The Kerala Floods: Will The Last Words Ever Spoken Be Why? Why? Why?
An independent photojournalist and Senior Advisor to the Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), Shailendra Yashwant lives in Idukki, the epicentre of the recent Kerala floods. He writes here of what happened, why and what we must do to avoid future floods. He also lauds the collective spirit of the people of Kerala and hopes the catastrophe will prove to be a turning point for the eco-fragile state, which also happens to be one of the planet’s richest biodiversity hotspots.
Photo: Praveen. P/Public Domain
"This year, we have seen the terrible flooding in Kerala in India, savage wildfires in California and Canada, and dramatic warming in the Arctic that is affecting weather patterns across the northern hemisphere. The trend is clear. The past 19 years included 18 of the warmest years on record, and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise.” – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In August 2018, Kerala experienced once-in-a-lifetime rainfall of 2,378 mm. over 88 days, four times more than normal. The Indian Met Department (IMD) pegged the rainfall in the first 20 days of August at 164 per cent above normal.
Almost all 41 west-flowing rivers originating in the Western Ghats were in spate. The reservoirs of all 82 dams on these rivers were at maximum capacity by August 10, 2018. Shutters of 54 dams had to be opened by August 21, and the gates of 35 out of these 54 dams were opened for the first time in history.
The rivers already filled to the brims, broke their banks with the release of reservoir water and swept everything in their path – roads, bridges, vehicles, buildings and humans.
The iconic Idukki dam and its reservoir received 811 mm. of rain and when the controversial Muallaperiyar dam began to overflow into the Idukki reservoir, all five gates had to be opened for the first time in 26 years. The resultant trail of destruction from Cheruthoni to Aluva, forced authorities to shut down the Kochi airport. Paddy fields and entire villages in the 900 sq. km. delta of Kuttanad, the backwaters of Vembananad lake, some lying two to three meters below sea level, were completely submerged.
The human casualty was terrible. According to the Kerala government, one-sixth of the total population of the state was directly affected by the floods and its collateral impact. As of September 7, 2018, the death count was 483, with 14 missing. Over a million people were evacuated and are only now, slowly, returning to their homes and their lives.
Photo: Kiranroice/Public Domain
IN HARM’S WAY
Climate scientists had predicted this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event. Notwithstanding ‘natural variability factors’ to confirm the fingerprint of climate change, the weather patterns driving these destructive downpours are well understood and were foreseen by independent climate experts and those who contributed to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC).
The IPCC reports also predict that if we do not effectively curb emissions, then more such disastrous weather events – droughts, floods, heat waves and other extreme climatic conditions will strike with extreme intensity, and frequency. Often with almost no warning at all.
Frontline magazine reported that Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala, blamed the enormity of the disaster on three special features of the state – “high population density (national average - 382, Kerala - 860), the fact that over 10 per cent of land in Kerala lies below sea level and finally on the 41 rivers that flow into the Arabian sea, there are 80 dams and separate catchments for each one of them.”
Considered highly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change, Kerala is literally wedged between the Arabian sea (590 km. coastline) and the mountains of the Western Ghats. It has a unique terrain of high mountains to the east, vast backwaters, and a network of rivers that cut across the midlands and low-lying coastal area to the west. Some of the low-lying areas are below sea level and much of the coastline is being gnawed at by sea level rise. All 14 districts of the state are threatened by climate-induced events – sea level rise, heat waves, excessive rains, cyclones and droughts.
Official records suggest that roughly 24 per cent (9,400 sq. km.) of the state is clothed by forests. Independent experts say this is exaggerated because many plantations have been included as forests. They add that, in reality, Kerala’s forest cover has been reduced to 16 per cent over the past 70 years.
The forested Western Ghats bless Kerala with two rainy seasons. The state is the first stop for the southwest monsoon, usually in early June, when the moisture-laden south-west monsoon winds gusting in from the Arabian sea slam against the Ghats, and then again in October, when the northeast monsoon makes its last stop on the peninsula by flirting audaciously with the southernmost tip of Kerala. These eight months of rain is what gifts Kerala the green cloak that is its finest heritage.
Photo: Shailendra Yashwant
HUMANS AND THEIR IMPACT
During the 19th century, it is anticipated that 75 per cent of Kerala was forested. By the 20th century, this had dropped to 50 per cent. Alarmed, some areas were brought under the purview of the Forest Department as Reserve Forests. But that did not last long. Locals blame it on mass scale migration from the plains to the hills, powered by political compulsions and religious appeasement. The Protected Areas were soon encroached. Gradually, wetlands, grasslands and forests made way for paddy, coconut, pineapple, rubber, coffee, cardamom, pepper and tea plantations… literally in that order as you ascend from the backwaters of Allepey to Munnar.
In the hills of Wayanad and Idukki, most plantations were developed over the past 50-60 years by migrants from the plains who cleared the Reserve Forests. As they prospered, politicians began handing over pattas or legal documents, in exchange for votes. By the 80s, competitive encroachment became epidemic. Every political party and faction competed to grab popularity and funding and forests began to retreat faster than ever before.
By the early 90s, income from expatriates added to deforestation by feeding the housing boom in virtually every town of Kerala. Colossal mansions became a fashion statement, irrespective of affordability, ecological advisability or need. The frenzied construction activity resulted in unprecedented quarrying in the mountains, coupled with illegal sand-mining of Kerala’s rivers. This double whammy of destruction and reclamation demolished the water-control mechanisms that nature had gifted Kerala with. Hill slopes, lowland areas, wetlands, rivers, ponds and even paddy fields began to give way to built-up structures including apartments, offices, shopping malls and such like. Unplanned urbanisation had spread like a virus across the state.
Tourism began to degrade ‘God’s Own Country’. Constructions exploded in the mountains, backwaters and along Kerala’s beaches in the shape and form of ill-advised, largely ugly, resorts, hotels, and amusement parks. These took away the most valuable assets of Kerala tourism, the aura of natural splendour that drew millions of visitors down the decades. By the turn of the century, the ugly buildings gouged from the fragile landscape, were supplemented by mountains of garbage that piled up everywhere. Mountains soon mingled with exhaust fumes and garbage-fires.
The ecological demolition derby continued apace. The damage to rivers, wetlands, dammed rivers and encroached riverbeds became the new-normal. When powerful builders found streams coming in the way of their projects, they diverted the water courses instead of relocating projects. The people of Kerala for whom rivers were a part of life, slowly became disconnected from the rivers that birthed their cultures. Memories fade fast.
The deluge of August 2018 took corrective action by sweeping most human-caused obstructions, as the waters sought the quickest way back to the sea!
Photo: Shailendra Yashwant
Kerala was always relatively resilient to rains and floods. Families still remember the deluge of 1924 (the ‘deluge of 99’ according to locals since it was the year 1099 in the Malayalam calendar). The entire coastline was submerged. But the lessons learned by the elders from that flood have been forgotten by the generation now in charge. Over the decades, Kerala has systematically diminished its capacity to deal with extreme flooding. A highly-literate state, it ignored all the signs and all the science that flagged the risks from climate change over the past two decades.
Madhav Gadgil, lead author of a 2011 government-commissioned study written by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) points to three main factors that contributed most to the deadly landslides and unprecedented floods: “Rampant stone quarrying, widespread cutting down of forests and grasslands in the Western Ghats and uncontrolled sand mining on river beds.”
Most of the regions overwhelmed by the recent floods were classified as ‘ecologically sensitive zones’ where there should have been little if any construction and no deforestation. In 2011, the Central Government and all the Western-Ghats states, including Kerala, rejected the Gadgil Committee Report and settled for a watered-down version from the Kasturirangan Committee, which was never operationalised either. Until the killer floods of August 2018.
Climate change may have scripted the recipe for the disaster, but Kerala, with a population of about 35 million, nearly three times as densely settled as the Indian national average (860 vs. 382 persons per sq. km.), wounded itself through irresponsibility and an abysmal lack of disaster preparedness.
NATURE’S LITTLE HELPERS
When disaster struck, most of us bit our tongues because finger-wagging was the last thing people needed. But it would be equally insensitive if now, those of us who understand the connections decide to remain silent for reasons of politics, political correctness, or pique.
May I with all the affection and love of Kerala therefore (I live in Idukki) remind us all that we live in a biodiverse wonderland that is designed to withstand most of the climate incidents that nature throws at us. The capacity builders of this resilience are the 30 per cent of all plant, fish, herpeto-fauna, bird, and mammal species of India that are to be found in the Western Ghats. Something like 50 per cent of India’s amphibians and 67 per cent of fish species are endemic (found only in the Western Ghats). There is more. Thirty per cent of all the world’s Asian elephant population and 17 per cent of the world’s existing tigers call the Western Ghats home. Little wonder the entire ecosystem has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is counted as one of the eight ‘hottest hot-spots’ of biological diversity in the world.
It is this biodiversity that crafts the verdant sponge that catches, then slowly releases rainwater, thus making it possible for Homo sapiens and all other life forms to survive.
The Periyar Tiger Reserve forms part of the catchment area for the Mullaperiyar and Idukki dams. At last count, something like 35 tigers live here. Other biodiverse forests in Idukki include the Shola National Park, the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, the Kurinjimala Sanctuary and the Eravikulam National Park, which is home to the Nilgiri tahr and such magnificent avians as the Malabar Grey Hornbill, Nilgiri Pipit and Nilgiri Wood Pigeon.
The deluge of August 2018 inflicted little harm on the denizens of the forests, which were protected as part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Here, away from human management, no major landslides occurred. “No loss of wildlife has been reported due to floods so far. Animals are acquainted with such conditions and they do have natural protection that equips them to deal with such situations… but landslides did occur in the periphery, away from deep forests,” said P. K. Kesavan, Principal Conservator of Forests, Kerala.
The Gadgil Committee had suggested classification of the Western Ghats into three zones: Ecologically Highest Sensitive Zones (ESZ1), where certain types of areas would be ‘no-go’, including water courses, waterbodies, special habitats, biodiversity-rich areas, and sacred groves; Ecologically High Sensitive Zones (ESZ2), where construction of new railway lines and major roads would not be allowed, except when ‘highly essential’; and Ecologically Moderately Sensitive Zones (ESZ3), where alternate energy projects and infrastructure such as roads may be allowed but with ‘strict environmental regulations’. The committee’s recommendations included restrictions on mining and quarrying, use of land for non-forest purposes and construction of high-rises was prohibited.
Gadgil was pilloried for these recommendations that some said reeked of a ‘top-down’ approach, while others said they were impossible to implement. He and the report therefore were roundly rejected. A misleading public campaign by certain faith groups, their political masters and land shark sponsors instilled fear in the minds of the local population that implementation of any of the recommendations would take their lands and livelihoods away.
That was that. The whole exercise was dropped.
The array of reasons put forth by critics, sceptics and political parties, is best articulated by a post from Professor Thiagarajan Jayaraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS):
Even a cursory view would suggest that economic drives and imperatives are at the root of the problem – land-use planning is a complex question within a legal system with an over-riding emphasis on private property rights, in densely populated Kerala affordable but environmentally-safe land is not easy to acquire and build you must, willy-nilly, where you are… Nature is a subject of pure admiration and unspoilt wonder only for those who do not directly depend on it. For millions it is the source of livelihoods, employment and profit-making for economic sustainability. Without alternatives and the use of scientific and technological inputs and solutions, they will return to its use in whatever manner they can. Bans and prohibitions as a solution will sharply increase economic costs on many kinds of activity, with the burden being the highest on those least able to afford it. Spatial inequalities driven by environmental regulation thoughtlessly implemented will only exacerbate existing problems.
Naturally, post the flood we heard noise and clamour for the implementation of the Gadgil Committee report, or at least for planners to take on board its recommendations in the rebuilding of Kerala. The state is hedging its bets on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s ‘Haritha Keralam Mission’, a vision of greening Kerala, that hopes to mobilise popular enthusiasm to integrate ecological concerns into the overall development activity of the state. But that grand vision is already struggling with implementation problems, primarily because it lacks adequate scientific and technical elements and guidelines.
Having said that the psyche of the people of Kerala has been impacted. Young and old have begun uniting to take on the challenge of rebuilding by cleaning up rivers, deepening neighbourhood ponds and addressing the issue of garbage and pollution.
“We have no choice. Communities will have to take responsibility for better management of their rivers, forests, wetlands and mangroves. A better appreciation and understanding of our ecosystem will go a long way in building climate-resilient communities. Knowing what we know and having seen first-hand what can go wrong, Kerala cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of its recent past, our children will never forgive us,” said Jayakumar Chelaton, Executive Director of Thanal, a respected, focused environmental group.
As a journalist, I am programmed to report what I see and hear. But given the circumstances one sees around the world today, I have to say that something about the flood, its devastation and the sheer scale does seem to have altered the thinking of people from every strata of society. Herein lies hope for Kerala. More than the devastation, the Kerala floods will be remembered for the amazing story of how communities came together in what is being celebrated as a ‘historic’ rescue and relief effort by the people of this state. Driven by voluntary agencies, youth organisations, students, social media groups, neighbourhood clubs, mainstream media, administration and NGOs, an unprecedented, crowd-sourced, pan-political-religious effort led by the Chief Minister and his entire cabinet of ministers has galvanised Kerala. People seem internally convinced that tampering with nature is no longer an option. Hopefully, other states where disasters have not yet struck, and strike they will… without warning, will learn from this, the worst flood in living memory.
As the state government works towards bringing about change, it must ensure that there is –
Representation: Ensure full representation by empowering local people, through a people’s planning process, in the design, development and implementation of ongoing rebuilding and revival policies, programmes and projects.
Reparation: Restore at least 35 per cent of forest cover, waterbodies including wetlands, mangroves and natural drainage and river courses by formulating effective land management laws using scientific contour and precipitation inundation maps.
Renewal: Make environment, climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development goals (SDG) education mandatory for all citizens by increasing spaces and platforms to engage students and youth around climate change adaptation, disaster risk mitigation and management.
Author: Shailendra Yashwant First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 10, October 2018.