Are we learning anything from Kerala floods?

On October 16th, the districts of Kottayam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha or Alleppey faced extreme rainfall.

Credit : Manorama Online

As Kerala tries to recover from the extreme rainfall that resulted in flooding and landslides in several districts over the last weekend, the yellow and orange alerts are yet to leave the state alone. The State Government and the people now brace for possibly heavy spells set to lash the state with more rains in the coming days. While cloudbursts connected to climate change have been blamed for the recent disaster, experts have also pointed out the role of human activities in intensifying the disaster.

On October 16th, the districts of Kottayam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha or Alleppey faced extreme rainfall. Several villages submerged due to flash floods, several instances of landslides were reported. Yesterday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that at least 42 people have died in the disaster and six are still missing. Rescue and relief missions in the state continue.

It’s been four consecutive years that Kerala has been facing the wrath of nature in the form of floods, landslides caused due to extreme weather events. Every year, people lose their lives and livelihoods. The damage to property, infrastructure and agriculture is irreparable. In the rains over the weekend, the districts of Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta faced maximum devastation. While studies have revealed that smaller cloudbursts have led to the events of flooding and landslides in the state. However, scientists say that there are multiple factors at play that determine why Kerala is facing increasing extreme rainfall events. What’s more important here is the question that the scientists and experts are asking us - are we learning from the recent extreme weather events while going forward?


What is happening in Kerala?

“In the last few years, it has been observed that heavy rainfall activity occurs more in the central Kerala region, where the districts of Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta are located,” said climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune.

Data by the Meteorological Centre, Thiruvananthapuram showed in 2018 that there is a steady rise in the occurrence of extreme rainfall events in the districts of Kottayam and Idukki. “This might be because of the topography of the region. The central region of Kerala is hilly. Hills interact with the clouds leading to heavier rainfall,” Koll said.

Apart from this, around half of Kerala is hilly, with most slopes over 20 degrees inclination. It makes these slopes more prone to landslides, Koll informed.

“Even now, when it’s been a couple of days since the rain has stopped, there are villages that are still underwater. Flood water has not yet receded. Some places which were not flooded in the 2018 floods also submerged this time. Rains have stopped as of today (Wednesday, October 22), however, we are expecting more such spells from October 25th onward due to the Northeast monsoon. The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority is supporting the affected citizens in whatever ways they can,” Praveen S, who works with the Humane Society International, India said.


Image Credit: Roxy Mathew Koll/Facebook

Speaking about the increasing frequency of extreme rainfall events lately, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Senior Fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore said, “When you look at such phenomena like extreme rainfall, in the past, even before climate change effects were observed, there were some years when we would get such extreme rains. However, the warming of both land and ocean has accelerated that cycle. Natural variability is there in the monsoon. But the variability is amplified due to the global warming effect. The amount of moisture which is being turned over between the land, ocean and the atmosphere is accelerating.”


Gadgil Report

While climate change is one of the factors contributing to the increased frequency of extreme weather events and following disasters, the threat of human intervention cannot be ignored. And this is where the Gadgil Report comes in.

Around a decade ago, in 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), also known as the Gadgil Commission, had prepared a report that recommended 64 percent of Western Ghats to be declared as an ecologically sensitive area. It had also warned that infrastructural development and monocrop agricultural practices in the Western Ghats. The report was widely criticised for being "too environment-friendly". Since the flooding havoc in Kerala in 2018, renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who chaired the panel, has voiced the need to reconsider the report in face of the environmental disasters that the state has been facing for the past few years.

Speaking after the disaster, Gadgil had recently said that Kerala should discuss the report at the gram sabha level to create awareness. And that we should maintain a proper balance between development and ecology.

“The Gadgil report was definitely important. If we had considered the report back then, we could have identified the risk-prone areas, avoided developmental activities there and saved lives and property. We still need to reconsider the report,” Koll said.

“But we also need to use more recent information and knowledge, for example, what we draw from the extreme events that happened in Kerala in 2018,” Krishnaswamy said.

He added, “Of course we need to restrict certain types of land use in the Western Ghats. As we go up, the rain clouds interact with the mountains, so we have more rain there. Plus now we have climate change, which is increasing the frequency of intense rainfall. And that’s why the Western Ghats are becoming highly vulnerable. There are some lessons that we could draw from the Gadgil Report, but we need more recent knowledge too.” 


Dams and Reservoirs

Krishnaswamy also spoke about a very important aspect of how we manage our dams and reservoirs. He said, “Dams can be a part of the problem. If you don’t have buffer capacity at the beginning of the monsoon, in case of an extreme event, you might have to open all the gates of the dam. This happened in 2018. There is still controversy over how much of a role did the management of the dams played in increasing the devastation in the 2018 floods. How we are going to manage our dams in the future is something we need to think about.”

Around four days ago, while it was still pouring heavily in Kerala, the State Government had issued a red alert for 10 dams. The doors of at least three of the dams were opened.

“If we have such devastation every four-five years, it will be very bad for everything - livelihood, economy, farmers, infrastructure. We need to develop alternative systems for managing dams and reservoirs. We also need early warning systems, which will tell us that moisture is building up in the upper catchments, which could allow the opening of the gates of the dam much before it turns into a devastating flood. These are the kinds of investments that we need to make,” he said.


Further course of action 

“While it’s easy to blame climate change alone for the extreme rainfall events, we need to consider the other factors responsible for the disasters too,” Koll says. He adds, “Human intervention factor cannot be ignored. Quarrying is a big problem in Kerala. In fact, of around 5,000 quarries in the state, about 4,000 are illegal. Apart from this, there is road construction, house construction in the hilly areas. More and more rainforest areas are converted into agriculture, mostly monoculture.”


While climate change certainly makes significant changes in the weather system, unplanned developmental activity has made the state more prone to disasters. 


While climate change certainly makes significant changes in the weather system, unplanned developmental activity has made the state more prone to disasters. “Landscapes tend to change due to multiple human activities. As mentioned above, the already sloped landscapes thus get more vulnerable to events like landslides. Moreover, there are fewer trees to hold the soil together,” Koll added.

According to him, what we need now is a risk mapping exercise. “What is stopping us from risk mapping? We could consider the Gadgil report as the basis for this,” he said.

Currently, the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority is conducting a rapid assessment of the situation to understand the basic needs of people. It is also coordinating with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to keep a track of the weather updates for the upcoming days so that people could be evacuated to safe places before another disaster strikes. “On Friday and Saturday (October 22-23), the IMD has issued a yellow alert to five districts. On 25th, an Orange alert has been issued to the districts of Kottayam, Idukki, Palakkad and Malappuram. People in risk-prone areas are being evacuated to safety,” Praveen said.

Krishnaswamy also contributed to the maps and some of the studies that were part of the Gadgil report back then. “It was pretty right on certain things, in terms of zoning perhaps or certain restrictions on land use in critical areas. Now that we know which areas are getting these kinds of rain events, I think now we need to do some hazard mapping for Kerala,” he said. 

He also suggested that accordingly, we need to make decisions on what kind of land would be more suitable, and then give incentives to people to switch over to safe lands because people will not be able to do that without help. “Apart from this, in monsoon, we will have to be on alert all the time, with early warning systems and evacuation systems. Since we are looking at such events every two-three years now, we need to develop some sort of risk-sharing instruments like insurance, especially related to such phenomena,” Krishnaswamy concluded.