Climate Change

Call for business unusual

What has happened in Kerala is also happening across the world. It is an uncomfortable fact that we do not have a semblance of the plan to deal with this changing weather system

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Friday 07 September 2018

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Think of God’s own country: bountiful and beautiful. It is a land of mountains, rivers, paddy fields and oceans. Now, think of the same country in a world that is malignantly unsustainable, and menacingly climate-risked. In August swollen rivers drowned Kerala. The cost of recovery would be so enormous that it is like re-building the entire state from scratch. And all this has happened because people who live in this land have not cared to protect the environment, aggravating the situation in the time of changing climate.

Kerala was a sitting duck waiting for the disaster to happen. It has some 44 rivers that gush down the Western Ghats traversing short distances—less than 100 kilometres in most cases—before they reach the ocean. It is also located in a high rainfall region. The state is thus one big drainage system.

The 61 dams, located in the forested Western Ghats, are one part of this drainage system. The dams, largely meant for generating electricity, also impound the rainwater. But this time, it rained so incessantly that the term “extreme” has to be re-defined. Kerala received some 771 mm of rainfall just in 20 days; 75 per cent of it was received in eight days. Worse, rainfall was highest in the forested regions of the state; not in the coasts where high rainfall is usually recorded. As a result, the mountains collapsed triggering landslides and claiming lives. But much worse, gates of 29 dams, filled to the brim and threatening to break, were opened. After 26 years and only the third time ever, the gates of one of the largest dams, the Idukki dam, were opened.

The fact is by the end of July, or the middle of the monsoon season, the reservoirs were almost full. Because of the variability in rainfall, dam managers store as much water as they can. They don’t release water intermittently and rather wait for the absolute end of the season for the same. This is because they don’t have information and the confidence that it would rain enough to store water needed to generate electricity. This compounded the disaster many times over. And this makes one clear that the Kerala flood is “human made”.

What has happened in Kerala is also happening across the world. It is an uncomfortable fact that we do not have a semblance of the plan to deal with this changing weather system. We are totally unprepared for what is today understood to be the extreme and variable nature of the monsoon.

It is a result of our combined and abject inability to mitigate global emissions, which is leading to such weird weather events. It is also the result of our mismanagement of resources. For example, Kerala has decimated its drainage systems, from forests to paddy fields to ponds and streams, that would carry excess water or store and recharge it. It is also the result of the sheer incompetence of our technical agencies to plan for flood control and dam management. It is, therefore, “human made”. It is “human made” because we refuse to accept that this is the new normal. We want to believe that this is just another freak event; another one in a 100-year event that we cannot plan for or do anything about.

This is where the reality must sink in—not just in words, but in practice. Kerala is going to be literally re-constructed. It cannot make the same mistake again. It must rebuild keeping in mind the new normal, where rainfall would be variable and extreme. It must therefore, plan deliberately for drainage—every river, stream, pond and paddy field should be mapped and protected at all costs. Every home, institution, village and city must harvest rainwater so that rain can be channelised and recharged. The forest ecosystem must be managed through deliberate policies that benefit people. Plantation areas must be managed to conserve soil.

Above all, it must recognise that all these measures may not be enough in this age of climate change. So, the governments must plan for variability. This will require improving technical capacities to predict and inform. Kerala could have averted this deluge if prior to July it had better information of the rainfall expected in the coming months. The dams could then have released water intermittently and make space for storing excess water during the extreme rain events.

The question is what it will take in future for avoiding such a deluge. Our technical agencies— from weather scientists to water and flood management institutions—must answer this question. It is no longer business as usual. That time is over. Let’s get this straight.

(This article was first published in September 1-15 issue of Down To Earth).

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  • This is a very thoughtful and informative article. Thank you for outlining the human nature of the disaster. I as a psychiatrist, see a similar phenomenon/development in the social and individual lives of people in Kerala. It is now well established that urbanisation, high amounts of social inequality, migration, unemployment, rapid globalisation, breaking down of social structures of control and support contribute to high levels of mental health problems. As is well known Kerala has one of the highest rates of suicide and high per capita consumption of alcohol. As in the case of the enviornmental damage, there is need to reconsider the way Kerala society is developing and rebuild caring communities and greater social cohesion, often referred to as social capital.
    People first has to be the goal of all of us. Let us begin this in Kerala.

    Posted by: Prof.R.Srinivasa Murthy | one year ago | Reply
  • As a subscriber of the Down To Earth for the past 15 years I am fully aware of your campaign against converting the rivers of the country into one huge drainage by short-sighted narrow-minded planners who never care to protect the environment. While I was reading this article I had just seen Delhi being pounded by rains today in the Television which also showed the severe threat faced by Assam, Mizoram etc. owing to the heavy discharge of water from a dam across the border in China. This Assam deluges and forest fires in the U.S. and Sweden , death due to high temperature in Japan followed by heavy rains causing landslides, Spain recording the hottest month all have ominous signs of the impact of Climate Change. Should we not now atleast change our planning strategy. Thanks and congratulations for your brilliant article

    Posted by: V.Ganapathy | one year ago | Reply
  • Excellently written! But one point is missing. Another contributory factor among many is the unplanned and rampant acquisition of land in Kerala towards development by governments irrespective of political colours. Not only building of dams but also airports, urban centres, tourist resorts etc have been preventing the natural drainage systems of the state and this has been happening since long. The drainage system in Kerala which you described so nicely in a few sentences is no more natural, it has become not only human made but perverse and unusual. I want to hear more from you on the land acquisition issue in Kerala. There is no study also on the impact of LA on climate.

    Posted by: Abhijit Guha | one year ago | Reply
  • It can be termed as Management by Crisis. Mankind has learnt from mistakes since time immemorial, from natural disasters like floods, cyclones,tsunamis and man made disasters like 9/11. We claim that we have made a headway in controlling and predicting nature and human behaviour through our scientific research and access to data from computer technology but that is not the case in my personal opinion. The nature has always been unpredictable and is behaving in its own way. The need of the hour is getting equipped to handle aftermath of such disasters and taking preventive measures and reduce human contribution for avoiding recurrence. Technology, Government policies and proactive participation of all citizen should work in tandem firstly to minimise such disasters and secondly to handle aftermath in most efficient way to minimise loss of lives,properties,agricultural lands etc. The basic principles of management like Planning,Executing and Monitoring/Reviewing can be applied here as well.

    Posted by: Vinayak Kibe | one year ago | Reply