Is it too late to prevent impending disasters?
“Kerala had received prior rain alerts before the heavy downpour and resultant floods that had struck the peaks of Western Ghats back in 2018 and 2019. The scientific community in the state then had warned that those extreme climate events are part of climate change. The clouds led by repeated low-pressure belts covered the entire Western Ghats in the Kerala region, which caused unlimited rainfall. The plains and river banks in Kerala, located on an average 50 km gap between the hills and the sea, got submerged in hours. Most of the low lying areas were flooded. Even the high range areas of Wayanad, Kozhikode and Idukki districts were witnessing landslides and floods,” says the Landslide possibility study report of Hume Centre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology(2020)
Calamities are real and the only way to ensure survival and minimise loss is to attain resilience. The extreme drought conditions which occurred in Kerala during 2015-16, had already revealed the gravity of the climate change crisis. The unexpected Ockhi cyclone which claimed many lives in the state had also brought to light climate change and its dreadful consequences.
One of the fundamental things needed to prevent any natural calamity is the capability to predict its occurrence and course. Cyclone Ockhi threw light to such catastrophic events and their predictions. In the early days, vortices in the atmosphere were not much noticed. Even warning messages were only issued when the low-pressure belts transformed into depressions. But latest reports cite that this practice has been changed post-Ockhi.
Senior scientist and Director of the Indian Meteorology Department (Department), PS Biju also confirmed this. He reiterated that post-Ockhi, IMD has started issuing alerts at the formation stage of low-pressure belts. Unlike in other regions, climatic conditions in Kerala are volatile in nature as the state is in a tropical region. After 2017, the meteorological station was converted to a cyclone observation centre. IMD had conceded to build 100 automatic weather stations as part of the centre’s plan to build 256 automatic weather stations in the state. But only 15 were installed as of now. The remaining 85 were delayed due to the covid pandemic. However, the installation of the rest will continue from December 15th. He also added that alerts of weather disasters and extreme weather events will continue in the state. The state is also seeking assistance from private weather forecasters in this regard. Development of the latest tech for weather forecasting activities is also progressing as part of research in institutions like CUSAT.
The study report of the Hume Centre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology on the prediction of landslides says “Climate change, migration and the effects of climate change are constantly being anticipated. Therefore, disaster preparedness and forecasting are important. The data of the previous year’s rainfall and landslides, the slope of the area, type of soil, distribution of water resources must be collected. This data along with the right usage of satellite technology will enable us to predict the landslide-prone areas if the rainfall is over unexpected levels."
Land use pattern
Geographically, the slope of Kerala’s region has undergone significant changes. According to the latest studies, earlier those areas where the possibility of landslides was lower are now highly prone to landslides. These geographic alterations are a result of changing land-use patterns and intense rainfall.
The changing dynamics in Kerala’s geography have forced the policymakers to change existing norms for the functioning of quarries, due to which their number has come down in the state. Industries minister P Rajeev said that post floods only fewer quarries were allowed to function in the state. “88 quarries were given permission to run in the period between 2016-18 but after the floods, only 45 quarries are allowed to function in the state. The government is only giving a nod to those quarries which have completed all the official formalities and have the NOC certificate. The quarries must secure NOC certificates from the pollution control board, concerned panchayats, from the explosives section and also from the mining and geology department. We have also asked the Geological Survey of India to conduct a study on whether quarries are a cause of natural disasters,” he added.
In the initial days of various natural disasters, the most important impediment faced by authorities during disaster relief operations was the lack of adequate communication facilities. But today, things have changed, now we have satellite phones installed in all key centres. Compared to past instances, coordination has enhanced. Until 2019, at least 10 per cent of municipalities in Kerala didn’t have proper master plans to counter natural disasters. Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) has played a prominent role in making master plans for various local government bodies in the state.
Local Self Government Department and KILA
Before evaluating the effectiveness of various programmes and changes brought in by the Kerala government in disaster management after the Ockhi cyclone in 2017, two things must be kept in mind. Firstly, compared to other countries and other states in India, these disasters are new to Kerala. Therefore, the state must prepare a detailed map to reduce casualties and other material losses after consulting with experts. Secondly, this is a massive and complex process that cannot be completed quickly. However, the changes which need to be brought in quickly must be done on war footing.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in his assembly address in November said that as of now, the administrative nod has been given to various programmes worth over Rs 7791.14 crore, spanning over 12 departments. He also added that these programmes are at various phases of development and tenders for programmes worth Rs 5271.88 crores have been already invited.
The state government has formulated various methods and programmes to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, one of the main causes of global warming. It has also initiated several amendments in the existing construction norms to encourage the generation of clean solar energy. To reduce dependence on conventional energy, the government has already formulated an e-vehicle policy and has given nod to move on with further proceedings in this regard. The state government had also formed working groups for projects related to E-mobility, reducing flood risk, rejuvenation of water resources, waste to energy programme, solar power generation and ‘room for river’ project. Becoming carbon neutral is also one of the proposed objectives of the state. The carbon-neutral project was implemented for the first time in the state at Meenangadi panchayat in 2016. Today even the central government is gearing to replicate the ‘Meenangadi model’ across the country.
Building a modern disaster-resilient Kerala is the prime objective of the state government. To achieve this, the state government has formulated the Rebuild Kerala Initiative (RKI). Haritha Keralam, Sustainable Urban Development are some of the other programmes which come under RKI. Life mission, the flagship housing project of the Kerala government, has adopted the Pre-Fab technology for sustainable housing and for reducing environmental impact. In addition to this, the state has also implemented the ‘ini njan ozhukate’ (Let me flow now) programme to ensure the natural course of rivers. The government has also declared that these projects will continue to run as part of the Nava Kerala Project. The state also receives economic assistance worth $125 million from the World Bank on projects meant for disaster relief and for reducing the impact of climate change.
The government is also putting all efforts into removing the sediments being deposited at dams and rivers. All this would reduce the impact of subsequent floods in the future. Paddy cultivation plays an important role in draining the soil during the monsoon. Protection of paddy lands and wetlands are needed to counter climate change and its impact. The Wetland Paddy Field Protection Act enacted in 2008, was initiated considering the importance of these vital ecosystems. In addition to this, paddy cultivation was further extended in the state during the regime of the first Pinarayi government (2016-21) along with the assistance of local self-government bodies. The Institute for Climate Change Studies, Kerala is currently conducting a comprehensive study, considering the unique situation of the state and findings of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change). It is estimated that the study will be completed by December 2021. Along with this, the Institute of land and disaster management has also issued a disaster mitigation roadmap to reduce the impact of drought, cyclones, floods and landslides.
Climate change is producing far-reaching consequences in the state’s agriculture sector. Recurring climatic events will alter the length of the growing season of various crops, crop yield and even reduce the moisture content of the soil.
The animal husbandry and dairy sector are some of the related areas in agriculture. Even though it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, these sectors are also reeling under climate change. The rise in global temperature will affect the body metabolism of cattles. Their immunity will also reduce during monsoons and also in summer. “The unhygienic conditions created by high-intensity rains and the resultant floods create favourable conditions for transmitting various kinds of diseases among the cattle”, said the Assistant Director of the Animal Husbandry Department and the Nodal Officer of the State Action Plan for Climate Change, Dr Sanjay D. The absence of clean water will enhance thermal stress among the cattle and lack of food will reduce milk production.
According to the report of the Public Policy Research Institute based in Thiruvananthapuram, 2.98 per cent of the total population in the state depends on the fisheries sector for livelihood. Along with the coastal sea waters, Kerala also has an active inland fishing sector which includes 44 rivers, 49 reservoirs, nine freshwater lakes, saline water spanning over 65,000 hectares, estuaries spanning over 46,000 hectares, numerous ponds, irrigation tanks and minor canals. The natural and ecological changes which occur in the seas due to global warming also affects numerous lives depending upon the fisheries sector. The change in sea temperature will lead to loss of marine life or in the mass migration of fishes to areas with favourable aquatic conditions. The resultant reduction of fish and various diseases among marine animals are some of the predominant issues in the fisheries sector. The violent seas make fishing an unviable profession. The destruction caused to coastal infrastructure due to turbulent seas is another concern that requires the immediate intervention of authorities.
Kerala has endless tourism potential as it is blessed with chilling high ranges, waterfalls, rivers, sea-sides and pilgrimage centres. However, the recurrent crises caused by climate change is also affecting the state’s tourism sector which is known for its pristine atmosphere. Unexpected changes in weather, random rains and flooding had made running a tourism concern challenging in the state. Rising temperature, dry rivers and fading natural beauty are some other impediments faced by the state’s tourism sector.
Climate change and the consequent increase in temperature, evaporation, change in rainfall and its intensity, drought etc. are all affecting the water resources and forests of Kerala. Due to the impending natural calamities, the recovery processes that take place naturally are not happening. Frequent heavy rainfall causes high levels of landslides. So there is no retention for recharging the groundwater and its flow decreases. All these conditions will create severe water shortage in the state. In addition, illegal encroachments and unscientific construction activities in the river basins further enhance the risk of flooding.
The ecologically rich Western Ghats play a vital role in determining the climatic characteristics of the country. The Western Ghats is home to 325 endangered species of flora, fauna, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish worldwide. Ongoing deforestation, quarrying, unscientific development and construction activities in the Western Ghats further endanger the survival of these species and the Western Ghats region.
Indigenous communities in Kerala live mostly in the hazard-prone areas of the Western Ghats. The impact of climate change will be different in each tribal community. Their living conditions are aggravated by climate change disasters. Changes in climate, as well as soil structure, are affecting the survival of those who depend on agriculture.
The economy of the state is dependent on guest workers and they come from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Some of them also hail from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Most of these labourers are the ones who have lost their livelihoods due to natural calamities.
Executive Director, Center for Migration and Inclusive Development, opines how climate change disasters affect migrant workers in Kerala. "Migrant labourers are the most vulnerable group in Kerala when disasters strike the state continuously. This happens as they live in low lying, low-rent areas and are utterly ignorant of the geography of the area. They cannot understand the warning messages issued by the authorities as they are not proficient in Malayalam. For this reason, they won’t be able to make preparations. So the impact on them will be huge. After the floods of 2018, the Government of Kerala recognized these workers as a disaster-affected section and included them in the disaster relief plans.”
From experience, Kerala has gained a first-hand understanding of climate change disasters, their impact and how it affects people. When it is impossible to avoid, the possible way now is to mitigate its impact and prepare people. The Mathrubhumi Fact Check Desk will examine how far we have to go to become disaster resilient.
To be continued...