Deeper and deeper

It is dif­fi­cult to find wa­ter even at record depths in Ko­lar, Kar­nataka's hor­ti­cul­ture hub


Ground­wa­ter lev­els in Kar­nataka's Ko­lar dis­trict drop to record lev­els, hit­ting hor­ti­cul­ture

BEKU BEKU shash­vata neero (We want a per­ma­nent source of wa­ter)!” For the past five months, Ko­lar, a dis­trict in Kar­nataka, has been re­ver­ber­at­ing with this slo­gan. Ev­ery day, hun­dreds of farm­ers and traders gather at Col­lege Cir­cle in Ko­lar town to protest an acute short­age of wa­ter, which re­sulted in a 50 per cent crop loss this year in the dis­trict. Ko­lar is ranked highly among all the dis­tricts in the state in pro­duc­tiv­ity and yield of hor­ti­cul­tural crops. But the protest has landed on deaf ears as no­body from the state gov­ern­ment has ac­knowl­edged it, for­get about vis­it­ing the site. This forced many farm­ers to aban­don agri­cul­ture and mi­grate to Ben­galuru.

For more than a decade, Kar­nataka has been over­ex­ploit­ing its ground­wa­ter. In 2006, Ko­lar’s av­er­age ground­wa­ter level was at a depth of 15.03 m. This year, from Jan­uary to Au­gust, it dropped to 61.48 m. It now ranks the low­est among all dis­tricts in the state. In fact, ground­wa­ter has been over­ex­ploited in all its five talukas, leav­ing no scope to fur­ther tap ground­wa­ter, which meets its ir­ri­ga­tion and do­mes­tic needs. How­ever, this is not the first time Ko­lar has wit­nessed such scarcity. Ground­wa­ter was over­ex­ploited in all its talukas in 2011.

The east­ern gate­way to Kar­nataka, Ko­lar, has no peren­nial source of wa­ter. Although it is drained by three river basins—Palar, Pon­nai­yar and Pen­nar—these rivers and their trib­u­taries are small and carry wa­ter only dur­ing the rainy sea­son. The semi-arid dis­trict re­ceives an an­nual av­er­age rain­fall of just 748 mm. The rain­fall is also ex­tremely er­ratic. While in 2005, the an­nual rain­fall was 1,195.4 mm, in 2016 it was just 521 mm. In the ab­sence of sur­face wa­ter and ad­e­quate mea­sures to recharge wa­ter aquifers, farm­ers started dig­ging bore wells in early 2000s, a prac­tise which soon be­came ram­pant.

In just four years, from 2011 to 2015, the num­ber of bore wells in Ko­lar in­creased by 64 per cent. Although the Cen­tral Ground Wa­ter Board says Ko­lar had 84,287 bore wells—the high­est in the state in 2015—Ho­lali Prakash, a farmer from Ko­lar taluka and one of the lead­ers of the protest, says that this is a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate. It could be at least 125,000, Prakash says. Like

Prakash, many farm­ers be­gan aban­don­ing wa­ter-in­ten­sive crops such as paddy and sug­ar­cane, and shifted to mul­berry, mil­let and veg­etable cul­ti­va­tion.

But this was just the be­gin­ning of the wa­ter woes in Ko­lar, where the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion de­pends on agri­cul­ture. With de­clin­ing ground­wa­ter lev­els, bore wells too be­gan to dry up. Chan­drashekhar Jalakanta, an ibm em­ployee who has been protest­ing daily, says of the 1,700 bore wells drilled by the dis­trict pan­chayat this year, 500 did not yield wa­ter. M Thippeswamy, se­nior ge­ol­o­gist, ground­wa­ter depart­ment, Ko­lar, says that nearly 40 per cent of bore wells in the dis­trict—33,715 of the 84,287— are dry. As a re­sult, peo­ple be­gan dig­ging deeper and the depth of a bore well in­creased from 91 m in the early 2000s to 548 m in some ar­eas to­day. At present, the av­er­age depth of a bore well in Ko­lar is 393 m. At

688,000 for drilling a 393 m bore well, the fail­ure of 33,715 bore wells amounts to a wastage of 2,319 crore.

Eu­ca­lyp­tus makes it worse

The wa­ter deficit has also been com­pounded by the plan­ta­tion of eu­ca­lyp­tus trees. Each tree can ex­tract 15 to 20 litres of wa­ter per day. In­tro­duced by the state gov­ern­ment in the 1960s un­der its af­foresta­tion pro­grammes, the tree be­came pop­u­lar in the 80s. To­day, the ma­jor­ity of the dis­trict’s eu­ca­lyp­tus is found in two of its talukas, says MVN Rao, di­rec­tor of a lo­cal non-profit, Gram Vikas.

For many farm­ers, the zero main­te­nance tree, which ma­tures in seven years, pro­vides lu­cra­tive re­turns. Prakash says while the in­vest­ment on eu­ca­lyp­tus is 8,800 per hectare (ha), the re­turn is 40,000/ha. V Govin­dappa, a farmer from Honnset­ta­halli vil­lage of Mu­la­ba­gal taluka, who grows eu­ca­lyp­tus on 70 per cent of his 8 ha land, says it is like in­sur­ance for them. “We use the money from eu­ca­lyp­tus plan­ta­tion to buy gold for our daugh­ter’s mar­riage,” says Govin­dappa. Fol­low­ing stud­ies which linked eu­ca­lyp­tus cul­ti­va­tion to the de­ple­tion of ground­wa­ter lev­els in Ko­lar, the state gov­ern­ment in 1990 asked the for­est depart­ment to re­strict eu­ca­lyp­tus to de­graded re­served forests and waste­lands. But some farm­ers con­tin­ued to grow eu­ca­lyp­tus plan­ta­tion as the or­der did not pro­hibit its plan­ta­tion on pri­vate land. To fur­ther pre­vent the de­ple­tion of ground­wa­ter, the for­est depart­ment has been re­plac­ing eu­ca­lyp­tus trees with bam­boo and tamarind since 2013. Each year, they re­move eu­ca­lyp­tus from 1,000 ha of forest­land. “We are go­ing to ask the gov­ern­ment to is­sue a blan­ket ban on eu­ca­lyp­tus plan­ta­tions, in­clud­ing those on pri­vate farms,” says Srini­vas Rao, dis­trict for­est of­fi­cer, Ko­lar.

In­ad­e­quate plan­ning

Though the dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tion and the for­est depart­ment have been try­ing out mea­sures such as crop di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, ar­ti­fi­cial recharge and wa­ter con­ser­va­tion, res­i­dents feel it is not enough.

To dis­cour­age farm­ers from grow­ing eu­ca­lyp­tus, the for­est depart­ment dis­trib­uted 0.8 mil­lion san­dal­wood seedlings and 0.6 mil­lion Melia du­bia (Mal­abar neem) seedlings this year. Jalakanta, whose fa­ther grew ragi, says that the re­turns on san­dal­wood are more. Srini­vas Rao says they are think­ing of pro­vid­ing the seedlings at a sub­sidised cost. Jalakanta says this is much needed as san­dal­wood re­quires huge in­vest­ments.

Be­tween 2010 and 2016, Ko­lar’s hor­ti­cul­ture depart­ment as­sisted farm­ers in build­ing 200 in­di­vid­ual and 20 com­mu­nity farm ponds un­der the Na­tional Hor­ti­cul­ture Mis­sion. But it ig­nores the fact that the ponds are full only dur­ing the two rain­fall months, says Jalakanta.

Prakash says a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion to meet Ko­lar’s re­quire­ments lies in di­vert­ing wa­ter from the rivers in the state. Ac­cord­ing to a 1972 re­port by G S Para­mashiv­a­iah, an ir­ri­ga­tion ex­pert, ev­ery year, 1,500 thou­sand mil­lion cu­bic feet (tmc) of wa­ter from the state’s ma­jor rivers such as the Kr­ishna and the Cau­very drains into the sea. Ko­lar needs only 100 tmc an­nu­ally, says Prakash. Although in 2015, the state gov­ern­ment an­nounced two projects to di­vert river wa­ter to Ko­lar, both drew the ire of sci­en­tists and cit­i­zens (see ‘Ko­lar’s predica­ment’).

Shubha Ra­machan­dran of Biome En­vi­ron­men­tal So­lu­tions, a Ben­galuru-based non-profit, says although di­ver­sion is a way out, it’s not the only so­lu­tion. She points to the neigh­bour­ing Chik­bal­la­pur dis­trict where res­i­dents filled up wa­ter tanks to recharge the aquifer. This en­sured that wa­ter was avail­able in open wells. A part of the prob­lem can be solved by the re­vival of wa­ter bod­ies and ju­di­cious use of what­ever wa­ter is avail­able, she adds.

Since June 12, the cit­i­zens of Ko­lar have been protest­ing the acute short­age of wa­ter. Ground­wa­ter in all its five talukas is over­ex­ploited

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