the plantations. The Nairs and Christians from Travancore established their presence here as younger sons who did not inherit land in their natal territories, and the greatest influx was in the 1950s and 1960s, by government promotion. Because of climate change, and severe drought in Pulpally, panchayats there are facing a new problem, as people are  now asking for piped water.  Teak plantations draw up the groundwater, and even the leaves absorb the moisture, leaving these areas extremely hot and parched. In the earlier time, as water was never a problem, people were dependent on their kennis. These are palm or jackfruit trunks hollowed and then inserted into the ground, from which water oozes clear and drinkable. Only 50 such kennis still exist, and are revered by the local  Mullukurma tribals as sacred (KR Anoop, www.  the fourth tale miraculous water faces)

Six hundred years ago, Chettiars started paddy cultivation in Wayanad. The term Nellara chera itself suggests the success of the Chettiars in growing rice on hillocks and in valleys of Wayanad. It was the settlers from Travancore  who started growing areca nuts and bananas,  for the market.  Then onwards, the use of channels diverting water into the fields began. The viscosity of the soil and the level of the water table dropped. Thus the shift from wetlands to plantations, (cash crops) causing  further deforestation, was the certain step to soil depletion. Lemon grass on the hills was replaced by tapioca for sustenance and coffee for the market. When coffee prices dropped, the settlers found pepper more apt. Pepper needs sunlight, so they cut the coffee. Biodiversity disappeared.  Organic carbon absorbs a lot of water, and without it the earth cannot hold the water. The natural water sources were thus destroyed, as the quantam of water stored decreased, landslides in the Western ghats became frequent, leading to crop losses and danger to human life. PU Das says that “cultural degradation leads to soil degradation”. Where  drainage is excessive,  check dams  can help in retaining the water, developing natural springs and  regenerating flora and fauna. Thus, the soil conservation department officials have made it their duty to establish a variety of check dams for storing water made of jungle stones, bamboo, dry rubble, or concrete, and digging water trenches. Water harvesting allows for survival of communities, but it is water absorption by the soil that they are looking for. Check dams help by creating reservoirs through bunds, and exercising water budgeting.

Soil conservation officers such as  Bhanumon Bhanu and  PS Shaji  continually monitor the villages under their care in Wayanad district, where they have put 1,500 water harvesting units. This involves  simple cleansing mechanisms which involve passing the collected rain water through shells, coal, gravel and rocks before piping into the wells, as well as nurturing the remaining kennis. They provide support to local farmers who have their own ingenious ways of tackling the water shortage in Pulpally. Organic farmers like Varghese, for example, grow a wide variety of  vegetables for the local market by recycling water in a sustainable way.

PJ Chackochan  of the Vanmoolika.org, Indian organic farmers producer company, says that organic pepper, teas and coffee, as well as ginger, honey, and coconut and other herbal oils from Wayanad, do very well in the European markets. Each product consignment must be certified by the coffee, spices, coconut and tea boards. Why there is a gap between purchase price from the farmer and sale price to the International consumer is because the costs of packaging and certifying as well as transporting consignments are substantial. Since organic farmers are essentially committed to their ideology, which is “freedom from chemicals”, the sense of joy that they break even financially is huge.

(The writer is professor of sociology at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU)

Susan Visvanathan