Till just the other day, the picturesque hillside village of Putthumala nestled in a tea plantation in Kerala’s Wayanad district. With its patches of meadows and stretches of terraced land, it was truly a place of serene beauty.
Putthumala does not exist anymore.
This habitat, once dotted by scores of houses, a temple and a mosque, was wiped out by a massive landslide and gushing floodwaters. About a dozen people lost their lives in the tragedy that struck around sunset on August 8.
A few hours later, Kavalappara, another Western Ghats village located on a foothill some 20km away in neighbouring Malappuram district, was similarly washed away. The pounding rains on the hill triggered a massive landslip, burying nearly 40 people under a hillock of muddy debris. The entire settlement of nearly 20 houses — spread out across 10 acres — disappeared.
Putthumala and Kavalappara may have accounted for most of the deaths arising from the current rainy season in Kerala, but the flood situation arising out of an incessant heavy downpour is extremely grim in several districts. More than two lakh people have moved to relief camps.
“People in Kerala always loved the rain. They were quite proud that their state was among those that got the maximum rainfall in the country. But not anymore. Nowadays, they are really scared of it. They don’t want to go out in the rain, but can their homes give them a sense of security,” asks Rajesh Kumar, a doctor who runs a clinic in Vythiri in Wayanad.
There is good reason for the widespread fear. Last year, 72 hours of non-stop rains led to the worst-ever floods in Kerala. Nearly a third of the state was inundated by floodwaters. The fast-moving waters razed nearly one lakh homes and thousands of miles of road, and the damage was pegged at ₹31,000 crore by a team of experts engaged by the World Bank. Nearly 500 lives were lost. More than 1,200 relief camps were set up in the affected areas. About 14 lakh people were displaced from their homes, and thousands were forced to remain in the relief camps for months on end.
If the floods last year devastated southern and central parts of Kerala, this time the fury of nature was directed against northern Kerala districts — Wayanad, Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kannur.
More than 90 people have died so far. Over 35,000 people in Wayanad, which was badly hit last year too, have moved to relief camps numbering around 200, according to official estimates.
Apart from the loss of life, the deadly and erratic weather patterns and the high costs of the resulting damage are causing great worry. Experts are pointing to a change in the cloud structure over Kerala. The clouds that brought heavy showers this year were very different from those that normally hover over Kerala during the monsoon period, says S Abhilash, an assistant professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), Kochi.
The clouds seen over the West Coast during the four-month-long monsoon season are usually shallow ones. Deep convective clouds are normally seen over the central Indian region during the monsoon, whereas 10-12km deep cloud structures are not associated with Kerala, says Abhilash, who noticed the curious phenomenon this year. He is not sure if such clouds were responsible for the great deluge last year, but this year they were responsible for the lightning and tornado-like swirling winds experienced in central Kerala districts such as Ernakulam and Thrissur.
Such clouds can cause a cloudburst-like situation, which can lead to 10cm or more rainfall in an hour. Most parts of northern Kerala, particularly the districts of Malappuram, Wayanad, Kozhikode and Kannur, witnessed heavy downpours for hours on end starting from August 8.
The experts also believe climate change has played a part in the Kerala floods and other severe weather events. Climate change-induced extreme weather events were one of the focus areas of a report released last week by the UN-backed, Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC special report, which looked at the interactions between land and climate, particularly noted how the frequency and intensity of such extreme rainfall events have increased in certain parts of India. Quoting peer-reviewed scientific studies, it said the frequency of such extreme events had gone up three times in central parts of the country between 1950 and 2015.
“We need to prepare ourselves for these climate-induced disasters which are clearly on us. The spotting of frost in the previous winter in Munnar and the kind of extremely heavy rainfall that we experience these days in Kerala are clear signs of such changes,” says N Vinod Chandra Menon, senior professor at the MIT World Peace University, Pune, and former member of the National Disaster Management Authority.
Among the many likely contributing factors is the extraction of natural resources beyond what can be replenished in the state. Quarrying, for instance, is a serious problem. Even after the August 2018 floods, several quarries were granted licences (mainly because of political compulsions) for mining, despite environmental concerns. Rules were similarly flouted to give approvals to those seeking to reclaim wetlands as well as build resorts in highly vulnerable areas.
“It’s high time steps are taken to stop all this,” says Menon.
If Kerala and other Western Ghats states want to prevent such disasters, they have no choice but to pay heed to the recommendations made by an expert panel led by noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil, says Menon. Many of these states such as Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra have had to deal with severe floods this year.
In its 2011 report, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel led by Gadgil underlined the need for a series of environmental protection measures to safeguard the biodiversity-rich but extremely fragile Western Ghats. Governments, however, discarded the recommendations. The Centre set up another panel under former space scientist K Kasturirangan which scripted a watered-down version of the report. Even these recommendations weren’t acceptable to Kerala and the other states.
Recurring disasters can break the back of any economy, let alone a fragile one such as Kerala. While the damage caused by this year’s floods is yet to be enumerated, the cost of rebuilding Kerala after the 2018 deluge is estimated to be nearly 25 per cent of the total receipt of ₹1,15,690 crore expected in the current fiscal.
While the Centre has given the state around ₹3,000 crore, the World Bank has promised ₹7,350 crore, which is part grant and part loan. Besides, the GST Council has permitted the state to levy a cess of 1 per cent over the goods and services tax for the next two years.
But by the state’s own estimate, it may not yield more than ₹600 crore. The state has collected ₹4,360 crore from donations and special taxes. The total and promised collection is still only half of the World Bank’s estimated reconstruction cost.
Still, the efforts by the government and the people to rebuild the state have been appreciated by those specialising in disaster management across the globe. In May this year, the fourth World Reconstruction Conference (WRC4), held in Geneva, slotted a session on Kerala’s post-disaster rebuilding exercise.
However, just as Kerala was beginning to put its measures in place, disaster struck again. Though the magnitude of the destruction is significantly lower compared to last year, the costs can only add up.
It is widely believed that adverse natural events, including climate-related ones, globally undermine development gains and contribute to increased vulnerability and exclusion, with average annual welfare losses of over $500 billion. Up to 26 million people are pushed into poverty each year. Across countries, a large part of the population — such as women and girls, people with disabilities, rural or indigenous people, ethnic and linguistic minorities, migrants, displaced people, gender and sexual minorities, youth, and the elderly — are disproportionately excluded from several dimensions of development, including post-disaster recovery, a joint communique issued by the WRC4 states.
More important, Kerala is not the only state passing through such back-to-back disasters. Last year, parts of neighbouring Karnataka abutting Kerala, for instance, suffered a devastating flood, while many other regions in Karnataka were hit by a severe drought. A news report said as many as 2,150 villages in 26 districts in the state didn’t have enough drinking water.
Floods have ravaged parts of Karnataka this year, too. The situation is equally grim in Maharashtra, where swirling water was seen to submerge everything from schools and homes to shops, particularly in Sangli and Kolhapur districts. Non-stop rain battered the commercial capital Mumbai, inundating railway tracks and streets. Parts of Maharashtra have also been affected by a severe drought in the last few years.
In 2017, about 14,500 Maharashtra villages faced a water scarcity; the number rose close to 20,000 villages last year.
Climate change-induced or otherwise, extreme weather events have become the norm for most Indian states. Assam and Bihar face severe floods year after year, and cyclones come unannounced in states such as Odisha and Tamil Nadu. The time has come to turn the arc lights on disaster prevention, rather than disaster management.
Else, like Putthumala and Kavalappara, chunks of land will be wiped off the map of India.