STORY OF A FAILED MONSOON

A visual narrative on people’s hope and how they cope during a failed monsoon.

Virtually everyone in India knows that Western Ghats Mountains is one of the hottest of the biological hotspots in the world. But, what’s unknown to many, especially a cross section of the semi-urban and rural people in India is that, within these mountains are the last stretches of a unique ecosystem called the ‘Sholas’.

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During monsoon, these Shola forests and the adjoining grasslands perform an incredible service. Acting like a sponge, they absorb vast quantities of water from torrential downpours. Tiny rivulets are formed from these and many join together to form hundreds of streams. They unite and flow downstream as major rivers like Krishna, Godavari and Cauvery, which are the lifelines of millions of people across peninsular India. Most of us are virtually unaware of this ecosystem service or rather wilfully blind to think intricate connect people share with the natural world.

This connect is starkly visible when there is a failed monsoon. The evidences are the events that unfold everyday in town and villages across peninsular India. When the rivers run dry and the reservoirs devoid of water, thousands of people walk for miles to access drinking water from a common tank. Many have discovered indigenous methods to filter water. Taking advantage of the dry rivers, thousand of huge trucks are deployed on a sand mining spree. These lead to a domino effect that has untold consequences and imbalance on the social, environmental and cultural context of the land.

There are around ninety-eight rivers in the state of Tamil Nadu alone. Most of them run dry like this ‘Vellar River’. The catchment areas around the rivers have been virtually destroyed over a period of time. The course of the rivers too has been changed gradually due to land usage patterns. An entire ecosystem vanishes when a river dries up. Slowly they turn invisible to people’s eyes. Weeds start taking over dry riverbed. They become hubs for illegal activities like sand mining.

The beating that a river takes is largely visible when they are illegally mined for sand in broad daylight. Trucks and bullock carts stand in queue to be filled till the brim with sand. It’s estimated that the illegal sand mining in Tamil Nadu alone is estimated to be in the range of 2.2. Billion US Dollars.

Tank irrigation system is one of the oldest and important sources of irrigation in India. There are around 1,27,000 tanks in southern India especially in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka that are dependent on the monsoon. The villages around the tanks revere it, for it’s their main source of water. A good monsoon is imperative, as the water in the tank will can be used for a longer period of time until the next monsoon. When the monsoon fails, the search for a new source of water beings.

“We walk around four miles up and down from our village everyday to access water from this well. It is the only source for us as ponds near our villages have gone dry. We hope and pray everyday for the rains to come and replenish the water bodies in our locality.” – People of Perunjunai village, Southern Tamil Nadu.

“My parents, brother and I come to this pond to fetch water. There is no water for six hours. Suddenly, for the next six hours water slowly seeps in. This cycle is like magic! My mother says it is because of the tide changes as we live near the coast. We take around half an hour to fill a pot of water. It’s full of dirt, which we filter at home. This is how we get drinking water everyday.” – Lakshmi, a middle school girl in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu.

The beating that a river takes is largely visible when they are illegally mined for sand in broad daylight. Trucks and bullock carts stand in queue to be filled till the brim with sand. It’s estimated that the illegal sand mining in Tamil Nadu alone is estimated to be in the range of 2.2. Billion US Dollars.

Once the water is brought home, its filtered using a seed that has the properties of alum. It’s called ‘Thethangai’ in the regional language. The inside of a vessel are scratched and coated with this seed before pouring water into it. Within a few hours, sediments get filtered and the water is used for drinking and cooking.

Urbanization and unsustainable development are taking a toll on the land like never before. It affects people in the villages who are closer to nature than people living in the cities. With unpredictable seasons, it is vital to mark areas key watersheds and protect nature reserves that constitute only 4 percent of India’s geographical landscape.

Policymakers and people from all backgrounds must know that the diverse species living in a forest reflects the health of the environment. They are the building blocks of an ecosystem that plays an important role in shaping the monsoon. Without them, the livelihoods of people in peninsular India cannot flourish.

If people trace the source of water from a home in peninsular India all the way to the origin, it will be in a Shola forest in the Western Ghats. These mountains must be protected for posterity. Only then, the rivers will meander with water and not as dry riverbeds; and the tanks, ponds and wells will be replenished by the life-giving monsoon.

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