March, 2010

An ecological expert committee headed by ecologist Dr. Madhav Gadgil was set up by Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to suggest methods for preserving the Western Ghats in the best possible manner. The Western Ghats are the hill range in India with tropical forests stretching over 1,600 km parallel to Arabian Sea, from Gujarat in north to Kanyakumari in south, covering almost the entire state of Kerala. The committee went up to survey the Ghat area and divided the whole 1,29,037 sq. km landscape into three sensitive zones (Zone-1, Zone-2 and Zone-3) according to their vulnerability to ecological disasters. Their report prescribed that the existing sanctuaries and Zone-1 would be major part of the landscape, as much as 77,000 sq. km (i.e 60% of the total Ghat area) and proposed that no mining and construction would be allowed in this region. However, this report did not find favour with industrialists and politicians. These suggestions were neglected by all the states in the Ghat region including Kerala government. Instead, the government approached another expert team to reduce the concerned area of ESZ (Zone-1), which was finally chopped down to 9,993 sq. km only.

August, 2018

South-west monsoon in India continues to rain as usual like every year from June 1st. However, this year an unpredicted weather pattern had taken place. Every year, Kerala receives the highest amount of rainfall among the Indian states. This time the same pattern repeated in the state, but with a rain fall of 42% excess than last year.

NASA’s satellite imagery showing rainfall accumulations from Aug. 13 to 20, 2018. The band of heavy rains in the southwest coast (Kerala) of India was more concentrated, intense and closely aligned with the Western Ghats.

In addition to the monsoon, two sustained low pressure systems, one in the western coast and other in the Bay of Bengal made the situation even worse. The huge downpour of rain fall caused overflow of rivers in Kerala and the state was forced to lift 35 out of 42 dams for the first time. Roads were engulfed with flood water and landslides. Residents were forced to leave homes. The end result is, Kerala has witnessed a devastating flood in it’s history since 1924. The consequences of this havoc are heart wrenching !

373 deaths.

Rs. 19,512 crore property loss.

7,24,649 people in relief camps.

9,06,400 hectares crop loss.

Who’s to blame for these deadly floods? Why nature hit hard ‘God’s own country’ Kerala ? Is this just a common natural calamity that we need to bear the consequences? Or, do humans have a significant role in it’s occurrence? Let me give you more insights on this matter.

In July, 1981, China experienced severe flooding in Shanxi province. Over 2,50,000 acres of land was flooded, 2,00,000 people were left homeless and 2,075 people were dead. Similarly, in the summer of 1998, a devastating flood in the Yangtze river of China left 15 million people homeless and death toll rose upto 3,700. In both these calamities, heavy rainfall was the primary cause like any other flood. However, some studies show that over-logging could also be a root cause of flooding in these low-lands. This, of course a widely accepted traditional reason for flooding that the absence of trees and forests can increase floods since the tree roots play a key role in holding soil together. And during monsoons, rain water infiltrates into roots, forest litter and soil (sponge effect). This is not the case in the absence of trees as the loose soil easily erodes by rains, causing landslides, mudslides, choking of rivers and overflow of water in low-lands. This is well documented in several scientific publications. For instance, a record by I. R. Manandhar and N. R. Khanal says that most of the land slips in Middle Hills of Nepal were observed in deforested slopes than thickly vegetated areas. Starkel and O’Loughlin research shows the importance of forest cover in preventing shallow slides. Another study by Bradshaw statistically predicts that with every 10% decrease in forest cover, flood frequency increases by 4% to 28%.

What these studies suggest? Does our deforestation activities hitting us back in the form of climate changes? Are we, humans, responsible for the natural disasters like floods ? I think, the recent flooding in Kerala seems to be strengthening this argument.

In 2016, Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s), National Remote Sensing Centre found that Western Ghats had lost 35% of its forest cover in a span of 90 years. This is higher in the case of Kerala, as far as 62%. Of course, the current rate of deforestation in Western Ghats is lesser than this, but not upto the point of zero. For instance, during 2013 and 2015, almost 20,000 trees were cut in Kodagu district, in the boarder of Kerala. In recent years, the state even saw a steep increase in tourism which further drove deforestation for infrastructural development. Also, illegal mining is quite rampant in Kerala these days. According to a report, there are more than 5000 quarries in the state. All the above mentioned activities are being carried in the regions that were once classified as ecological sensitive zones (ESZ). In fact, the maximum damage inflicted by the recent monsoon floods were in these zones itself. According to reports, tens of people were killed due to mudslides and landslides in Idukki and Wayanad districts, the two prominent districts under ESZ. Experts say that these landslides were partly due to the unauthorised quarrying activities on mountain slopes. Could this happen if the government had implemented the suggestions given by ecologists to protect ESZ and ban human incursions in those zones?

I am not trying to show that the floods are solely occurring due to the human acts towards the environment. As a matter of fact, major floods occur because of too much rainfall over a long period of time in a specific region. This is exactly what happened in Kerala in this monsoon season. In the same time, we should not deny the impact of human incursions in ecological sensitive zones. Human acts like deforestation, logging, sand mining can amplify the damage of natural disasters as we have seen in the case of Kerala. If those regions were taken care before, the impact of the floods could have been limited.

Perhaps, in Kerala, some lives could have been saved !

– Mani Ratnam