NEWS
14/08/2019 7:18 AM IST

Kerala Floods Show State Must Reckon With Climate Change Urgently

While the government has ordered the closure of hundreds of quarries and warned against illegal construction, experts say the bigger villain is climate change.

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A photograph released by Indian Navy on 11 August shows a flooded area of Malappuram district, Kerala.

From two young girls who left the world together to a little boy who was discovered holding on his mother as they died, there has been no shortage of gut-wrenching sights from the floods in Kerala

While the intensity of rains has reduced in many parts, life is still out of gear in the state, especially in the hills and mid-ranges. A red alert has been issued for three districts in central Kerala, and the numbers remain alarming: the death toll has risen to 92, more than 2.5 lakh people have been displaced and around 58 remain missing, mainly from the landslide sites of Kavalappara in Malappuram district and Puthumala in Wayanad, where adverse weather conditions have impeded rescue work. 

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Central forces and experts from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) say that people are still stuck inside the debris and mud. While landslides and flash floods are still spreading misery in the hill areas, reports from coastal regions indicate that the turbulent sea is eating into the human settlements on the shores. In short, the impression that Kerala was, in general, a “safe zone” seems to have been shattered now.

John Mathai, a scientist and senior consultant with the National Centre for Earth Sciences Studies, points out that 4.5% of the state is highly prone to landslides. The entire state, he said, has found its place in Zone 3 of the Hazard map prepared by the union government. The rampant reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands, along with the large-scale operation of granite quarries in environmentally fragile areas, have contributed to the deadly deluge which hit Kerala again almost exactly a year after the 2018 floods, which killed more than 400 people.

The repeat of last year’s fury... reiterates that climate change is clearly in action. It’s high time to think strategically on measures for future preparedness and mitigation.Ajit Kottayil, scientist with Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research, Cochin University of Science and Technology.

While the state government has ordered the closure of 850 quarries and mines in the state and warned against any illegal construction in environmentally fragile lands, many experts say that these can only be short-term measures. The larger issue, they say, is climate change and the state must address this threat as the first priority. 

“The repeat of last year’s fury, and that too on the exact first anniversary, reiterates that climate change is clearly in action. It’s high time to think strategically on measures for future preparedness and mitigation. Future monsoons may be more devastating,” said Ajit Kottayil, scientist with Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research, Cochin University of Science and Technology.

A pattern is forming

Like last year, 2019’s south-west monsoon also began on a disappointing note in June. The state received scanty rainfall until the end of July, so much so that there were doubts whether there would be enough water for drinking and agricultural activities. August, however, put paid to all these doubts as continuous rains and flash floods burst the banks of major rivers and caused large-scale soil erosion. 

Climate experts say the mood, character and form of rains have changed drastically in the past two years. Eight districts in the state witnessed 80 landslides in the three days between Friday and Sunday alone. The state is now feeling the lack of a scientific flood and disaster management system. The steps taken since the last flood to avert further calamities also don’t seem to have caused much of a change. While the people in relief camps are staring at an uncertain future, the rest of the climate victims are struggling to rebuild their lost livelihoods by staying in rented accommodations and houses of relatives.

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NDRF personnel help move flood victims to safer areas in Wayanad district, Kerala. 

According to Dr Gopakumar Cholayil, consultant climatologist and research officer with the Academy of Climate Change Education and Research at Kerala Agriculture University, the deluge this time was quite unexpected.  

“A meteorological unpredictability is now emerging across the country and Kerala is feeling its after effects severely. The monsoon in Kerala has lost its character,” he said. Topographical changes caused by frequent changes in land use patterns are a contributing factor,  said Gopakumar, who has been researching on the changing rain patterns in the region for the last 20 years. 

According to S. Faizi, a member of the Biodiversity Convention’s Expert Group on Poverty and Biodiversity and president of the Ethological Society of India, the problem with Kerala society is its refusal to accept the complete reality. 

“There is a wide segment of experts and opinion makers who believe deforestation and change in land-use patterns are the reasons for the devastating floods, which have now turned into an annual affair. They cite ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s study on Western Ghats to validate their point. In my opinion, these are just contributing factors. Those who are focusing too much on the contributing factors are ignoring the real villain. We lack climate literacy and there is an urgent need to study on the impact of global warming and climate change on Kerala,” he said.

The Gadgil committee report, submitted in 2011, had invited stiff opposition from all major political parties in the state, who said that if implemented, it would adversely affect the interests of farmers and the rural poor. Successive governments led by both the Congress and CPI(M) chose to ignore the report and refused to implement any of its recommendations. Though another committee led by scientist Kasthurirangan was set up to look into the merits of the Gadgil Committee recommendations, its suggestions were also rejected. 

Kerala’s monsoon calendar has changed. It now seems to be beginning in AugustDr Gopakumar Cholayil, consultant climatologist and research officer with the Academy of Climate Change Education and Research at Kerala Agriculture University

After the deluge last year, which was termed a once-in-a-century phenomenon, the Kerala government and its research agencies had promised that there would not be any repeat of the disaster in another 100 years. The issue of climate change was barely raised in any of the debates that followed the floods last year. In fact, last year, the blame was apportioned to different parties: the meteorological department for allegedly not informing the state government in advance about the quantum of rainfall and the government for delaying opening the shutters of different dams as a result. 

This time, most of the dams are half-empty while flash floods have caused landslides in areas away from dams and rivers. 

“Kerala’s monsoon calendar has changed. It now seems to be beginning in August,” said Gopakumar. 

Those who are focusing too much on the contributing factors are ignoring the real villain. We lack climate literacy and there is an urgent need to study on the impact of global warming and climate change on KeralaS. Faizi, member of the Biodiversity Convention’s Expert Group on Poverty and Biodiversity

Faizi is concerned that while the agitations to protect the forests, hills and wetlands of Kerala are important, many experts and opinion makers are becoming part of the climate change denial lobby.

“Several climate experts have already predicted that floods would recur in a five-year-interval instead of the historical 100 years. In Kerala, it is  for the second consecutive year. We will have a more disastrous one in 2022 or 2023. Those who try to shift attention from the devastation caused by global warming and its causative agents by blaming imagined forest loss seem to be pushing a corporate agenda. When the rains that you usually get in two months of monsoon happen in one or two days, what occurs is flood, deluge—the extreme climatic events,″ he said.