Dig deeper for water only to reap toxic harvest

Dig deeper for water only to reap toxic harvest

In Jakkenahalli, about 400 houses depend on water pumped from 2 km away. The water tank in the village has remained empty for the last three months. dh photo/ Chiranjeevi Kulkarni

Narayanamma Chikkappaiah sitting in her dimly lit home at Thirumani, a village near Yerralakkenahalli in Bagepalli taluk, did not heed to the plea to ignore the custom of standing up to greet guests. The 62-year-old fluorosis patient put all her might into her hands as she stood up, beating the pain in the joints.

“I don’t have children and my husband hardly has enough strength to walk. He also has pain in the joints. We are dependent on others in the village for a glass of drinking water. Please help us,” she said with folded hands.

It has been about three years since the region has seen a good rain. “Last monsoon, the ground did not soak beyond an inch. Cultivating land is impossible unless you have a borewell,” said Nagareddy, whose skeletal fluorosis was confirmed by a doctor in a recent health camp.

“I have got a walking stick and two strips of tablets. But I need to drink the same borewell water that landed me in this trouble,” he said.

Drought is not an unfamiliar condition for the resilient communities of Chikkaballapur, Kolar and Tumakuru districts. However, over the last five years, the dry belt of southeast Karnataka is descending further down into hopelessness, as villagers in desperation are digging further into the pool of fluoride and hard water.

Many have given up farming and are coming to Bengaluru to work in construction and service sectors. “My two sons left for Bengaluru years ago. They don’t want to come back and till the land as three of our borewells have failed. My elder son told me that he doesn’t want to return to a place which gets two cans of drinking water in four days,” he said.

As water becomes the next gold, there is a competition to dig deeper to squeeze the last drop from the earth, even if its utility is limited. Farmer leaders said the government, especially local bodies, have to take up the issue on an urgent basis.

‘Water wars’

G C Shankarappa, Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha’s district secretary in Tumakuru, said he was concerned about the normalisation of the terms like ‘water wars’. “The story of water is story of lakhs of farmers in this region, who have not asked for anything else from political leaders. Without ground water, a major part of this region has already become a desert,” he said.

Shankarappa said farmers were eagerly waiting for completion of Yettinahole project. “Everybody knows that the government is not telling the truth. But we hope that they will bring at least 15 tmc of the 25 tmc they have been promising us for nine years,” he said.

At Jakkenahalli near Hampasandra in Gowribidanur taluk, villagers waited near the taps where water is pumped from Karaganahalli, about 2 km away. “From the beginning of last month, we are spending our mornings and evenings standing in long queues during which fights are common. It has been three months since the overhead tank in the village has gone dry. We don’t know how long we can sustain this way,” said Shobha N.

In Madhugiri and Pavagada taluk panchayats, villages under 16 gram panchayats are dependent on tanker waters. An official in Madhugiri said 11 villages were dependent on private borewells. The situation is similar in other taluks: water is either pumped from borewells situated kilometres away or brought in tankers.

Among officials, from those planning policies in Bengaluru to the ones implementing them at village level, there is a general consensus that the region has reached a point of no return.

“We are doing everything we can to prevent a crisis. Yettinahole is the only solution,” an official from Shidlaghatta taluk panchayat said.

A senior official in Chikkaballapur said 98 of the 270 villages under Chikkaballapur taluk panchayat have acute shortage of water. “When I say acute, it means people have to travel for nearly 10 km to get water if our tanker doesn’t bring it to the village. There are 42 villages where not a drop of water is available. We are following the district administration’s order and supplying water in tankers, which is not enough to meet even the drinking needs,” he said.

Kiran Kumar Sen, who works with INREM Foundation, an NGO that has done extensive surveys in 10 habitations in Bagepalli taluk, said some of the Reverse osmosis (RO) plants remain ineffective due to various reasons. “The RO plant in Tholapalli (Bagepalli taluk) is not utilised by most of the residents in that village as people do not like the taste of the water. They travel about 5 km to Pathapalya. In fact, every RO plant has its own story. There is a need for regular check and maintenance,” he said.

Principal Secretary for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department, L K Atheeq, said standing instructions have been given to deputy commissioners and zilla panchayat chief executive officers to address drinking water shortages in any village on priority. “The funds required are in place. If borewells are unavailable, then tankers should be used. Complaints from villages will be looked into immediately,” he said.

Shakuntalamma Nagaraju in Sompura, 10 km from Koratagere, said she received about 20 litres of piped water after a gap of 10 days. “Even this is available because there is a power cut and my two neighbours can’t start their water pumps. Drinking water is costly. At home, we keep count of every glass we drink,” she said.

Health and sustainability

In their study of 10 villages, volunteers from INREM Foundation surveyed 236 children in anganwadis and schools. “We found 92 of them were suffering from severe dental fluorosis, 82 suffered from medium dental flurosis and 48 suffered had mild dental fluorosis,” Sen told DH.

Sen said there is an urgent need to link water supply, conditions like skeletal or dental fluorosis with food and nutrition. “A holistic approach is needed if we want to help these communities in the longer run,” he said.

Villagers across the three districts were worried how long this arrangement would continue. Some have dug borewells by raising loans to get water, regardless of quality. The government has announced Rs 2,000 crore for drinking water and Rs 500 crore for works to be taken up for water rejuvenation schemes.

NGOs working on the ground said the continued reliance on commercial crops that has led to over-exploitation of groundwater needs to stop. “There is a need to create awareness among the farmers about sustainable agriculture and afforestation. It took 10 years for us to bring back greenery in a select area in Shidlaghatta forest range. With the help of officials and community, we restored 69,000 acres of common land and helped more than 300 villages,” said Vijay Kumar the head of Foundation for Ecological Security’s district unit.

When asked about the region pinning hopes on projects like Yettinahole, writer and environmentalist Nagesh Hegde said the concept of permanent irrigation from far away rivers like Yettinahole or Sharavati was untenable because of global warming.

“Frequent floods and droughts make water supply unpredictable. The only permanent thing in this (Yettinahole) project, apart from incessant quarrels among the intended beneficiaries, will be dry canals or silted lakes. We need to redefine what is permanent irrigation. It is not what comes from rivers and lakes. It is what you harvest from the sky or recycle from the drainage lines,” he said.