Kerala floods: Warning of times to come

Think of God’s own country. It is a land of mountains, rivers, paddy fields and oceans. Bountiful and beautiful. But think of this same country in a world that is malignantly unsustainable. Both because people who live in this land have not cared to ensure that the environment is protected and also because our world is climate-risked. What happens is what happened in this God’s own country, Kerala, in August this year. It drowned. Ravaged by swollen rivers, decimated by landslides. It is understood today that the cost of this flood will be so enormous that it is like re-building the entire state.

But when you think back, it is clear Kerala was a sitting duck — this was a disaster waiting to happen. The state has some 44 rivers, which gush from the Western Ghats — traversing short distances from their point of origin to the ocean — less than 100 km in most cases. It is also tropical, located in a high-rainfall area. So, the state has to be one big drainage system.

The 61 dams located in the tropical, forested mountain regions of the Western Ghats are one part of this drainage ecosystem. The dams, largely meant for generating electricity, impound rainwater, hold it and release it after the monsoon period. But this time, when it rained incessantly — Kerala received some 771 mm of rainfall just in 15-20 days, of which 75 per cent was received in just eight days — the dams became part of the disaster. 

With this extreme rain, mountains collapsed, taking lives. But much, much worse, the gates of 29 dams, now 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, Idduki, were opened. The fact is that the reservoirs were almost full by the end of July. Massive amounts of water had been impounded. The variability in rainfall has meant that dam managers store more when they can. They do not release and wait for the absolute end of the season — they do not have information and certainly the confidence that their reservoirs will get the rain needed to generate electricity. So, the disaster was compounded many times over.

The fact is that we do not have a semblance of a 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. Let’s be clear about this. The Kerala floods are “manmade”.

They are a result of our combined and abject inability to mitigate global emissions, which are leading to weird weather events. They are a result of our mismanagement of resources — the state has decimated its drainage systems from forests to paddy fields to ponds and streams, which would carry excess water or store and recharge it. They are also the result of the sheer incompetence of our technical agencies to plan for flood control and dam management. They are, therefore, manmade. Most importantly, they are manmade 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 hundred-year event that we cannot plan for or do anything about.

This is where the reality must sink in — not just in words but practice. Kerala is going to be literally re-constructed. It cannot make the same mistake again. It must build, deliberately keeping in mind this new normal — where rain will be variable and extreme. It must, therefore, plan deliberately for drainage — every river, steam, pond, paddy field and city — should be mapped and protected at all cost. Every home, institution, village and city must be required to do rainwater harvesting so that the water can be channelised and recharged. The forest ecosystem must be built through deliberate policies that provide benefits to people. Its plantation areas must be managed so that there is soil conservation. But it must recognise that in an age of climate-change risk, even this will not be enough.

The fact is that in this new normal, governments have to plan for variability. It means doing much more to improve technical capacities to predict and inform. In this case, for instance, the only way these floods could have been prevented from becoming a deluge was through better information, prior to July 2018, of the rainfall that would be expected in the coming months. The dams would have been required to release water and increase the storage of this extreme rain event. The question is: How can this be done? What will it take for the next flood not to become a deluge? In the age of climate change, this is the question our technical agencies — from weather scientists to water and flood management institutions — must be required to answer. It is no longer business as usual. That time is over. Let’s get this straight.

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment.

sunita@cseindia.org, Twitter: @sunitanar