Kerala and its floods, an opinion note

Rescue operation continues in Puthumala, which was hit by a massive landslide, in Wayanad, Kerala. Photo: On Manorama

Noufa C.K

As of the official records on 19th of August, 2019, the death toll from the severe floods that caused widespread damage to the state of Kerala has risen to 121, with around 40 injured. For the second year in a row, the state has to put efforts into picking up the pieces and getting back to normalcy. When the flood last year was considered as once in a century disaster, Kerala has to witness another one right the next year, causes being blamed on climate change and the anthropogenic actions of Kerala’s ecologically sensitive spots.

The monsoon of 1924 which caused flooding of this scale witnessed a 3,368 mm of rain. During 2018, it was 2086, which was 30% above the seasonal average, and 42% more than the long term average from August 13-17. This year, two village neighborhoods in the districts of Malappuram and Wayanad were wiped out due to massive landslides. Northern Kerala is the worst affected, where a total of 84 landslides had occurred. Even though heavy rain is the foremost causative factor for the floods, analysis shows that the landslides and the subsequent death toll are to be blamed upon the destruction of Western Ghats, the biodiversity hotspot covering about 50% of Kerala’s land cover. It is no wonder that experts are warning of bigger disasters in the near future if the destruction goes on unchecked.

Figure : Flooding around Malappuram: a comparison between pre-flood and crisis image. Source: Dr. Mitra, IMD.

According to a study by T.V. Sajeev, principal scientist at Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) and data on damages by the government, it was found that wherever landslides had happened, there were granite quarries on the other side of the hill. According to the 2011 report by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), commonly known as Madhav Gadgil Committee, 10 out of the 11 pockets where these landslides occurred (home to 91 operational quarries), were classified as Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs), and were asked to be banned from quarrying and mining. Even according to the report by Kasturirangan committee (or the High-Level Working Group (HLWG)), which was constituted following criticism calling WGEEP report as biased against development, had concluded that 5 out of the 11 pockets should have been banned from mining and quarrying.

According to Mr. Sajeev, quarries become the main accused, since the sound waves produced from the blasts shake the hills, because the sound wave velocity is second highest in granite, next to diamonds. The density variations caused by this are capable of destroying the Western Ghats, which has become evident from recent events. He had identified that 56% of total Quarries in Kerala are in ESZs, making them prone to landslides. The existing regulations ask these to be at least 50 m away from residential zones, no matter it be located near forest, hill or river.

The results of a study by Livemint on the presence of quarries next to the places affected by landslides were alarming. In Kavalappara, Nilambur, estimates from satellite images point out the presence of 27 quarries within a 5km radius. In Wayanad’s Meppady, it was found that at least on quarry was operational on the other side of the hill. The damage caused by this can become disastrous for Kerala, due to higher population density in the Ghats region of the state compared to other states, which is also one of the reasons being pointed out as to why enabling the reports would become economically a step back to Kerala.

According to G Shankar, a soil expert and senior scientist at National Centre for Earth and Science Studies (NCESS), soil piping (or tunnel erosion), which is the formation of underground tunnels due to subsurface soil erosion under lateritic terrains in Northern Kerala, could be one of the reasons of the landslides. When laterite quarries become a water reservoir during the rain, water drips into the subsurface to the clay, which makes a tunnel, and flows in the subsurface along with the clay. A subsequent subsurface erosion causes the roof to collapse and the features on the surface to subside.

The slopes of the hills have been destroyed and the rivers have changed courses. Tributaries of many rivers have been reclaimed. Such effects of massive construction have caused the water to have no place to go. There is also a change in temperature of about 2-3 degrees happened over a short span of years, which usually happens over centuries. According to Mr. Viju B, author of Flood and Fury, the causes behind a landslide are always either unscientific change of crops, cutting off of the slope of the hill, construction, quarrying, or a mix of these. The causes of floods of 2018 were mainly said to be huge rains and dam operations, but the flood of this year has suggested that the effect of ecological destruction of Western Ghats must be debated too.

WGEEP was centred on factors regarding the Ghat’s ecology, along with recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of Ghats. Unlike the Kasturirangan report, which focused on the bureaucracy and forest officials for environmental decision making, Gadgil report focused on the Gram Sabhas for the same. According to a report by Ms Nisha and Mr John Stephen on a political economy perspective of the different reports of Eco Sensitive areas of Kerala, it was concluded that the report by Gadgil panel represented a model of statist progressivism, which neither supports nor rejects economic growth, but favours a green economy which is capable of producing well-being. Its tentative nature and space it leaves to local communities to finalising its contents are two of the greatest strengths of the Gadgil panel report. What is required, is a socio-economic analysis to measure the impacts of the implementation of these reports on the affected population, for short to medium terms. One thing everyone is agreeing on is that the damage to the western Ghats have made the flooding worse, and an absence of a detailed study, the findings of which can be implemented to the eco-sensitive areas, will make this continue to be one of the foremost factors for disastrous floods in the coming years.

Noufa C.K is a recent graduate of Dual Master’s Degree in Applied Geoinformatics from the University of Salzburg, Austria and Central University of Karnataka, India

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