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Kerala Floods: On Environmental Concerns and Foresight

The past month saw lakhs of people in Kerala continue to take shelter at the 3,000 plus relief camps, the horrific flood situation in the state has taken away the lives of over 357 women, children and men. The number of affected animals is obviously not known. Contrary to predictions and monsoon trends in the South in the past few years, the downpour was 42.17 per cent more than the normal trend — 2,394.1 mm of rainfall as against the normal of 1,701.4 mm from June 1 to August 22. This disaster has been compared to the 1924 floods — 3,368 mm water poured from the skywhere most parts of Kerala were submerged. It has become one of the greatest disasters Kerala has faced in almost a century.

The rainfall was continuous, unprecedented and the water levels have been abnormally high but can this disaster in Kerala entirely be blamed on climate change and the uncertainty of nature? Those lobbying against environmental issues would like it to be the case, but I’m afraid it isn’t entirely so. Nor is it the wrath of a certain God, as certain Twitter users consider it to be. We can owe most of the damage caused to the reckless nature of man and more specifically in this case – to the poor mismanagement of land and rivers.

A substantial amount of damage could have been reduced and controlled had there been periodical release of water from the dams in Kerala. Every dam has something called a ‘rule curve’, which specifies exactly how much water is to be released when the reservoir reaches certain levels. Commenting on the lack of foresight of state authorities, a senior official accepted that the crisis could have been contained if water was gradually released from the dams. Water was released from around 30 dams this monsoon – adding to the already high levels of water in the State – only when the maximum levels were reached.  In fact, the floodgates of Idukki Dam, Asia’s largest, were opened for the first time this monsoon. The Print while reporting the poor mismanagement of land, rivers and dams in the state wrote: “It is like you are filling a bucket with water. If there is a narrow hole in it, the water will flow out of it as long its inflow is steady. But if there is a sudden rush of water, it will spill over the rim. That is exactly what happened,” explained a government official who wished to remain anonymous.”

Image credit: Rejimon Kuttappan / DownToEarth

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, also known as the Gadgil Committee, in its report submitted to the Government of Kerala in 2011 marked most of the flood-hit districts in Kerala, including Idukki and Wayanand, as ecologically sensitive. The Kerala Government rejected the report terming the Committee’s recommendations as “impracticable”. The Gagdil Committee was appointed to provide recommendations for the protection of the Western Ghats. The report had identified the entire Western Ghat area as ecologically sensitive. Different regions were assigned 3 different levels of eco sensitivity but none of the States agreed to the recommendations. A new Committee, the Kasturirangan Committee, was formed to analyse the Gadgil Report. Out of the 1,29,037 square km boundary  – recommended originally by the Gadgil Committee –  the Environment Ministry issued a draft notification, demarcating an area of only 56,285 sq km in the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive.

The report, among other things, recommended strong restrictions on mining and quarrying, use of land for non-forest purposes, wind energy projects, embargos on hydroelectric projects, new industries in ecologically sensitive regions. Kerala had objected to the proposed restrictions. Members of the panel have now commented that the implementation of the recommendations could have mitigated the impact of the rainfall. A majority of the affected districts have quarries – legal and illegal. Kerala, in all has more than 6000 quarries. The blasts in quarries, which create tremors, cause landscape changes leading to landslides. There were mudslides and landslides in 211 different places across the state. Majority of the deaths were caused due to these mudslides and landslides. Madhav Gadgil, while talking to The Indian Express said, “These are not just natural events. There are unjustified human interventions in natural processes which need to be stopped.”

Weeks after causing havoc in God’s Own Country, the monsoon has finally dispelled but its aftermath remains. As the water recedes and while the State is recovering and rebuilding itself, it is important to understand the underlying reasons that caused the flooding. Time and again nature has been trying to tell us – when man meddles too much with it, it will retaliate. Instead of outright dismissing recommendations that seem to be impractical, State authorities must work out a balance. Moving forward, the authorities must learn from mistakes, take action and rebuild the affected areas in consonance with nature – a good start would be to reconsider the Gadgil Report.

The High Court of Kerala has initiated suo moto proceedings to examine whether any negligence on the part of authorities in managing reservoir levels in dams contributed to recent floods in Kerala.

Shivangi Adani is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Santhosh / The Better India

Kerala is still recovering. To donate to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund, please click here.

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