Diseases Follow Environmental Degradation
By Archna Devraj
The contamination of canals and other sources of water led to the outbreak of chikungunya in the Indian state of Kerala. The finger of blame is pointing at fish processors and coconut fiber factories.
CHERTHALA, India, Dec 2 (Tierramérica).- To find the origin of the chikungunya epidemic, which has already claimed 125 lives in the Indian state of Kerala, take a look at some of the area's water sources, which have been turned into vast pools of industrial runoff.
Chikungunya, in Swahili, means "that which bends up", and describes those who suffer from the illness. Generally it is spread through bites from the Aedes aegypti, the same mosquito that transmits dengue, but there may be others.
Authorities and experts, starting with federal health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, were quick to point out that the outbreak, which raged through September and October, was linked to insanitary conditions fostered by creeping environmental degradation in Kerala, known for its lush, spice-growing hills, river valleys and serene backwaters that empty into the Arabian Sea.
Nowhere did the epidemic strike harder than in the state's prime tourist destination of Alappuzha district, whose population of two million people suddenly found itself at the mercy of aedes aegypti and the virus it carried.
As tens of thousands of people went down with fever, joint pains, nausea and diarrhea, the typical symptoms, the state health delivery system found itself overwhelmed. By Oct. 12, officials had admitted that at least 125 deaths were attributable to chikungunya, with the majority of casualties reported from Alappuzha's sub-district of Cherthala.
For Kerala, this was a first encounter with chikungunya. Touring Cherthala, Ramadoss, a medical doctor, admitted that the outbreak had caught health officials unawares, but added that no hospital in the country was equipped to respond to an epidemic outbreak of this nature.
It was left to a team of federal experts, and representatives of the World Health Organization, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Vector Control Research Bureau to prescribe remedial measures, a key component being the re-introduction of natural predators of the mosquito.
Apparently, a decline in traditional agriculture, combined with a rise in industries related to the export of marine and coconut fiber products had upset the delicate ecology of the backwaters and turned Cherthala into a vast cesspool of industrial and other effluents.
"It is not surprising that chikungunya has hit Cherthala. The pollution level in the canals is very high. In fact, a report of the State Pollution Control Board in 2002-03 had described Aroor in Cherthala as the most polluted 'panchayat' (village) in the state. Similarly, the Chandiroor canal flowing through the area had been described as the most contaminated,'' says journalist C Radhakrishnan, who lives in Cherthala, and was among the first to report the chikungunya outbreak.
There were more recent warnings. The renowned Santhigiri Siddha and Ayurveda Vaidyasala (SSAV), which is at the forefront of reviving and popularizing traditional healthcare systems of India had, in a medical survey conducted in August, reported that the water sources in Cherthala had become severely contaminated with industrial waste and sewage.
"People do not have safe and wholesome water to drink. Stagnation of contaminated water in the premises of each house is a good medium for the multiplication of infective organisms and breed mosquitoes,'' the survey warned.
The SSAV, a unit of Santhigiri Ashram, a charitable non-governmental organization, had adopted Chandiroor village in Cherthala for a three-year medical programme aimed at making it disease free, noted a rise in the incidence of filariasis (another mosquito-borne malady), respiratory problems, skin disorders and thyroid dysfunction.
According to the local residents, nearly 100 big and small marine products exporting units dot the northern parts of Cherthala. The waste from the processing units and the peeling sheds is dumped into the canals leading to a choking of the water flow.
"Foul smell and slimy water are the bane of this area. Yet, the authorities have shut their eyes to the problem. The local people, being poor, have also not been able to organise themselves to raise their voice against this menace,'' said Radhakrishnan.
More contamination comes from the 1,000-odd coir industries. Every other house in the area is involved in producing coir from coconut husk. The husks are kept underwater for months for retting, a rotting process which exposes the fibre that is used in making ropes and mattresses. "The large amounts of husks that lie rotting deplete the oxygen in the water,'' says V. Rajamani Amma, course coordinator for an undergraduate programme on environment and water management at the local Nair Service Society College.
''The dye used to colour the coir also finds its way into the water. Studies carried out a few years ago found a disturbingly high incidence of cancer in the area,'' says Rajamani.
While the government accepted the findings of the report, precious little was done by way of follow-up action said Rajamani, who is also a University Grants Commission project researcher specialising in water pollution. Pollution, she says, is ''rampant in water bodies all over Cherthala. As the underground water runs merely three feet (one meter) below the surface, the contamination has spread to underground reservoirs, which are the main source of drinking water''.
The high level of organic, chemical and sanitary waste has led to a marked decrease in the oxygen levels, which in turn resulted has in the extermination of fish and toads, natural predators which keep mosquitoes under control.
According to local residents, an early indication of the increasing contamination of the waterways was the large number of dead fish found floating in the nearby Vembanad lake, a few years ago. This was a direct consequence of the contamination of the lake water by the coir and other industrial units situated close to it, they alleged.
However, no action was taken to clean up the canals, which are linked to the Vembanad lake. ''If it were fish which died first, now it is human beings. We are all paying the price for the increasing pollution levels in this area,'' says Radhakrishnan.
Local farmers have another explanation for the rising levels of mosquito infestation. A steady decline in the prices of the paddy produced locally had resulted in most of the farmers giving up rice cultivation, they say.
''The earlier farming activity kept mosquito breeding under check. Farmers used to regularly clean the vacant plots and also periodically clean up the ponds in the area. There was thus no scope for mosquitoes to breed. Now, with the ponds and the vacant lots lying unused, they provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes,'' says T. Gopalan, who gave up farming his paddy fields, unable to match cheaper imports.
The State Pollution Control Board which has come in for flak from locals for not doing enough to check the rising pollution levels in Cherthala, claims that it has not been sitting idle. Board chairman G. Rajamohan admits that ''a lot remains to be done..'' Recently the Board issued closure notices to the polluting fish processing units in Cherthala. ''We have given them three months time to clean up their act or face closure.''
As for the coir units, Rajamohan said the Board will shortly introduce new technology, developed by the Coir Board, the apex body for the development of the coir sector in India, to avoid the oxygen-depleting "retting" process.
Rajamohan said the problem of dyes leaching into the water was already being tackled by treatment plants set up by the larger export-oriented units, while the smaller ones are being encouraged to go in for common effluent treatment plants.
Coir Board chairman A. C. Jose says that the completion of the 560-million-dollar centrally-aided Alappuzha Coir Cluster Development Project complete with common effluent treatment facilities is expected to help reduce pollution levels in Cherthala.
* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS (Inter Press Service) and IFEJ (International Federation of Environmental Journalists).