Without a development-cum-rebuilding strategy that is aligned to climate and environmental change, Kerala’s future is at stake.
Kerala’s floods were the worst the state has witnessed in little less than a century. It has somewhat succeeded in managing the effects of the disaster with relief operations in full swing after having wrapped up rescue efforts, but the task ahead is mammoth, considering that the disaster has resulted in a loss of more than Rs 21,000 crore (with the estimated loss touted to exceed the state’s annual plan’s size). As the flood-ravaged Kerala tries to get back on its feet, it needs to desperately get its priorities right. Debates on blaming the floods on cow slaughter and women’s entry into Sabarimala temple are preposterous, to say the least, and do not merit any time or energy.
While the phantom $100 million offered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Kerala and the need for relooking into the issue of foreign aid, and whether declaring the disaster as a “national calamity” would have resulted in mobilisation of more resources, may be critical concerns that require to be addressed, what is more important at this stage is rehabilitation of the victims and a strategy for rebuilding in a sustainable manner.
GADGIL’S WORDS FINALLY RESONATE WITH KERALITES
After a long gap, the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, chaired by renowned ecologist, Dr Madhav Gadgil, submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has come back into the limelight. When the panel warned of an impending disaster based on its assessments of the Western Ghats, not only was the report rejected, it was rebuked too. With the recent flooding, there is at least some public outcry over discussion on demarcating some parts of the Western Ghats as “ecological sensitive” zones, thereby regulating developmental activities, especially rampant mining/quarrying, in the region by involving decision-makers at all levels—from state to district to gram panchayat/sabha. Gadgil committee’s recommendations were aimed at protecting “the entire area necessary for preserving the geological and hydrological features which are critical for the sustainability of the river sources,” which include private landholdings.
Harish Vasudevan, an environmental activist and advocate points out, “Kerala, unanimously, decided to exclude private landholdings from ‘ecologically sensitive localities’ and allow only forestlands to be included, which didn’t make sense as forests are already protected under the existing laws. When a disaster occurs, it is not going to look at revenue records or ownership; it destructs all places equally. Also, to acknowledge a river only when it attains maturity is an open invitation to disaster.” The report had also suggested use of eco-friendly building codes (green technology and building materials) to minimise the impacts of landslides, landslips and mudslides, which were totally ignored. Their enforcement could have lessened deaths caused in such incidents that brought down several houses and other buildings.
ENFORCE EXISTING REGULATIONS AND IMPLEMENT LAND USE POLICY
There are umpteen numbers of regulations that have either been flouted or not implemented for years. Take the case of Cheruthoni town located on River Cheruthoni, which has been at the centre of discussion (owing to its proximity to the Idukki reservoir). It was known long ago that if and when the Idukki dam had to be opened due to unprecedented rainfall or excess water flow from Mullaperiyar Dam, the water would flow through River Cheruthoni, a major tributary of River Periyar. This area had been marked by the government as a construction-free zone; yet illegal constructions sprang up all along the river. Many major roads have been built as well, in violation of these principles. The list of proposed programmes that have not seen the light of day also includes the Dr M.S. Swaminathan Committee report on agrarian crisis and preservation of wetland system in Kuttanad due to a lack of coordination between various government departments and agencies. This region, labelled as the “rice bowl of Kerala” and famous for its backwaters, has been reeling under floods, triggered also by “lake encroachments, unscientific construction of roads, bridges and culverts, silting and aggressive spread of waterweeds” that have choked water flow.
When it comes to encroachment of ecologically fragile areas, the authorities sure have their work cut out for them. The Gadgil report itself has spoken in length about encroachments of all major rivers’ catchment areas as well as riverbeds/riverbanks. These illegal constructions aggravated nature’s fury by narrowing the river courses. Encroachments on and along all major rivers like Periyar, Pampa, Achankovil, Bharathapuzha and Chalakkudy; illegal constructions in the high ranges of Munnar and Wayanad for development of the tourism sector; Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery built on River Periyar’s floodplain; reclamation of wetlands in Thrissur, Alapuzha and Ernakulam—are just some of the examples where actions need to be taken on a war-footing. The Central Water Commission prepared the Model Bill for Flood Plain Zoning in 1975, and till now the majority of states, including Kerala have not enacted any legislation to this effect. In fact, the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008 was amended, which would allow reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands for “projects that benefit the public”. Kerala, therefore, needs a clear-cut land use policy that could minimise the impacts of disasters, including zoning of floodplains, which is missing as of now.
DAM MANAGEMENT NEEDS REFOCUS
Even if the floods were caused by excessive rainfall and not dams, as some claim, one needs to ponder over the ways in which dam management could be improved. When there was talk about releasing the water of Idukki dam in early August for trial run, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) chairman claimed that if the shutters were opened, the board would incur a loss of Rs 10 lakh per hour. Concerns over “prospective” loss cannot supersede the dangers posed to lives and livelihoods. One cannot sit back and relax while expecting the more than 40 dams in Kerala to control floods in an era of unpredictable rainfall patterns, and open them only when they reach the brim. Long-term scientific emergency planning and decision support system, based on the changes in climate and environment, is the need of the hour.
There is no denying that there has been an increase in the frequency of heavy rainfall over short periods in the past few years across India, which is widely linked to global warming and climate change. Moreover, the system should also take into account, apart from dam safety, other factors such as the physical and ecological condition of rivers, evacuation of people downstream in the event of opening of a dam and so on. Harish Vasudevan makes an important point while asserting, “Dam control system cannot be given to KSEB anymore as they are currently the primary beneficiary of dam storage. Both the regulator and beneficiary cannot be the same party. If KSEB is the beneficiary, disaster management authorities should be in charge of regulating the release of water from dams.”
NEED FOR A ‘SUSTAINABLE’ REBUILDING STRATEGY
Without a development-cum-rebuilding strategy that is aligned to climate and environmental change, Kerala’s future is at stake. If, for instance, more granite quarries are (re)initiated for reconstruction, the entire purpose of “sustainable” rebuilding would be defeated. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself has reiterated the need for more discussion on environmental concerns, but it remains to be seen how fervent and credible this endeavour is. More importantly, an assessment of the damage caused to and by the industries (mainly chemical) arrayed along River Periyar on the Eloor-Edayar stretch that was affected by the floods should be carried out on an urgent basis. Otherwise, it could metamorphose into another slow disaster by poisoning/pollution of the surrounding ecosystems and human settlements.
The degree of environmental destruction unleashed in the God’s Own Country—known for its pristine natural heritage—in the name of development in the past decades is severe. From deforestation to encroachment of riverbeds, floodplains and wetlands to illegal quarrying/mining, human-induced environmental disruptions are difficult to reverse, but attempts can be made to rectify some of the grave mistakes that have been committed in its developmental strategy, which played a huge role in exacerbating the disaster. For this, not just the current government, but also all the stakeholders should take responsibility.
Dr Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education; and Features Editor (Climate Policy), Science, Technology & Security forum (STSf).