For academics and researchers coming down to study the Vembanad-Kole wetlands, one of India’s 41 Ramsar sites, their go-to person is a septuagenarian agriculturist Kochu Muhammed.Muhammed coordinates over 130 clusters of farmers for an elaborate process of dewatering, storing and recycling water from the wetlands to facilitate paddy cultivation and maintain water in the wetlands.The Kole wetland survives with human interference, as paddy cultivation maintains the ecosystem. This human intervention, coupled with ensuring natural succession in ownership is important, otherwise, the land would get converted into a forest habitat, say experts. The Kole wetland in Kerala is popular for its paddy cultivation that dates back to 300 years. The wetland gets its name from its high productivity – ‘Kole’ literally translates to ‘bumper crop’ in Malayalam. For academics and researchers coming down to study the Vembanad-Kole wetlands, one of India’s 42 Ramsar sites, their go-to person is a septuagenarian agriculturist – Kochu Muhammed. The president of the Zilla Kole Karshaka Samithi (ZKKS), an umbrella organisation for over 130 farmers’ groups in the region, Muhammed has almost encyclopaedic knowledge about Kole, at the mention of which, he chuckles. “It is true that researchers come to me for information about Kole,” he says modestly. Quiz him about his five-decade-long association with Kole, Muhammed says it all started when the pull of the land proved too strong to ignore. After completing his engineering diploma, he chose to switch tracks. He says his strong bond or bandham with the wetlands had a lot to do with this decision. “My bandham with this land goes back a long way. I was always interested in these wetlands, and own two cents (unit of land measurement) here,” he recollects. Kole, is one of the largest brackish, humid tropical wetland ecosystem on the southwest coast of India. Spread over 136.4 square km across the districts of Thrissur and Malappuram, the wetlands are fed by 10 rivers and is a typical large estuarine systems on the western coast. Human involvement in the form of agriculture keeps the wetland alive. The Kole wetlands in Kerala are a habitat for several bird species and an important part of agriculture. Photo by Manoj K/Wikimedia Commons. Explaining the lay of the land, Muhammed says, “These are low-lying wetlands around 2-3 metres below sea level. During the rain, they double up as a storehouse for excess rainwater, and help control flooding.” In drier season, when water levels are low, the wetlands are used for cultivation. The farming calendar begins in August. “Before this, we have to pump out all the water and only once this is done can we cultivate paddy. The cultivation goes on till around May. There are two farming systems: double crop and single crop. The double crop lasts till May, while the single crop lasts for about four months,” Muhammed says. One of the specialties of this wetland cultivation is its dewatering scheme. Each year, before the season starts, all farming clusters, known as padasekharams, have to follow a meticulously planned out calendar to dewater their land before sowing. This is no easy task, considering there are over 130 farmers’ clusters in the region. This mammoth effort requires close coordination among the farms, and also ensures that the drained water is recycled. This ‘collaborative ritual’ or kootaima reeti is what protects Kole as a wetland. An elaborate process of dewatering, storing and recycling water So how does this dewatering system work? For the Thrissur Kole wetlands, water comes from the Karuvannur river. Falling under the Chimmoni water distribution scheme, this supplies the water to the Thrissur Kole wetlands. An intensive water canal network weaves through the length and breadth of these farmlands. The ZKKS has to work closely with the Kerala Land Development Council (KLDC), a state government wing established in 1992 that monitors and chips in with the farming cycle. The KLDC also provides a pumping subsidy to the farmers to ensure that the dewatering is carried out smoothly. “During the monsoon, the rainwater in the farms flows through the canal network and drains into the sea via the Kanoli canal. Regulators at Enammakal and Idiyanchira in the northern Kole region divert excess water to the Kanoli canal. This ensures flood control,” Muhammad explains. Breaking down the dewatering process, Muhammed says, “When we need to start with the cultivation, the Idiyanchara regulator and the Kanoli canal system are shut.” This process ensures the water stored is recycled for farming. “At first, 10,000 acres are dewatered and farming is done. This water pumped out is stored in the canal. After about 15 days, we release this water back into the land so that it is re-used. Similarly, another 10,000 acres are farmed next, and subsequently the third 10,000 acres. Throughout the cycle, the water isn’t drained into the sea and is constantly recycled,” Muhammad says. Farmers follow an elaborate process of dewatering, storing and recycling water from the wetlands to facilitate paddy cultivation and maintain water in the wetlands. Photo by Manojk/Wikimedia Commons. A lot of planning goes into this technique of alternate dewatering and storing. It has to follow the assigned slots as per the calendar. Working closely on this calendar, is a Kole Advisory Committee. “The panel meets once or twice a month to discuss various issues. An executive engineer from the irrigation department is involved, along with other departments to tackle obstacles while implementing the dewatering calendar,” says Muhammed. For the dewatering activity to be successful, it all boils down to farmers’ synergy. “The water can’t be pumped out by an individual farmer at a time. Everyone has to simultaneously pitch in, and it is this unity that keeps the wetland intact,” the agriculturist says. “All 130 padasekharam committees, big and small, come together for this endeavour. Each paddy field ranges anywhere from 25 acres to 1,500 acres in size, and all are privately owned.” Muhammed says till date, the whole process has never gone wrong. This herculean task promises high returns. “The yield is anywhere around 2.5 to 3.5 tonne per acre,” he says. Revealing the secret behind this high yield, he says, “The key lies in an agricultural crop residue or jaivavalam.” This organic manure in the Kole wetland ecosystem is crucial in providing a booster shot to the bumper crop.