KANYAKUMARI, India -- Drilling machines roar and water gushes through thick pipelines laid where rice once grew. These days, savvy farmers along India's southern coast are earning more from selling water than raising crops.
Although surrounded by water, the area has little water of its own for drinking or farming. However, because Kanyakumari is one of India's most popular tourist destinations, there is a great demand for water. So the pipelines from the nearby farms lead to crammed hotels and rest houses.
Environmental experts say the coastline's massive thirst is causing the water table in the region to decline, and farmers are speeding the depletion by tapping their own underground reservoirs for water to sell to the city. The rest of the country, where many places are dry for nine months of the year and flooded by the three-month annual monsoons, could one day face the problem of Kanyakumari.
Better solutions, the experts say, include improved conservation and desalination plants to make sea water fit for consumption. In this town of 25,000 where thousands visit daily, water sells in shops by the bucket and by the bottle. Huge tankers drive in every day to quench the needs of the city where tourists worship at temples and take ferry rides to a majestic rock memorial at the confluence of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal.
From nearby villages, poor women walk miles each day with their clay or brass pots to small rivulets and ponds from which they scoop cupfuls of dirty, often muddy water, using a thin cloth wrapped at the mouth of the container as a filter. The region in Tamil Nadu state has no mountains to harvest rain from clouds. In many areas, brackish seawater seeps into what were originally freshwater aquifers.
At Ramanathpuram, 250 miles north of Kanyakumari, the government spent tens of millions of dollars to set up 14 desalination plants. Only one functions now. The rest are out of order because of poor maintenance by government workers, said G. Vasudev, a water conservation expert at Kanyakumari's Vivekananda Center, a think tank named after a 19th century Hindu nationalist guru.
``We have to virtually pray to the rain gods,'' Vasudev said.
Vasudev's center has launched a federally funded program to clean up existing water sources, install filtration devices, and build new reservoirs to tap rainwater. Local people in some cities are trying to fight the water scarcity themselves as part of another government program, clearing canals, installing pipes, and taking up shovels to create new tanks and reservoirs.
The water management experiments in Tamil Nadu are being closely watched elsewhere. In areas like the Saurashtra region in western India, experts say the water table is going down by a yard every year. Every day, the Thar desert creeps closer to Saurashtra.
Tamil Nadu gets 38 inches of rainfall annually, more than the annual average of 35.2 inches. But nearly 80 percent of the rain washes out to sea.
``There is no attempt to tap it,'' said P.R.J. Pradeep, a researcher for the Vivekananda Center's National Resource Development Project.
Tamil Nadu and many other parts of southern India are dotted with catchment tanks and reservoirs built in the 7th and 8th centuries by ancient Indian rulers that experts say could be sources of water today. But they are poorly maintained, often not cleaned for years.
According to the independent New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, if rainwater and the runoff could be captured on as little as 2 percent of India's land area daily, it would provide 26 gallons of water per person.
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