India: Getting Water on Tap in Rural Kerala

August 12, 2013


The summer of 2013 was unusually harsh in the southern state of Kerala, the lush coastal state in southern India. Before the monsoon arrived, there was little relief from the scorching summer heat for the parched and thirsty population.

“Most of our wells dried up this summer,” says Ajithkumar, the bearded head of the Mundathikode gram panchayat – village council – in Thrissur district in north Kerala. “The dams had no water to spare to irrigate our fields and recharge our wells. Hundreds of families would have been in dire trouble had it not been for Jalanidhi,” he adds, citing the Kerala government’s innovative rural water supply project, supported by the World Bank.

Jalanidhi, which began in 2000, has gone a long way in ensuring that rural families in many water-stressed parts of north Kerala receive a dependable supply of piped water in their homes, at a price that even low-income households can afford.

Kerala is thirstier now than a decade ago

“Kerala is thirstier now than a decade ago,” explains Ajithkumar, accounting for recent water shortages. Although the state receives one of the highest levels of rainfall in the country, its undulating terrain drains most of the rainwater into the sea.

“About 25 years ago, most people met their water needs from open wells and hand pumps that tapped into the abundant groundwater.” But now, demand for water is soaring. “Nuclear families are growing and about 500 new homes are being built every year in our area alone. People also have more affluent lifestyles and tend to use water wastefully since they no longer have to draw it up themselves from village wells, but use motorized pumps to do so instead.”

On the other hand, water sources are shrinking. Across the state, the rapid growth of built up areas and the loss of vegetative cover, ponds and wells has led to insufficient recharge of groundwater, contributing to falling water tables.

Until Jalanidhi came, most women spent many hours a day collecting water, often carrying it from distant wells or waiting for it near public taps, uncertain when and if the water would come. Many had to walk to distant rivers and ponds to bathe and wash clothes.

Communities take charge

The project sought to help villages plagued by chronic water shortages, making special provisions to include vulnerable people such as tribals, scheduled caste communities as well as fisher-folk within the project’s ambit.

Small groups of households who wanted better water supply were helped to come together to build and run their own water supply schemes. They were helped to dig new wells (to tap into the upper layers of water) drill bore-wells (to tap into deeper aquifers), or build systems to draw water from the state’s numerous springs, streams, rivers and lakes. They were also helped to build storage tanks and lay down pipes to distribute water to village homes. While the state government bore the lion’s share of capital expenditure (75%), the gram panchayat paid 10 %, and the beneficiaries themselves 15%.

Community groups determined the timings and duration of water supply to member families, and levied service charges to meet their operation and maintenance expenses. A number of communities installed water meters to curb consumption.

The Project’s success has helped dispel a number of long-held beliefs: one that piped water supply is a privilege only for the better-off; and two, that the poor are unwilling to share the capital costs of their schemes, or pay the cost of operations for the water they use. 

" The dams had no water to spare to irrigate our fields and recharge our wells. Hundreds of families would have been in dire trouble had it not been for Jalanidhi "


Head of the Mundathikode gram panchayat, village council, Thrissur district, Kerala


Women benefit, water quality improves, and people are satisfied

With water now available at the turn of a tap within family compounds, rural women have gained the most. They no longer have to spend hours collecting water for their homes, freeing up their time to work to supplement family incomes.

Kerala’s women have long run their households while their men-folk work overseas; today,  many of them have taken on the mantle of leadership in running their water supply schemes.

Vibrant and articulate Ambika Vijayakumar, 58, a mother of two who never finished high school, proved all naysayers wrong by mobilizing 62 households, raising Rs. 2,000 from each in easy instalments, buying land for a large open well and pump house, and building an overhead tank to the store water in. The group completed the project on time, and saved money too.

The quality of water has also improved and the incidence of diarrhea and dysentery has reduced dramatically. In the lower middle class neighbourhood of Minalur, Ammini, 74, had to abandon her well because a latrine built nearby contaminated it. Today, Ammini has enough safe water within her yard to meet her needs as well as those of her three tenant families.

Valsa, 47, who rents one of Ammini’s rooms, explains that the bill for all four families together usually works out to about Rs. 60 a month. Since they pay for the water they use, they are careful not to let the tank overflow. Asked if the cost of the water is justified, Valsa says that getting water when it is needed is itself a profit for her.

Jalanidhi has also added to the neighbourhood’s desirability. Shanta, 51, says that Jalanidhi water was a major factor in her husband deciding to buy a house in Minalur a year ago.

When the residents are satisfied, the village councils too are happy. Earlier, people were always complaining about the lack of water supply, and ‘dharnas’ – or protests – were frequent, says V. V. Kuttikrishnan, president of Erimayur gram panchayat (GP) in Palakkad district. “There is peace in most Jalanidhi panchayats now,” he adds.

It is a testimony to the success of the decentralized model that his panchayat has implemented 25-odd new projects on the Jalanidhi model, using funds from their own and other sources.

Secret of success – reliable water source and good leadership

A group of water users in Minalur is among the most successful under the project. The group – that caters to the water needs of 215 households – bears all maintenance costs, carries out regular water quality tests, holds monthly meetings, and maintains accounts properly.

Over the years, the group has saved Rs. 350,000 from user charges, using the interest to fund welfare measures for members such as providing scholarships, helping the poor with health expenses etc. 

So, what, is the secret of their success? “A reliable source of water and good, service-minded leadership,” explains P. Murali, who has headed the group for over a decade.

All groups are not the same, however adds P. K. Kurian, director monitoring and evaluation in Jalanidhi. “While around 80 to 85 % of schemes are functional – of which some 40 to 50 % are doing very well – the remaining 15 to 20 % are limping.”

What, then, accounts for the difference? Good human and social capital are critical explains Kurian. “But in places where good leadership is lacking, there is little sense of participation and projects tend to be mismanaged or have nothing in reserve for times of need,” adds Krishnakumar, an office bearer in a water group from Ayilur.

Gram panchayats should also be able to examine accounts, ascertain if meetings are held, and intervene where managerial, technical or other support is required, he avers. With this in mind, the Project, now in its second phase, is enabling panchayats to monitor the performance of water groups.

 Sustaining water sources is critical

Sustaining water sources is also critical. Many households want to join the schemes, but the projects, designed with a specific number of households in mind, cannot cater for too many new users. Water sources are also increasingly under strain; whereas 10 years ago a borewell struck water at 80 feet below the ground, it now touches water at 140 feet, as the water table has fallen.

Against this backdrop, panchayats have to take on overall water management, take stock of differing terrain and groundwater conditions, prepare local water policies, and project future water needs, observes Kurian.

Accordingly, Jalanidhi’s second phase envisages that GPs will prepare local water security plans, work towards making water sources sustainable, build local storage capacity, and draw up back-up plans to meet contingencies.

Jalanidhi I (2000-2008) has provided piped water to 192,000 families in 112 gram panchayats in 13 districts, the vast majority of which are in the four northern districts of Thrissur, Palakkad, Malappuram and Kozhikode.

Jalanidhi II (2012-2017) is working to provide water to rural families in 200 gram panchayats in 12 districts, many of which are in central Kerala’s Kottayam and Idukki districts, as well as in the northern districts of Palakkad, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Kannur, and Kasargod.