[Commentary] Complexities of freshwater availability and tourism growth in Lakshadweep

View of Lakshadweep taken during ISS Expedition 38. Image ISS038-E-45155 courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.

View of Lakshadweep taken during ISS Expedition 38. Image ISS038-E-45155 courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.

  • In Lakshadweep, rainwater, along with evaporated seawater, seeps into the coral sand, creating a freshwater layer that floats atop the denser saltwater underground. This freshwater layer is crucial for sustaining life on the islands.
  • Lakshadweep came into the limelight earlier this year with the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. Given that Lakshadweep’s islands are already facing a groundwater issue, increasing tourism will have an impact on water availability.
  • While some people consider the installation of desalination plants as a solution to the drinking water problem, it may not be a long-term solution, especially in the context of a changing climate. A heavy wind or rain can disrupt the operation of such plants, writes the author of this commentary.
  • The views in this commentary are those of the author.

In mid-April, 2016, in Kadamat, Lakshadweep, there was a minor clash between people of two wards regarding pumping of groundwater from one ward to fill the water tanks of the other. The people from ward seven, from where groundwater was being pumped, allege that the continuous pumping from the wells of their ward depleted the freshwater in the wells and it has started tasting more saline.

Eight years after this incident, in 2024, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lakshadweep, inviting Indian tourists to visit the archipelago. Amidst the hype following the Prime Minister’s visit, Lakshadweep’s administrator, Praful Patel, was asked in a media interview, whether Lakshadweep has enough rooms to accommodate increasing tourists, to which Patel replied, “We will build 300 rooms”.

But the real question that remains to be asked and answered, is “Do you have enough water in the islands to afford a tourist influx or at least to support the local population?”

Agatti island. Freshwater depletion and increased salinity has been a growing problem in Lakshadweep. Photo by Rajeshwari.

Evolution of Lakshadweep

There are 36 islands in Lakshadweep, the only coral atoll system in India, of which 10 islands are inhabited. Even though this is one of the smallest archipelagos in the world it hosts 64,473 (as per 2011 census) people within ten islands.

The islands were formed from inactive volcanic mountains and corals created walls around the land area, known as coral reefs. The unique system of the coral atoll can be divided into three geographical spacial parts: the open ocean (outside the coral reef), the lagoon (inside the coral reef and the shallow area of the sea) and the land itself.

The land has evolved over millions of years. While the exact time of the first settlements on the islands is not clear, older generations on the islands have passed down information about the availability of freshwater as one of the reasons for the settlement.

There are four pillars that contribute to the habitability of the islands, especially for the people and other animals on the land: the coral reef system, freshwater sources, food and the land itself.

Freshwater depletion and pollution

The aquifer in Lakshadweep is a natural wonder formed by a unique process. Rainwater seeps into the coral sand, creating a freshwater layer that floats atop the denser saltwater underground. This freshwater layer is crucial for sustaining life on the islands. The aquifer’s formation and maintenance depend on a delicate balance of rainfall, aquifer recharge, island topography and evaporation. This hidden freshwater river in the subsoil is like a layer of cake, with a small flow maintaining its quality.

Water depletion in the islands is not a new phenomenon. Multiple factors such as the water supply scheme of the Lakshadweep Administration, started in the early 1980s, are considered as the first step towards the depletion of the water table as the scheme created big wells on every island and pumped water to every house through the pipeline. The intention of the scheme was purely social as it helped a lot of landless people receive freshwater pipes at home.

The increase in nuclear families has increased demand for individual household-level motor pumps and water tanks. Besides, the increased government employment provided easy money and catalysed material development.

“In the last five years, the salty taste of groundwater in Kavaratti has increased noticeably,” Ameen (name changed), a fisherman in Kavaratti said. Kavaratti is the capital of Lakshadweep and has the highest floating population from other islands and the mainland. Kavaratti also has a high number of multilevel floor buildings in a 3.93 square kilometre area. This increasing population can lead to excessive pumping of water. Excessive pumping reduces the depth of the freshwater aquifer and causes saltwater from the sea to mix with the freshwater aquifer. This reduces the quantity and quality of freshwater needed by the island’s inhabitants and other species. If you consider this perspective, the issue extends beyond high-rise buildings pumping water to upper floors; it also affects homes using high-capacity pumps (higher horsepower) on a daily basis.

Similarly, constructing a septic tank next to a well is one of the major hazards to drinking water in Lakshadweep. In many studies conducted in Lakshadweep itself, it is said that the presence of E. coli bacteria in drinking water is increasing. The more such tanks are built near the drinking wells, the more the drinking water becomes polluted.

Other than local-level influences such as human overconsumption of freshwater and unsystematic sewage systems, pollution from diesel power plants, the only major source of electricity in Lakshadweep islands, also pollutes the freshwater.

According to Sainuludheen, a stationary shop owner from Kadamat, the well water has excessive oil content, leaving people with no choice but to rely on National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) which provides potable water in parts of Lakshadweep using Low Temperature Thermal Desalination technology, or other alternative sources. The groundwater is noticeably smelly and has an oily taste, making it unsuitable for use.

An NIOT water bridge at Kalpeni. NIOT provides potable water through desalination in some islands of Lakshadweep. Photo by Rajeshwari.

Impact of climate change

Coral reefs play a crucial role in protecting islands by acting as barriers against ocean waves, cyclones and tropical storms. They also help prevent seawater intrusion into freshwater layers.

Climate change is impacting the health of coral reefs and also leading to significant changes in rainfall and sea level fluctuations. This, in turn, affects the health of the freshwater layer.

The current year is experiencing El Niño, characterised by warmer global temperatures, with sea temperatures much higher than in previous El Niño years. This has led to coral bleaching, observed in past years as sea temperatures rise. The health of coral reefs may change drastically in the coming years, which could have profound effects on the survival of islands and their inhabitants, including humans. The existence of a healthy coral reef is essential for the survival of species on these islands.

Community practices conserve water

Pond-digging and pond-cleaning were once the most important gatherings in the islands. The islanders used to get together to clean the pool before Ramadan, a holy month observed by Muslims. Digging a pond was another communal activity, often accompanied by sharing and receiving food. These ponds served as a community-level freshwater source, used for bathing and various household activities.

To some extent, knowingly or unknowingly, the conservation of drinking water has been done indirectly through these types of community activities. This is because water was used at the community level and the pumps sat idle, helping to keep the freshwater lens safe.

Increased tourism will lead to increased drinking water demand in Lakshadweep. Photo by Rajeshwari.

More tourism, not enough water

Tourism in Lakshadweep has been limited due to its remote location and limited connectivity. The only airport is in Agatti and land-based tourism mainly occurs in Agatti, Kavaratti and nearby uninhabited islands such as Bangaram. Previously, there was only one airline flying between Agatti and Kochi and ship-based tourism was restricted to the Samudram package, where guests stay on the ship and visit islands during the day. This limited connectivity has restricted the number of visitors to Lakshadweep.

After Prime Minister Modi’s visit in January this year, connectivity has started to improve. Now there are regular flights from Bengaluru, Kochi and Goa. Additionally, the cruise ship Cordelia selected Lakshadweep as one of its destinations and started trips even before the Prime Minister’s visit. While there is no reliable data available, it is expected that due to this increased attention and better air connectivity, the number of visitors to Lakshadweep will increase in the coming months. Usually, travel companies do not operate between May and September, during the northwest monsoon. However, this time, some travel companies are planning to resume services even during the monsoon due to excessive demand.

According to unpublished data on island drinking water consumption, Kavaratti island alone uses 145 litres of groundwater per person per day, and tourists use more water when on holiday, the average per capita consumption of freshwater is twice of the average household level. This high consumption rate of tourists is definitely worth considering.

Desalination plants

Most people consider the drinking water problem a solved issue as desalination plants started working on every island except in Bitra but statistics speak otherwise. Now water production capacity of NIOT plants in Lakshadweep is 13.5 lakh litres per day but the needed water as per the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India is 55 litres per capita per day. On this basis, the total water needed per day in Lakshadweep is approximately 3,520,000 litres. That means even half cannot be produced with existing infrastructure. Adding the number of tourists will exacerbate the situation may not be a long-term solution, especially in the context of increasing tourism and changing climate. Moreover, heavy wind or rain can disrupt the operation of such plants, like what has happened in Maldives recently.

Read more: [Commentary] The unspoken crises of Lakshadweep

In this scenario, desalination plants cannot be considered as a complete solution to all the drinking water problems in Lakshadweep. It is better for islands to have multiple ways to get drinking water, such as wells, community-level water treatment plants, rainwater harvesting and regulatory systems by people. Unlike the states in India, people’s participation in decision-making is less as Lakshadweep is directly governed by the Indian Central Government.

After Modi’s appeal to visit Lakshadweep, people from other parts of the mainland began searching for information about accommodations, transportation options and other facilities available in Lakshadweep, but the water problem is hidden and less discussed. The incumbent administrator promised to convert Lakshadweep to Maldives. If we take it literally, water will be one of their primary challenges.

Salahudheen is a researcher.


Banner image: View of Lakshadweep taken during ISS Expedition 38. Image ISS038-E-45155 courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.

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