Dread in the air as the season sets in

P Anima | Updated on July 03, 2020

Ready or not: Kerala is used to over 3,000mm of rain annually, but the recent high-intensity downpours in a short span of time have proved devastating   -  THULASI KAKKAT

After encountering a belligerent southwest monsoon in the last two years, four states in its path view the monsoon with increasing fear and concern

* Before the 2018 floods in Kerala could be dismissed as a freak event, the deluge returned the very next year

* The country is pounded by high-intensity rainfall in a short span of time

* The damages in Kodagu has been heavy

* The natural cycle has become unpredictable

There isn’t enough water yet in the household well. Washed bedsheets spread out in the yard are bone dry in no time at all. Sixty-three-year-old KT Remadevi, a farmer for over three decades, says her feet burn when she steps on the tiled courtyard in the afternoons. Pattithara panchayat in Palakkad, one of the warmest districts in Kerala, has received only a few showers so far. But Remadevi is sticking to schedule — planting saplings and waiting for a good spell.

The monsoon reached the Kerala coast, as expected, in early June. The entry was rather muted — the itinerant virus has scuttled attention from all else. But the advent of the monsoon is a national preoccupation and it usually drums in on cue, as if mindful of its superstar status.

The tempo is kept up for a good two weeks as it lashes and batters the coastal state. The sun eventually sneaks out, bestowing on the land the most fertile spell in Kerala’s farming calendar — the thiruvathira njattuvela. Though the first monsoon spell this year has barely lived up to its promise, choosing instead to reluctantly hiss, splutter and disappear, Remadevi is following the routine she has adhered to for years. “This monsoon is cantankerous; it rains continuously for, say, two hours, and vanishes. And then the sun is out, as harsh as it’s in summer,” she observes.

At the onset of the thiruvathira njattuvela — a two-week period, which began on June 21 this year — Remadevi was at work in her 4.5-acre farm. “Though the rain has been scanty, we have planted 25 arecanut saplings, 40 plantain saplings and manured 25 coconut trees with organic waste,” she says. A robust thiruvathira njattuvela would have meant equal parts of rain and shine, perfect for organic waste to turn into compost. “Now the leaves are dry as sawdust. The njattuvela has cheated us over the past two years,” she rues.

Yet Remadevi is wary of wishing for rain. Kerala, on an average, receives over 3,000mm of rain annually. But August 2018 irrevocably altered the state’s relationship with the rain after nearly 700 people died in one of the worst floods in decades — the last severe flood in Kerala was in 1924. Before it could be dismissed as a freak event, the deluge returned the very next year, snuffing out over 100 lives this time. The monsoon had been slow to start then too, but soon gathered a brute force and fury to spew havoc. Kerala — much like the rest of the country — is now routinely pounded by high-intensity rainfall in a short span of time, which leaves rivers swollen and dams overflowing, and drowns cities and decimates crops.

“The damage to our crops was not as widespread since we’re on highland. Yet we lost most of the areca saplings planted last year,” Remadevi recalls. She dreads to think what July and August hold. The monsoon cycle, she fears, is askew. “Climate change is at our doorstep,” Remadevi notes.

Turning a deaf ear to nature

Trouble in paradise: The Western Ghats ecosystem comes alive with the monsoon, but deforestation is changing the nature of the annual visitor   -  ANIL KUMAR SASTRY


In the last two years, a belligerent southwest monsoon wreaked havoc as it set off from Kerala and travelled through Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, the three other states along the Western Ghats. While ecologists have long warned that environmental degradation will wrest its price, wanton development has made cities more vulnerable.

Manoj Kumar IB, a computer professional and a conservationist at heart, who lives in the small island of Vypeen near Kochi, is quick to underline the effects of climate change. “Earlier, it rained over 120 days, from June to September; now we get the same amount of rain in 15-20 days. It will inevitably mean a deluge.” Kumar has turned his one-acre plot into a forest of fruit trees. The Vypeen island is flanked by the Arabian Sea and the Vembanad lake. “Water from the Periyar River flows into the lake and subsequently drains into the sea. Vypeen is traditionally untouched by floods. In 2018, high tides prevented water from draining into the sea,” he says.

It was the first time Kumar, who is 50, saw his island flooded. His neighbours moved into relief camps and water rose ominously in his courtyard before receding the next day. Still, Vypeen fared better than some other places in Kochi that saw stranded residents being evacuated by helicopters. “The signs are everywhere, we only have to observe,” he points out. The precariously rising sea level on the island and the destruction of mangroves and wetlands portend calamities.

He rues that despite the signs, people continue to miss the woods for the trees. The focus now is on conducting disaster management classes, he says. “We should be protecting the rainforests in the Western Ghats and evolving sustainable ways of living. We’re quick to develop a flood alert app, but will not decide against paving the courtyard with tiles. Then we wait for the helicopter to rescue us.”

Disaster brews in coffee land

The angry monsoons submerged parts of Kodagu, the hill district in the Western Ghats across the border from Kerala, in 2018-19. Landslides turned this hill station in Karnataka dotted with coffee plantations into a poster for disaster. At Green Dreams, a farm stay, owner Narendra Hebbar had a handful of guests over for the monsoon. “Unlike Kerala, monsoon tourism is just picking up in Kodagu. Guests watch as we transplant the paddy in the rainy season, and learn about the local greens that grow in this time,” Hebbar says. Following unusually heavy rain in the hill town, the mighty Cauvery overflowed. Further, landslides led to casualties in 2018. Though the farm stay wasn’t affected much, the road to it was blocked and power supply was cut. After two lean monsoon seasons, business is nil this year as the Covid-19 pandemic has brought holidays to a halt.

The trademark coffee business of Kodagu, too, lost much of its flavour in the deluge and the damage to paddy has been extensive. Long-lasting damage, however, Hebbar says, is inflicted by the changing rain pattern. Young coffee crops do not get the required water as rain plays truant and the deluge later destroys it. “It forces planters to pick the fruit early, and then drying it poses a challenge,” he adds. As nature turns fickle, unable to sustain operations, a few owners have leased out their plantations. “The damage has been heavy. But what led to the disaster? We are yet to ask that question seriously,” Hebbar says.

Goa gone extreme

The script isn’t very different in Goa. Ashwini Pai Panandiker, fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Goa, is studying the recent extreme rainfall events in the state. Parts of Panjim and Margao were flooded in June this year. “We get heavy rains from June to September. But it rarely flooded in the past. Instances of extreme rainfall and the frequency of localised flooding has risen,” Panandiker says.

She grew up in Goa and knew of the times when it rained continuously for a week in the state, and yet there were no floods. Parts of Panjim and Margao, the two big cities of the coastal state, have come under water every year since 2016. “We are seeing an increase in rainfall in the pre- and post-monsoon period. This shift affects agriculture, especially paddy cultivation, immensely,” she says.

While rainfall patterns have definitely changed, Panandiker blames indiscriminate urbanisation for the flooding. “The cities have flooded, the villages not so much,” she says. The two creeks of Panjim — St Inez and Rua de Ourém — which held water even during high tide are now choked. “The shallow stormwater drains the Portuguese built took rainwater to the sea. In our bid to urbanise, we’ve replaced the shallow drains with deep ones and closed them with concrete slabs. Cleaning them is cumbersome, and they are often clogged with sewage,” Panandiker adds.

Pitter-patter no more


Over the years, Anay Nitin Kembhavi has watched the road in front of his bungalow in Sahkar Nagar, Pune, being tarred and then paved with concrete. “The house is now two-feet lower than the road,” observes Kembhavi, a company secretary. In September last year, water gushed in from the streets. “Water, six-feet-deep, filled my courtyard and crept up the ground floor. Our two cars were submerged,” the 31-year-old recalls. He still finds it hard to believe that Pune had flooded. He remembers being annoyed by the pitter-patter that characterised monsoon in the Pune of his childhood. “Unlike Mumbai, we rarely had heavy rains. It would sometimes just drizzle through the day,” he says.

At around 10.30pm on September 25 last year, Kembhavi’s elderly neighbours knocked on the door of his first-floor residence, drenched and gasping for breath. Water had already seeped into their ground-floor residence. Kembhavi remembers the dark clouds that hung heavy in the evening sky. The locality is not flood-prone, he adds. But the Amboli drain, which carries excess water from the 18th-century Katraj lake, flows nearby.

“The lake had overflowed, and so had the drain; and parts of the 7-foot-high wall hemming it had collapsed, letting water into the locality,” he recalls. The residents suffered immense material damage, and a few, though not the Kembhavis, received a token compensation from the Pune Corporation. “We have requested the corporation to instal a warning system at the lake,” he says. In the colony, two bungalows have been pulled down since. “The houses are being reconstructed with only parking space on the ground floor. The new design might minimise damage during floods,” Kembhavi notes.

Broken rhythm

A long-time resident of Mumbai, nature photographer Bibhas Amonkar’s life has been inextricably entwined with the monsoon. “Monsoon is poetry to a photographer,” says the conservationist who is closely associated with the Save the Sahyadri initiative. What’s really hard for him is the unpredictability brought about by the changing weather patterns. In the past, the monsoon had a date with Mumbai — June 7. There could be minor changes, but the pattern mostly remained intact. And when it came, it poured. But not anymore. “We’ve had a few showers so far, but nothing like the continuous rains of the past. The humidity is unbearable,” Amonkar says. After a slow monsoon last year, the city was ravaged by floods in July-August. Many feared a repeat of the 2005 floods, which brought Mumbai to a standstill.

Amonkar finds signs of broken rhythm in little things. In the past, when the monsoon stayed true to character, one could find him at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park after the first few showers. “The crinum lily blooms 8-10 days after the first monsoon showers. One wouldn’t find it at any other time of the year. But with rain patterns changing, the norm is gone,” Amonkar says. A bounteous early monsoon will bring the Sahyadris — as the Western Ghats in Maharashtra is called — to life. Monsoon flora, which die after the rains, bring alive the ecosystem. “Insect activity is high and there is ample food and water. The monsoon is when one gets to see nature at it nurturing best,” he adds.

Amonkar regrets that those certainties have been taken away. “The natural cycle has become unpredictable and that is scary.” He believes strong policies will make citizens and the government commit to the environment. “We are sitting on a time bomb. What is the price we are willing to pay for development?” he asks. Act now, the residents stress. Else, as Manoj Kumar warns, people will be left waiting for the rescue helicopter.

P Anima

Published on July 03, 2020

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