How a Kerala panchayat brought a dying river back to life

For over two decades, the Kuttamperoor lay neglected and abused and, by 2005, it had been reduced to a marshy, polluted cesspool perhaps 10-15 feet wide, with patchy water and almost no flow.

Written by Nandini Rathi , Shaju Philip | New Delhi/kochi | Updated: May 9, 2017 2:55 pm
(Left) The Kuttamperoor river, its flow choked and its surface overrun completely by vegetation; the river after restoration, its water running in a clear flow. Express

The Kuttamperoor stream in Kerala, connecting the Pampa and Achankovil rivers, had been a nearly stagnant, shrunken cesspool of dumped waste and weeds for more than a decade. Some weeks ago, it was resuscitated as a flowing river, thanks to the will of the Budhanur gram panchayat in Alappuzha district, and the commitment of 700 local men and women who worked to bring the river back to life under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

The Kuttamperoor was once a full 12 kilometres long and, at places, over 100 feet wide. The river originates from Achankovil at Ulunthi, near Mavelikkara, and flows through Ennackad, Budhanur, Kuttamperoor, Mannar, and Pandanad before merging with the Pampa at Nakkida near Parumala in Pathanamthitta district.

According to legend, it was originally a man-made canal on which wide-bodied vessels known as kettuvallams carried items of trade and daily requirement. The river irrigated 2,000 acres of paddy fields, and was the lifeline for thousands of people who lived on its banks. Country boats (palliyodams) once raced on it during the famous Aranmula boat race. The river was also a natural flood control channel between the Pampa and Achankovil.

The advent of modern transportation, coupled with urbanisation, began the process of the river’s slow death. The kettuvallams ceased to operate. Weeds overran the river, and the hotel industry and local residents converted it into a giant garbage bin. Three bridges were constructed across the river in a manner that severely restricted its flow. There was unchecked, illegal sand mining on the riverbed, its banks were dug up to mine clay for brick units, and there was rampant encroachment. Chemical fertilisers from fields and sewage from human settlements flowed into the river.

For over two decades, the Kuttamperoor lay neglected and abused and, by 2005, it had been reduced to a marshy, polluted cesspool perhaps 10-15 feet wide, with patchy water and almost no flow.

The move to revive the river was proposed in 2013, and received a push after a dry spell in the region. Environmental activists and organisations, and people’s representatives had been debating options to rejuvenate the river, and ideas such as employing a dredger to clear the river of weeds had been considered. However, issues of funding kept the project from getting off the ground.

The initiative, finally, was taken by Alappuzha district’s Budhanur panchayat, which lies on the river’s eastern bank. (On the western bank are the panchayats of Mannar and Chennithala, also in Alappuzha district.) The decision to revive the river under MGNREGS was taken in December 2016, and work began on January 15 this year, Panchayat president Advocate P Vishwambhara Panicker said. “Seven hundred workers, mostly women, were deployed to clean the river to restore its flow. After 30,000 man-days, water flow through the 12-km river was restored.”

The work was finished on March 20. No machines were used in the river’s rebirth, Panicker said. “For the women workers, it was not merely a job guarantee scheme. They toiled with a social commitment. It was exemplary asset creation under the MGNREGS,” he said.

Fish have started to reappear in the river,” environmentalist N K Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the NGO Pampa Parirakshana Samithi, said. Water levels have risen significantly in wells and ponds up to a distance of 5 km from the river, Panicker said. Thousands of people have begun to use the water of the river again for washing and bathing, and come the next farming season, the river is expected to again turn into the lifeline it once was. The panchayat now plans to clear the clogged ducts along the sides of the river to take water to the fields.

When a community takes ownership of their resources and shows the drive to protect their water bodies, such actions are far more effective than any top-down approach led officially. Mass mobilisation is the only sustainable way to revive and maintain water bodies that have long been neglected by their communities,” said Prashanth Nair, former Collector of Kozhikode, who has led several initiatives in the district to revive degraded water bodies.

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