Journal of Geographic Information System, 2010, 2, 185-193
doi:10.4236/jgis.2010.24026 Published Online October 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
Land Use and Land Cover Changes in a Tropical River
Basin: A Case from Bharathapuzha River Basin,
Southern India
P. P. Nikhil Raj, P. A. Azeez
Environmental Impact Assessment Division, Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History
Anaikatty, India
E-mail: {ppnraj, azeezpa}
Received May 8, 2010; revised June 20, 2010; accepted June 25, 2010
A study of the spatial and temporal changes in land use and land cover (LULC) was conducted using Remote
Sensing and GIS. We analyzed the LULC of Bharathapuzha river basin, south India using multispectral
LANDSAT imageries of 1973-2005 time periods. 31% depletion in the natural vegetation cover and 8.7%
depletion in wetland agriculture area were seen in the basin during the period. On the other hand the urban
spread in the basin increased by 32%. The study highlights the need for a scientific management plan for the
sustainability of the river basin, keeping in view the recent climatic anomalies and hydrological conditions of
the basin.
Keywords: Land Use and Land Covers (LULC), Bharathapuzha River Basin, RS, GIS
1. Introduction
Landscape changes, transformations and conversions, are
results of various pressures on ecosystems and have been
progressing largely in concert with human settlements.
All the natural areas including forests, grasslands, wet-
lands, and shores around the globe often undergo diverse
kinds of transformation and conversion in varying de-
grees. The triggering factors for landscape changes may
be biophysical, technological, institutional or economical
[1-3]. Analyzing the spatial and temporal changes in land
use and land cover (LULC) is one of the effective ways
to understand the current environmental status of an area
and ongoing changes. Urbanization, a major cause of land
use changes and land conversions [4], has made natural
habitats open to unpredictable and long lasting changes
that may later challenge the very existence of the ecosy-
stems that offer several known and unknown precious
ecosystem goods and services.
It is obvious that the world is undergoing a shift from
predominantly rural based society to urban. At present in
North America, Europe and Latin America more than
70% of population has become urban and in Asia and
Africa the figure will be around 40%. According to the
Population Reference Bureau (2007), by 2030 more than
60% of the whole world’s population will be urban. Du-
ring the last three centuries in the world nearly 1.2 mi-
llion km2 of forests and woodlands, 5.6 million km2 of
grasslands and pastures have been converted into other
types of land use, and the cropland has increased sharply
to twelve million km2 during the same time span [5].
However, the blame for such changes and urbanization
could not be totally placed on population increase since
large proportion of the humankind still remains homeless
and with deplorable purchase power to meet their day-to-
day survival requirements. Development and welfare have
remained alien to the major section of human population
of world over largely due to disparities in distribution
and access to resources.
As far as a river basin is concerned, the spatio-temp-
oral changes in land use in the basin have a direct infl-
uence on its hydrological realm [6]. Currently fresh wa-
ter resources in several parts of the globe is facing severe
crisis in availability due to unsustainable water use aggr-
avated by the unpredictable and unforeseen changes in
the global and local climate. The climate change coupled
with urbanization and rampant alterations in land use in
the basins made most of the world’s fresh water flow re-
gimes under severe pressure and change. Deforestation
and conversion of water logged wetlands in to built-up
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
areas directly affects the ground water recharging capa-
city and natural water flow regimes.
Remote Sensing (RS) and GIS have been widely app-
lied to understand the LULC changes and is considered
to be a powerful tool to document the spatio-temporal
changes of an area for the purpose of conservation and
management of natural habitats [7,8]. The multispectral
satellite images provide satisfactory spectral resolution
which in turn offers a reliable means to diagnose LULC
changes. Change detection generally employs one of the
two basic methods: pixel-to-pixel comparison and post-
classification comparison [9]. The post classification me-
thod compares two or more separately classified images
of different dates [10,11].
In India, large-scale landscape alterations happened
just after the independence ( In
this phase ‘development’ was conceived to be the pro-
cess of bringing all possible types of lands under plough.
Ecological goods and services of the various types of
ecosystems and lands were perhaps of little concern or
unknown to the then policy makers and advocates of de-
velopment. Conservation of ecosystems and species was
practically unheard of in practice and its natural areas
particularly the forests and wetlands experienced wide
spread conversions and modification. Changes have
happened both in the plains as well as at higher eleva-
tions. The Himalayas [1] and North east India, [12] and
Western Ghats are the two major regions in the country
that experienced extensive landscape changes [13-16],
while these are the two major biodiversity hotspots in the
country [17] and vital for the environmental, social and
cultural setup of the country.
The state of Kerala, flanked by the Western Ghats on
its east, is well known for its unique pattern of developm-
ent characterized by high level of socio-economic growth.
Human resource have been the major asset in the state
and non-resident Keralites have been channelizing in
large amount of money to the state primarily to support
their families back at home [18]. The flow of foreign cur-
rency, in recent years to the tune of Indian Rupees 30-
40000 crores per annum, has promoted extensive socio-
economic changes and building construction in the state.
Profuse landscape changes in Kerala have happened dur-
ing the last few decades. Towards the later half of the
last century the land use changes were highly associated
with the socioeconomic changes that happened in the
state such as Land Reform Act (1971) which assured
release of huge landholding to the public at large from
the hold of feudal landowners [19-20], although the land
reforms is blamed to have deprived the indigenous tribes
and other such underprivileged and marginal section of
their land holdings. The break down of joint families to
the growing culture of nuclear family and high popula-
tion density coupled with high foreign remittance to the
state increased the demand for housing resulting in the
process of land conversion becoming more precipitous.
In this context the present study was undertaken to eval-
uate the LULC change happened in Bharathapuzha River
basin during 1973-2005.
2. Study Area
Bharathapuzha River basin (BRB) is the second longest
(209 km) but largest river basin among the west flowing
41 river basins in the Kerala state of India. The river is
considered to be one of the east-flowing ‘medium’ rivers
of the country. Lying between 10˚ 25' to 11˚15' north and
75˚ 50' to 76˚ 55' east the western most extremity of the
Bharathapuzha watershed is located in the Palakkad Gap,
the 30 km discontinuity in the other wise continuous
Western Ghats.
The river originates from different parts of the West-
ern Ghats, as small brooks and rivulets which later joins
and form four major tributaries namely Kalpathipuzha,
Gayathripuzha, Thootha, and Chitturpuzha. The main ri-
ver finally discharges to the Arabian Sea at Ponnani on
the west coast (Figure 1). The river has a total basin area
of 6,186 km2 of which 4,400 km2 falls in the state of Ke-
rala and the rest in Tamil Nadu state of India. The river
basin covers 1/9 of the total geographical area of the
state. The flow regime of the river covers highlands (>
76 m), midlands (76-8 m) and low lands (< 8 m). The
surface water potential of the basin is 7478 million m3
and the total utilizable yield is 4,146 million m3 [21].
The river is the life line water resource for a population
(approximately four million) residing in four administra-
tive divisions, namely Malappuram, Trissur and Palak-
kad districts of Kerala and partly Coimbatore, and Thi-
ruppur districts of Tamil Nadu. Eleven irrigation projects
and several surface dams in the river basin cater 493064
ha agriculture [22,23]. The general land use in the basin
varies according to the local physiography. Rice and co-
conut are the dominant crops in the costal regions of the
basin. In the mid lands the major crops are rice, banana,
tapioca, seasonal vegetables and coconut while in the
high land region and some of the mid land region rubber
plantations and coconut grooves dominates. The river ba-
sin experiences more or less a unique climate realm from
the rest of the state of Kerala perhaps for its location,
beginning in the eastern aspect of the Palakkad plains, in
the Palakkad Gap, flanked by mountain ranges of the
Western Ghats [24]. Anomalies in the general rainfall [25]
and in surface temperature of the region have been ob-
served in the last couple of decades. In recent years the
river basin is also reported to be facing severe dearth of
water and drought conditions.
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
3. Methodology
The LANDSAT TM data, with a pixel resolution of 30
meter, were collected for 1973, 1990 and 2005 for the
whole basin from Global Land Cover Facility (www.glcf. Data before, after and in between these years
were found not available. The basin area was delineated
using the Survey of India (SOI) topographic map series
(58 A/4, A/8, A/12, A/16, E/4, B/1, B/5,B/9,B/13, B/2,
B/6,B/10, B/14,F/2, B/11, B/15, F/3; 49 N/13, N/14) of
1:50,000 scale. Geometric correction and ground truthing
were carried out by field surveys using Global Position-
ing System (GPS), and ancillary data from topographic
maps and Google Earth images. Supervised classification
requires training sets as the reference signature. On the
basis of these training sets the whole populations of pix-
els were classified. We used Arc GIS 9.3 and ERDAS
IMAGINE 8.5 for the entire study. The village-wise po-
pulation data of the basin were also collected from vari-
ous government offices.
4. Results and Discussion
The RS data has been classified in to six major classes
(agriculture, natural vegetation, plantation, roads, urban
centers and water bodies) and accordingly the land use
changes in the Bharathapuzha river basin during the time
span of 1973-2005 were examined (Figure 2). In the ba-
sin, during the early period (1973-1990) of the study, land
under natural vegetation cover (44%) dominated followed
Figure 1. Geographic location and general flow pattern of BRB.
Figure 2. Temporal variation in LULC in Bharathapuzha River basin (generated from LANDSAT TM 1973, 1990, and 2005).
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
by the area under agriculture. During the second half of
the study period land under urban centers became im-
portant (32%) followed by the area under plantation. The
area under agriculture remained almost same (26%),
while the area under natural vegetation cover declined to
considerably lower proportion in the total area of the
basin. In 2005, the area under urban centers remains as
the major land use type in the basin, followed by agri-
culture at the second position. In over all, the area under
the natural vegetation cover consistently showed a trend
of decline. On the other hand a positive trend of growth
in urban centers in the basin was observed during the
whole period (Table 1).
The natural vegetation cover in the basin showed a
drastic decline during the first half of the study period;
however, it remained almost unvarying during the next
half (Figure 3). While the agricultural area in the basin
was found remaining to be unchanged during the first
half of the study period, it showed a notable fall during
the next half (Figure 4). On the other hand, area under
plantation and under water resources showed a steep
increase during the period 1973-1990. During the next
half (1990-2005) a steep decrease was seen in these land
use types (Figure 5 and Figure 6). The urban area in the
basin showed a consistent increase thorough out the stu-
dy period (Figure 7). The area under road that remained
more or less invariable during the early period rose
during the later stage of the study (Figure 8).
Table 1. Total land cover (in %) as a proportion to the total area, and the net change during the study period.
1973 1990 2005Change (%) during
Change (%) during
Change (%) during
Agriculture 27.84 27.54 19.150.30 8.39 8.69
Natural vegetation43.43 12.07 12.2831.36 0.21 31.15
Plantation 7.46 14.20 8.646.74 5.56 1.18
Roads 7.61 8.40 16.240.79 7.83 8.62
Urban centers 9.83 32.63 41.7622.80 9.13 31.93
Water resources 3.82 5.16 1.931.34 3.23 1.89
Figure 3. Natural vegetation cover change in Bharathapuzha River basin during 1973-2005.
Figure 4. Area under agriculture in Bharathapuzha River basin during 1973-2005.
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
Figure 5. Change in the area under plantation in Bharathapuzha River basin during 1973-2005.
Figure 6. Change in the area under water bodies in Bharathapuzha River basin during 1973-2005.
Figure 7. Change in the urban areas in Bharathapuzha River basin during 1973-2005.
The decrement in the area under natural vegetation
during 1973-1990 in Bharathapuzha River basin can be
attributed to the forest loss reported in the state (~5000
hectares per annum). The study conducted by Jha et al.,
[15] reported comparatively higher deforestation rate in
Palakkad district from rest of the areas in the state. A
major factor that promoted natural vegetation loss in the
Bharathapuzha River basin is the spread of area under
plantation. It is reported that during 1951-2000 the area
under rubber plantation has increased by 627% and that of
coconut by 106% in the state [26]. In a span of mere one
year (1970-1971), rubber and coffee plantation increased to
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
Figure 8. Area under roads in Bharathapuzha River basin during 1973-2005.
117% [27]. Presently, rubber plantations cover about 18%
of the total agricultural land and 11% of the total geog-
raphical area of the state [28]. Such expansions happened
mainly in the highland areas, since these areas were less
occupied than the mid and lowland areas of the state and
large chunks of lands were under feudal landowners. The
conversion of wetland agriculture to more gainful (at that
time) plantation crops particularly coconut and arecanut
was also happening during the same period due to the
social and economic shifts that happened in the country
as well as in the state [29,30].
According to George and Chattopadhyay [31] the def-
orestation in the state is mainly due to infrastructure dev-
elopment, such as roads, hydroelectric and irrigation pro-
jects, and other institutional amenities. The reduction in
the natural vegetation in the Western Ghats is notably as-
sociated with the implementation of Hydroelectric Pro-
jects [32-34]. Hydroelectric projects apart from their
direct impact on natural habitats cause much higher col-
lateral damages by opening up access to remote wilder-
ness [35]. The Kanjirapuzha irrigation project in the
Thootha puzha sub basin has happened during the period.
The initial growth and later decline in area under planta-
tion can be correlated with the social, political and eco-
nomical shifts in the state as well as in the country. Dur-
ing the early nineties with the liberalization of the coun-
try’s economy the planters and agriculturists in Kerala
faced huge financial crunch with the crash in the market
price of their products [36]. For example, import of coco-
nut oil for industrial uses and its culinary cheaper substi-
tute the palm oil from East Asian countries was a blow to
coconut farmers, while freely available and low-cost
spices and allies and rubber was a blow to other farmers.
The sharp out growth in urban centers in the basin in
the initial years is related with the declining natural veg-
etation area and in the later years to the decline in area
under agricultural wetlands. According to 1981 census the
basin had a population of 2 million people, which has
increased to 4.6 millions in 2001 [37-40]. Deforestation
processes in other parts of the state also are found corre-
lated with population growth and infrastructure devel-
opment [41]. During the late 90s wetland agriculture and
even plantations crops were loosing their attractiveness
in the basin, as was the case in several other parts Kerala
[19,30,42]. According to Eapen [29] urban agglomera-
tions or out growths were rare in Kerala till 1981 while
later on their number have been almost doubling every
decade. The recent census shows that 25% of the total
population of the state comes under urban category,
much closer to the national statistics (27.8%). Meanwhile
people were also abandoning their agriculture/plantations
due to inadequate returns. However, the sudden rise in
the real estate market attracted lots of people to invest
money in building construction as well in tourism ven-
tures [18]. For the high demand for building construction,
largely residences, many low lying lands and wetlands at
several locations nearby the main river as well as its
tributaries are getting filled up and converted.
A rapid Growth in real estate business was observed in
the state since late nineties [18]. The declaration of the
8th five year plan during 1998 by the central government
that assured private support for ‘national housing and ha-
bitat development policy’ gave it a further drive. Signifi-
cant changes in the laws and regulations, including the
urban land (Ceiling and Regulation) act by the central
government and amendment to the National Housing Ba-
nk (NHB) act provided attractive climate for foreign in-
vestments further pushing up the real estate growth [43].
The rapid development in retail, entertainment sectors,
financial institutions, information technology centers and
the boom in the tourism sector all enhanced the growth.
More over the Kerala Land Reform Act (1971) acted
towards abolishing the system of joint family (especially
matrilineal) and development of nuclear families [44].
This resulted in the growth of nuclear families, of hus-
band and wife and unmarried children, and housing units
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
outpacing the population growth in the state. Statistics
shows the state is still having a high demand for houses;
demand almost doubling as the year passes (Figure 9).
Since the real estate sector is believed to provide much
higher annual return on investment, ranging 10-12%, co-
mpared to other investments [45], it attracts the resident
and non resident Keralites more or less equally. The gro-
wing demand for real estate investment is reflected in the
bench mark price for land fixed by the state government
in March 2010, that reaches up to Rs. 50/-lakhs per cent
(~Rs. 10000/sq feet, reaching up to the rate in some of
the well developed cities in the country) in certain areas,
an incredible level of land cost.
Real estate is also believed to be a safe long term in-
vestment among all sections of the society who has addi-
tional surplus income to save. Moreover, it is highly luc-
rative for the middlemen and the promoters of real estate
ventures who orchestrate and boost up the market value
of land. Conversion of wetlands to households is a usual
practice in Kerala. Most of the agriculture belts of Pala-
kkad have got legally converted as housing plots prior to
the Land acquisition (amendment) bill (2007). The new
‘Regulatory Framework for Conservation of Wetlands
(2008) by the central government also does not affirm
the future of rice paddies, an ecosystem on its own sup-
porting a range of species and offering a range of eco-
logical services, although it deter filling up wetlands for
other uses.
No notable increase could be seen in the area under
road during the first half of the study period; however,
towards 2005 the area has almost got doubled. This may
be very well attributed to the conversion of agriculture
lands to built-up parcels. Urbanization always involve
growth of infrastructure; buildings, roads, communica-
tion facilities etc. At present the road density in Bhara-
thapuzha River basin is only 16.24 km/100 km2 and is
apparent to grow rapidly in the coming years. In the state
of Kerala the road network is growing up in rapid pace
connecting in fact all the individual houses/residences,
although the roads are not much improved in terms of
their quality. The road density of the over all state is
374.9 km/100 km2, much higher than the density in the
Bharathapuzha River basin and far ahead of the national
average (74.9 km/100 km2). Road development is the
single most critical factor that opens up any ecosystem or
traditional rural setup for rapid changes. Infrastructure
development demands considerable lands to be divested
from its former/original use and relegation from ecologi-
cally important area to an ecologically insignificant one.
Recent analysis of the river basin shows changes in
climate particularly rainfall [24,25]. Similarly our analy-
sis on the historical discharge at various stations along
the river course shows a statistically significant decre-
ment in the total amount of water flow in the river
Bharathapuzha. The present study in this context is docu-
menting the significant physiographic changes happening
in Bharathapuzha River basin during the last four dec-
ades. The study along with all other related works on the
river basin emphasize the need for a scientific manage-
ment plan for sustainable development of the Bhara-
thapuzha River basin, keeping guard of its ecological
setup, environmental resources and ecological services.
5. Summary
The present study attempts evaluating the LULC changes
in a highly vulnerable medium sized river basin located
in a high population density area India, the Bharatha-
puzha river basin with the aid of LANDSAT thematic
layers from 1973-2005 time periods. The study could
find extensive changes in the LULC in the basin; in te-
rms of fall in the natural vegetation cover, increase in the
urban area, decrease in area under wetland agriculture,
and increase in the road density. The present study brings
out that the pattern of change in the basin more or less
conforms to such changes happening all over the state of
2001 20022003 2004 2005 20062007 2008
Number in lakhs
Figure 9. House construction trend in the state.
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JGIS
6. Acknowledgements
We would like to thank Dr. Rajendran (Annamalai Uni-
versity, Chidambaram), Mr Balasubramani and Mr
Prasad (Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai) for vari-
ous help during the analysis.
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