Ravages of climate change in Kerala


Mathrubhumi Fact Check Desk

Despite being famed for its moderate tropical climate, the picturesque state of Kerala is now facing threats from extreme climate events. The intensity of climate change was realized by the common folks only when it knocked on their doorsteps in the form of disasters. Climate is not immune to changes. But the increase in the frequency and impact of climate events create panic. Kerala has been experiencing temperature rise, irregular monsoon and water scarcity for the past few years. But in recent times, these have become life-threatening in the form of extreme unforeseen disasters. Uninterrupted human activities have further enhanced the consequences of climate change.

With the onset of Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 unforeseen disasters had begun to haunt Kerala. Shortly afterwards, floods in 2018 and 19 devastated Kerala. Thousands of lives were lost. The time is not far off when natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, landslides, floods, droughts and tsunamis will haunt us even more severely.

Were these tragedies unexpected?

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A boat capsized off the coast of Lakshadweep during Ockhi

Ockhi in 2017 was an unforeseen disaster which struck Kerala after the Tsunami. "Ockhi was an unprecedented cyclone and it quickly turned into a cyclone within 6 hours of low pressure. It was not possible to issue warnings according to the existing rules.” stated Amit Shah, Union Home Minister in Parliament. The catastrophic floods of 2018 and the subsequent floods and landslides from 2018 to 2021 gave Kerala unexpected misfortunes.

Each of these disasters due to climate change affects different regions each time. The disasters of 2019 did not occur where the landslides and floods of 2018 were terribly affected‌. There were landslides in Kerala in 2020 and 2021. They were also in different areas from previous years. There are probable chances that the next incident would happen somewhere else.

There was a special report by the IPCC in 2012 (Special Report on Extreme Events, IPCC 2012) that climate change would increase the number and magnitude of disasters and rainfall would be more intense. The changes we see in that sense are not unexpected, but the natural evolution of a changing climate.

Concerns

According to the State Disaster Management Plan 2016, the presence of the Arabian Sea, the Western Ghats and the geographically slanting terrain makes Kerala a high risk area for climate change disasters. In connection with the disaster risks in Kerala, Dr. Murali Thummarukudy (Disaster Risk Reduction and Operations Manager, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)) says: "Is the number of disasters increasing worldwide? Or is it because of the improvement in communication facilities that we are becoming more aware about the disasters? These are questions that baffle many. Disasters occur when forces that cause disasters (earthquakes, rain, wind, explosions in factories and roads) collide with objects that can cause damage (humans, animals, the environment, or immovables). All of them may not occur in the same way, for example, an earthquake is not caused by climate change. But others (the number of factories and road tankers) are increasing daily. The world's population is growing along with per capita wealth. Generally people have started to inhabit those places, where there were no settlements earlier. All this increases the risk of disaster. On top of all this, climate change is acting like a magnifying glass."

Kerala's high population density (860 people per sq km) increases the magnitude of natural disasters in the state. Rapid industrialization and accompanying urbanization are further expanding emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The illegal encroachments into environmentally sensitive areas, especially for industrial purposes, disrupt the ecological balances and escalate the impact of climate change in the State.

Studies and Observations

The Gadgil Report of 2011, which studied extensively about the environmental degradation happening in the Western Ghats, is one of the most important studies about the environment in Kerala. The report identifies certain areas in Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Areas based on their biological characteristics, elevation, slope, climate, risk and historical significance. The report also pointed out that 64% of the area in Western Ghats constitutes an Ecologically Sensitive Area.

Gadgil had warned that many disasters would follow if the Western Ghats were not protected. Without acknowledging this, the Kasturirangan Committee was appointed to review the Gadgil report. According to the Kasturirangan report, only 37% of the Western Ghats is considered an Ecologically Sensitive Area.

Global warming and climate change affect each region in different ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established internationally to provide scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and future risks, and to put forward mitigation measures. According to the report released by IPCC in 2021, the sea level will increase by 0.11m, and the sea will engulf shores. By 2130, many of the coastal places, including Kochi, will be submerged.

According to a study by the Indian Network of Climate Change, rainfall is expected to increase by about 6-8% in the Western Ghats and western coastal areas by 2030 when compared to the 1970s, and temperatures are expected to rise by 1-3 degrees Celsius. Ice melting and thermal expansion in the oceans (changes in shape, volume, and density caused by changes in the temperature of an object) will cause water levels to rise. In addition, global warming is causing atmospheric and sea temperatures to rise sharply. This causes more low pressure to form in the atmosphere. They are more likely to turn into hurricanes at any time in the future.

According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), there was a 52% increase in development of cyclone movements in the Arabian Sea from 2001 to 2019 and an 8% increase in the Bay of Bengal. Four of the nine major depressions in 2020 were in the Arabian Sea. This is another central concern for Kerala.

Dangerous Coastline

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Destruction caused by sea erosion at Purakkad, Alappuzha. Photo| VP Ullas

The government studies indicate that 322 km of the 580 km long coastline of Kerala is prone to sea turbulence and coastal erosion. If the sea level rises by another one meter, 169 sq km of land off the coast of Kochi will be submerged. According to a report published by the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR), 41% of Kerala's coastal land has been degraded and 21% expanded so far.

In the future, the sea level will rise even higher. The existing shores will be washed away by the sea and sedimentation of sand will happen in some parts. Such changes and the resulting disasters will damage the habitat of humans and other organisms.

Irregular Monsoon and Landslides

Low pressure in the ocean causes heavy rainfall over land. In addition, irregular monsoon is a problem faced in Kerala. And 14.5% of the state is prone to floods. In addition to these causes, mining, illegal quarrying, deforestation, land encroachment and changes in farming practices increase the risk of landslides and debris flow in the hilly areas of Kerala. Due to this unpredictable and rapid occurrence of climate events, many lives were lost in landslides in Kerala.

Drought and Wildfire

Search operation at Kavalappara
Search operation at Kavalappara| Mathrubhumi

Kerala is as prone to drought as it is to floods. Water scarcity is another issue. Kerala has experienced severe drought in previous years. If the drought conditions intensify, there is a high risk of wildfires in the future. There are 1,719 fire points in Kerala where there are chances of fires.

The Directorate of Environment & Climate Change works at the state level to coordinate activities against climate change. The department's main objective is to implement the Kerala State Environment Policy, State Action Plan for Climate Change, National Environmental Policy 2016 and Green Protocol. The State Disaster Management Authority and the District Disaster Management Authority are responsible for mitigating and preventing potential disasters in the State. For the necessary training and awareness programs to improve disaster mitigation plans, the state has The Institute for Land and Disaster Management. In addition, there are institutions like the Indian Meteorological Department and the National Center for Earth Science Studies for weather forecasting and monitoring. The Institute of Climate Change Studies has been established in Kottayam for research and study of climate change in Kerala.

Climate change is not something that can be prevented. The state must prepare itself to become more climate resilient. However, the only way to survive such climate events is to minimise the impact of this phenomenon. How is Kerala adapting to climate change and its resulting disasters? How ready is Kerala for this? How should Kerala society change to prevent disasters? The climate change series of Mathrubhumi fact check explores all these relevant issues.

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