Posted by Toney Thomas:
Kerala happens to be one of the most drought-prone states in the country – in the year 2016, all 14 of its districts were affected by severe drought. A significant – but often ignored – reason behind this is the degradation and disappearance of the State’s ponds. Once considered vital water resources for local communities, Kerala’s ponds have been wasting away out of neglect, particularly because of easy availability of alternate water sources. In the district of Ernakulum alone, only 600 ponds (out of 2500) remain in use. It was only as late as last year that the government realised the consequences of losing ponds, and launched a campaign to preserve them.
However, cleaning Kerala’s ponds during a period of drought isn’t a long-term solution. Equal amounts of time and effort needed to prevent droughts in the first place. One way to do this was to address the public negligence and work towards preservation and regular maintenance of the ponds. It was to do exactly this, that I began volunteering with a team of volunteers, as part of an NYK Ernakulam initiative.
Our objective was not just to clean the ponds, but to also create awareness about the fact that the state’s ponds are to be preserved and maintained – and that if we don’t pay attention to them, the state will be hit by even more severe droughts in coming years. And what better way to do this, than to mobilise communities whose livelihoods depend on these ponds?
Rallying people wasn’t as challenging as we’d feared. At the time, I was already working with Nehru Yuva Kendra, an autonomous organisation under the Government of India that facilitates community work through youth volunteers. Through their large network of youth clubs and volunteers, they already had the grassroots reach required to gather the manpower needed. We also involved government servants such as Administrators and District Collector to ensure sufficient media coverage to take the message as far as possible, leveraging the entirety of the Ernakulam district.
What we found most encouraging was that the motivation to clean the ponds was already there in these communities. Some youth and civic society organisations were, in fact, urgently trying to begin desilting the ponds in their localities. Our interactions with these communities led us to realise that it was the actions of a few that were endangering the ponds, and by extension, the communities settled around them. Hence, they were willing to invest their energy into reviving the ponds – they just needed to know how.
And that’s where the UN Volunteers’ team came into the picture. We not only helped the communities realise that the ponds needed to be cleaned and maintained, but also organised forces to clean up 10-20 ponds a week.
The actual process of cleaning the ponds was the most challenging. We began with the regular process of clearing out the bushes and mud. But, here’s where we hit a snag. Normally, we would have drained the ponds to clean it out first, but this wasn’t an option with these ponds, since, at the time, the groundwater levels were already significantly depleted because of the drought.
We were forced to take up a more complicated method of cleaning these ponds manually, while allowing the water to remain in the pond. Two to three volunteers would then get into the pond, and remove the mud by hand, which would then be deposited with other volunteers waiting at the bank. The task was long and arduous, requiring constant planning and monitoring. And there was the looming target of cleaning 100 ponds in 50 days.
But we pulled through.
The effort that went into the project cannot be stressed upon enough, but it really paid off. Not only did we meet our initial target of 100 ponds in 50 days – we beat all odds and surpassed it, hitting 100 ponds in 43 days, going on to clean 150 ponds in 60 days!
But our work wasn’t complete. The ponds had been cleaned, but they also needed to be maintained. So, we set up user groups who would act as maintenance committees for the particular ponds, charged with taking care of them for the rest of the year. Fresh after the rains, the ponds might look clear, but the real challenge will begin once the rains disappear, and people start dumping waste into the ponds again.
The Nehru Yuva Kendra has made significant headway with this project – but further challenges lie ahead of us, including lack of funds and resources. We’re looking into alternative options such as celebrity endorsements to scale up the project in the coming year. Our agenda is to create awareness at the national level, so ponds all across the country can be maintained.
The task ahead is daunting, but the satisfaction of seeing the project through successfully is incomparable. And who knows! With enough encouragement, volunteering and government support, we might actually pull off a project that rejuvenates India’s natural ponds, solving the nation’s water crisis along the way!
As told to Sourya Majumder