It is the proverbial problem of scarcity amid plenty. Kerala's famed rice bowl Kuttanad, straddling the central Kerala districts of Alappuzha and Kottayam, is in the midst of a resource which at once is its boon and bane – water.
The Kuttanad region is one with many geographical peculiarities. It is among the very rare places in the world where farming is done 1.2 to 3 metres below sea level. The stunningly green paddy fields of Kuttanad are often separated from the rivers and lakes by natural and man-made embankments. During the rains, the embankments break and water inundates the region. This is the natural water flush which replenishes the soggy topsoil with much-needed nutrients. By the time the waters recede, the fields are ready for a fresh crop. However, the unscientific use of chemical fertilizers on paddy fields, which see major 'water incursion' at least twice a year has polluted the larger waterbodies beyond repair, say studies.
Did you know these things about Kuttanad?
Kuttanad is India's only spot lying below the mean sea level.
Region has massive mineral deposits under its surface - ranging from abundant sediments, sand, silts and even buried remains of timber of huge trees and dead vegetation.
Stretching across three districts, Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, the vast delta of Kuttanad spreads across 900 square kilometres - at least 500 square kilometre agricultural land is below mean sea level.
Kuttanad is a delta surrounded by the Vembanad lake, into which drains the rivers Pamba, Achancovil, Manimala and Meenachil.
As per studies, Kuttanad was formed when the Arabian sea withdrew from the foothills of the western ghats, inundating vast forests, depositing silts and salts and burying vegetation.
Traditionally grew two crops of paddy alternating with aquaculture- prawns, catfish, clams, pearl spot etc.
The estuarine fish species of pearl spots and prawns are exported to countries across the world
The Kuttanad wetland ecosystem exists in 3 landscape elements: Karapadam (upland rice fields), Kayal (wetland rice fields) and Kari (land buried with black coal like materials).
An M S Swmainathan Research Foundation report called Kuttanad 'a water desert'.
The unique ecosystem, formed by coastal backwaters, rivers, vast stretches of paddy fields, marshes, ponds, garden lands, edges, corridors is together referred to as the Kuttanad wetland agricultural system.
This network and the unique indigenous agricultural heritage with its signature, Kuttanad below sea-level farming system (KBSFS) are highly susceptible to human pressures.
The regular flooding and alternate cropping with aquaculture restores the alkaline balance of the saline land. Human pressures and shift to three crops of paddy or merely aquaculture destroys this balance.
Massive fertiliser run-off, reclamation of land, poor sewage management and microplastics pollution have been threatening the ecosystem critically.