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Nearly 50 wells in and around Poovar, a coastal resort in Kerala, have turned saline. Yet, the government has failed to conduct any detailed study to find out if sea level rise due to climate change is the reason behind it

Nearly 50 traditional wells in Kerala have turned saline. (Image by TV Manoj)

Nearly 50 traditional wells in Kerala have turned saline. (Image by TV Manoj)

Near Kerala’s well-known coastal resort Poovar, Mavilakadavu is a small village, five km from the Arabian Sea shoreline. It is a village where residents have traditionally used groundwater for all their needs. Now they have a problem – their wells have turned saline.

Ponnamma, 75, a resident of the village, narrates her miseries. “This is my birth place and I am living here since childhood. This is my ancestral house. This precious well was indispensable for all of us. In 1983 although the state of Kerala got dried out, this well existed as a boon. Villagers flooded here. Thirst of the entire village was cured by the fresh water of my well.”

Now, she says, “No more fresh water remains in my well. Taste it. It is salty.” She has no choice but to turn to the water pipeline, which supplies water erratically and intermittently, once or twice in a day if at all.

Ponnamma’s neighbour Muraleedharan faces the same problem, via a different route. “My well had dried out. Most of the time, I had to depend on neighbours for fresh water. Two years ago, I found a solution by digging a borewell in my premises. But last monsoon onwards, I am getting salty water instead of sweet, fresh water.”

Neither Ponnamma nor Muraleedharan is able to use the well water for drinking or cooking. But Baby, another resident of the village who suffers from the same problem, has made a compromise. “My well water is less salty than others. So, I am using it for cooking. But for drinking, I am fully dependent on neighbours,” she says.

The residents would like to know the reason.

A street vendor in Poovar says, “God is very annoyed with the people who live on the sea shore. This is due to the irrecoverable damages being caused by the men to the sea. There is a limit for every kind of exploitation. Now that limit is almost over.”

Sanjeev Singh, marine scientist and former fisheries secretary in Kerala government, indicates that this could be an impact of climate change. “This is a reflection of international ocean phenomena. Sea level is rapidly increasing with dangerous consequences. Minute changes would have devastating impacts. Saline intrusion into fresh water wells is one of the direct impacts, which affects the common people,” says Singh.

According to World Meteorological Organization, 97.5% of all the water on earth is saline. The separation between saline and fresh water is delicate, so saline water can intrude into fresh water resources.

Rising sea level due to climate change, unregulated sand mining on the shore and gross violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone Act are exacerbating the process, experts say. “Mangrove forests were the guardians of the sea shore. Unfortunately most of the mangrove forests of Kerala were uprooted. Large-scale development activities in the coastal region are another reason. Tourist barons acquired highly sensitive land on the seashore under the guise of tourism. Illegal and ruthless sand mining expedites the havoc. Climate change is a phenomena created by men, not by nature,” adds Singh.

GHSLV Prasad Rao from the Department of Agricultural Meteorology, College of Horticulture, Kerala Agricultural University, Vellanikkara conducted a study on the subject in 2004 and published his findings in a report called Climate Change, Mitigation and Adaptation with Reference to Agriculture over the Humid Tropics. He wrote, “Climate change leads to impending disaster in the form of severe water scarcity and saline water intrusion along the coastal areas. The saline water intrusion was not there earlier. Destruction of fresh water lakes or conversion of wetlands has further aggravated the situation.”

No official agency has conducted a detailed study on the subject. Last year the National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS) at state capital Thiruvananthapuram held a two-day meet on the impact of climate change in the marine sector. The focus was on fisheries, though NCESS scientists say they are well aware about the recent intrusion of salt water into fresh water wells in the seashore regions.

D.S. Suresh Babu, a marine scientist at NCESS, says, “Climate change is a long term phenomena. Of course, it might be one of the reasons. But we cannot authenticate without a scientific study. Incessant pumping from the wells in the coastal region is one of the main reasons. It is noticed that water is being bored from beneath the MSL (Mean Sea level) by excessive pumping. It might be the main reason for salt water intrusion.”

Fresh water dominated regions in the coastal areas are denoted “coastal aquifers” by scientists. They are important because they can resist salt water intrusion. The demarcation between coastal aquifers and the salt water region is delicate, and salt water can easily intrude when costal aquifers become fragile.

Marine scientists put forward two environmental benchmarks to signify this process – the mean sea level and the water table, which is the highest level at which fresh water is absorbed underground.

Normally, the mean sea level is below the water table. But excessive pumping of groundwater makes it shift below the mean sea level. This result is salt water intrusion.


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