Opinion

Coming to terms with Kerala's ecological imbalance

GM Pillai | Updated on November 12, 2018 Published on November 12, 2018

Deforestation, urbanisation, plantations and tourism have eroded the capacity of the State to withstand extreme weather events. However, a course correction is possible

Recently, I travelled through many flood affected areas in Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alleppey and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala. As a chronicler of Kerala's environmental history, the ecological devastation of Kerala is not new to me; but a grassroots journey was critical to see how it amplified the impact of the August 2018 floods.

While moving out of the most severely affected areas of the Pampa river basin, where I had the opportunity to discuss some serious issues with the legendary river protection activist, NK Sukumaran Nair, I was more than convinced of the need for holistic ecological restoration.

‘The creation of new Kerala’, as the government has named the reconstruction programme, certainly requires reconstruction of manmade infrastructure lost in the floods. But restoration of ‘natural infrastructure’ lost due to human interventions during the last few decades is equally pivotal to ensuring Kerala’s future security.

Colonial origins

As is true of the entire world, major ecological destruction began in Kerala during the British colonial period, especially during the period after the advent of the industrial revolution. As the environmental historian Richard Grove has rightly categorised, colonialism was also a period of ‘green imperialism’. By 1810, the British had established effective control over all three regions of present day Kerala – Malabar, Kochi and Travancore. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, there have been sporadic attempts to clear forests and establish commercial plantations of coffee, cinchona and tea.

But the watershed in large scale forest destruction was in 1877-88, when the British planter John Daniel Monroe bullied the local ruler to lease him 144,020 acres (215 sq.miles) of virgin forests in the Kannan Devan hills in Idukki region of the kingdom of Travancore. This was over 3 per cent of the total area of Travancore. Tropical forests were cleared for large-scale commercial plantations, first for

coffee and subsequently for tea. Thus began the massive destruction of what the Madhav Gadgil Committee called the ‘water towers’ of the Southern-Western Ghats.

This plantation mania spread across all three regions of Kerala denuding large areas of the high ranges. In the beginning of the twentieth century, rubber arrived in Kerala and spread like a parasite through the low-lying areas of the Western Ghats and the midlands. Rubber, however, also contributed to forest and biodiversity loss across Kerala, occupying 28 per cent of the cropped area (5.5 lakh hectares) in the state today. The pejorative adjective of ‘Devil’s milk’ given to the rubber latex by John Tully who wrote a global social history of rubber, is appropriate at least in the case of Kerala.

Migration impact

The large-scale internal migration from coastal and midland areas to the Western Ghats in Kerala which began in the first half of the twentieth century and lasted till 1980, also contributed to forest

destruction. A research study by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram (NCESS) has established a positive link between migration and large-scale forest destruction in Kerala. In the Idukki region of Travancore and Wayanad region of Malabar, migration resulted in extensive forest clearance for agriculture and human settlement.

Another factor that led to forest destruction is the massive urbanisation in the state. In 1970-71, when Kerala’s population was 1.69 crore, the urban population was only 15.1 per cent. But by 2015-16, when the state’s population grew to 3.34 crores, the urban population shot up to 47.7 per cent. Kerala is today a suburban or ‘rurban’ (Rural+Urban=Rurban) state. Urbanisation made major demands on resources for construction and infrastructure projects. The explosion of stone quarries in the state after 1980, has been phenomenal. Today, Kerala has over 5,000 quarries, out of which over 2,000 are in the Western Ghats. Yet another factor which has contributed to forest destruction is the over-dependence on hydropower.

Hydel projects

Out of the 58 small and big dams in Kerala, 35 are hydro-electric projects. Together they have contributed to destruction of over 350 sq. km of evergreen forests, in the reservoir area alone. Three major rivers have over a dozen dams each, which have altered the riverine ecosystem in many ways. Besides, as has been found in a 2015 study by the Central Water Commission, in many dams commissioned before 1971, the reservoir capacity has been significantly reduced due to silting. So in

extreme rain events, they are unable to hold water as per their designed capacity.

When united Kerala was created in 1957, 36 per cent of Kerala’s land area constituted forests; by 1990 this was reduced to 12 per cent, according to a study by the NCESS. The 2016 economic survey of the Kerala Government claimed that Kerala had 19,230 sq.km. of forests – which is 49.5 per cent of the total land area. But the devil is in the details; out of the above, only 1523 sq.km is classified as ‘dense’ forests which is only 3.9 per cent of the state’s land area. This is the only real tropical forest which provides multifarious ecological services.

The rest are degraded forests (23.9 per cent) or open forests (21.7 per cent). In an ecologically fragile state where 75 per cent of the land has a gradient of above 20 per cent, the loss of dense forest cover of this magnitude is an invitation to disaster. So it is pertinent to say that massive forest loss in the catchments of rivers and dams have contributed to excess runoff during the extreme rains in August 2018 in Kerala, adding to the severity of the floods.

Sand extraction

It is not only in the ‘water towers’ that the water cycle of the State has been disrupted. Excessive sand mining from riverbeds, to feed the construction mania in the state, has led to reduction in the water absorption/retention capacity of the river beds. Based on sand audits conducted in 14 major rivers, it is found that sand extraction is up to 85 times in excess of the sand deposition. In the 3,200 kilometre network of rivers, river beds capable of retaining and slowly releasing 500 million sq.metres of water at a time have been eliminated through sand mining.

This has caused rivers to overflow not just to their flood plains, but to the basins as well. The entire 38,863 sq.km. of Kerala’s land mass is the catchment area or drainage basin of its 44 rivers and their 900 tributaries. Many tributaries have been done to death. Thousands of flood paths consisting of small streams, rivulets, etc., have been levelled for construction. One of the worst affected panchayats in the recent floods is Thiruvanvandoor near Tiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district, where 24 streams have been levelled.

Direct human physical interventions or indirect bio-geochemical interventions have ruined the riverine ecosystem in Kerala. The 2001 law restricting sand mining from rivers has not been implemented effectively, as the environmental committee of Kerala legislature has reported.

Backwaters ecosystem

Kerala is a water land. Besides the extensive river network, there is a network of coastal backwaters, freshwater lakes, wetlands and marshes. Together, they used to cover an area of 1,279 sq.km or 1.28 million hectares. All the major freshwater lakes have shrunk up to one-fourth their original size, in some cases. The story of the 32 brackish coastal backwater systems (which includes 10 estuaries) is no different. Two of the biggest backwaters – Vembanad and Ashtamudi – are protected wetlands under the Ramsar Convention.

Six rivers drain into the Vembanad lake. Research studies have shown that Vembanad which covered an area of 315 sq.km in 1912 has now shrunk to 160 sq.km, thereby losing half of the drainage area of six rivers. This has been a major reason for exacerbating the flooding in southern Kerala. Excessive tourism and urban development have contributed to the destruction of the wetland.

Though not strictly classified as wetland, the once extensive network of 7.6 lakh hectares of paddy fields in Kerala have played the role of flood plains in the state. Paddy lands in Kerala are low-lying areas into which water drains from the surrounding hills in the midlands. About 80 per cent of the paddy fields have been levelled or converted for construction and commercial cultivation and only 1.9 lakh hectares remain.

Thus the entire water cycle beginning with the ‘water towers’ in the Western Ghats to the village level has been disrupted through ecologically unwise human intervention. After 1980, uncontrolled tourism development has also contributed to this disruption in the mountains and coastal areas. Ecologically regulated tourism, rather than just branding mega tourism as eco-tourism, would be critical to preserving Kerala’s ecosystem.

Volatile future?

There is thus ample evidence of how decades of ecological destruction resulted in amplifying the impact of the 2018 floods in Kerala. The August 2018 great floods in Kerala caused extensive damage killing 483 people, tens of thousands of animals and birds and displaced 14.5 lakh people. The economic loss of Kerala floods is valued at over ₹40,000 crore. Certainly, the floods were caused by extreme rains – an act of nature. And this is not the first time that Kerala faced such flooding. The great flood of 1924 has been swept back to memory and many contend that 2018 is a centennial event, perhaps to recur only after another century. But this commonplace view does not consider what is happening to our planet’s atmosphere, due to unprecedented release of greenhouse gases, since the industrial revolution.

Global warming effect

There is no direct evidence to link the 2018 Kerala floods to global warming. But there is enough corroborative evidence. Global warming will manifest in manifold ways, such as increase in cyclonic frequency/ intensity and extreme precipitation. Globally, extreme weather events multiplied four-fold, during 1996-2018, compared to the 1973-1995 period, resulting in increase in floods, droughts and wildfires.

Coming to India, a trend which began with the July 26, 2005, Mumbai floods, only escalated in the ensuing years. On August 6, 2010, during the peak tourist season, there was a cloud burst leading to floods in Ladakh. The June 2013 flash floods in Uttarakhand drowned the abode of gods killing 5700 people according to official estimation, while unofficial estimates put the death toll at 10000. Similar events of lower magnitudes were repeated there.

Extreme rainfall led to floods in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in November – December 2015; Chennai was particularly hit hard. Atmospheric research studies emanating from American Universities since 2011 have found that tropical cyclones over the Arabian Sea (ARB) in the pre-monsoon season (May-June) have intensified since 1997. This was due to increased accumulation of anthropogenic black carbon and sulphate emissions in the ARB. Subsequently, a team of scientists led by Dr. Hiroyuki Murakami, currently of Princeton University, made extensive investigations into this new phenomenon. Major severe cyclones Nilofar (October 2015), Chaphala, Megh (October-November 2015) and Luban (October 2018) have been documented so far.

The landfalls of these cyclones were on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Atmospheric scientists I consulted are of the opinion that it is unlikely that this landfall pattern will be reversed to the western coast of India. However, since rise in sea surface temperatures (SST) in the ARB is a reality, extreme precipitation events may occur in greater frequency in Kerala and the western coast of India. This is now being confirmed by studies emanating from IITM, Pune and other Indian research institutes.

This dethrones the commonplace theory of centennial floods. The IPCC predictions for India forecast increasing frequency of extreme weather events till 2030, and increasing intensity thereafter. A change in land use and land cover i.e.: replacing forest cover with other land uses, almost always results in increased run off and stream flow during extreme rains. The catchment areas of many dams in Kerala have scanty forest cover.

Some ameliorative steps

The patchy ‘catchment area treatment’ currently implemented by the KSEB should be replaced by a programme of real forest restoration. This, coupled with desilting of dams, could control the quantity of runoff into the dams and the resultant need for sudden release, exacerbating the floods. The first crucial step in this direction would be the adoption of the Madhav Gadgil Committee report and its implementation.

Kerala desperately needs a River Restoration Authority to rejuvenate the network of 44 rivers and their 900 tributaries, rivulets and countless streams. In those rivers irretrievably destroyed by sand mining, a ‘mining holiday’ should be declared till the sandy riverbeds of about 12 feet each is restored in the respective rivers.

Sand obtained by desilting of the dams could replace the quantity lost during this mining holiday. Pit mining should be totally banned. ‘Bar skimming’, wherein every year only the surface 2 feet of the sandy riverbed is allowed to be removed manually, as opposed to current mining using earth removing machines and jet pumps, should be legally mandated. Restoration of the riverside flood plains lost to encroachment, coupled with establishment of ‘bioshields’ using local plant species, in place of cement and stone construction on the edges would be another imperative.

Restoring ‘environmental flows’ in the rivers, through periodic release of water from the dams, as recommended by the World Commission on Dams would also help to rejuvenate the rivers and in raising the ground water level in the wells in the river basins. Equally important is the protection and preservation of Kerala’s wetlands. As already pointed out, their area has shrunk considerably over the years.

The programme to revive thousands of village ponds lost to the construction mania should be expanded to cover restoration of inland streams, canals and rivulets lost to human intervention. Some ongoing efforts in this direction have begun in the Pampa river basin. However, the Pampa River Action Plan approved many years ago has not been implemented. A beginning could be made now from Pampa.

A digital map of the flood affected areas, when superimposed with the detailed pre-1957 map of these areas would be very revealing. Many of the heavily flooded areas are converted paddy fields, a typical case being the Kochi International airport.

Restoring the lost paddy fields which now has dense settlements, is not possible; but streams, canals etc. can be restored and connected to nearby floodplains or rivers. The sparsely populated former paddy fields or those converted for commercial cultivation, should be restored to paddy cultivation, even by removing the external soil brought to level them. A detailed survey to identify such areas with potential for restoration is necessary.

The Kerala Paddy and Wetland Protection Act should be rechristened as ‘Kerala Paddy Lands and Wetlands Protection and Restoration Act’, with suitable enabling and enforcing provisions.

To sum up, the disrupted ecological web from the Western Ghats, through the river systems, water bodies, flood paths and flood plains need to be restored to their original condition to the extent possible.

As reported in The Hindu (September 2, 2018), the Kerala Biodiversity Board (KBB) has announced plans to take up studies for ecological restoration. However, their mandate is limited to biodiversity. What I would propose is converting the KBB to Kerala Ecological Restoration Authority (KERA) with a Chairman of the rank of Cabinet Ministry to undertake holistic restoration as described above.

The principle of inter-generational equity demands that a systemic scientific approach towards eco-restoration is critical to ensuring environmental and livelihood security for future generations in Kerala.

In a largely Left-leaning State like Kerala, it would only be appropriate to remind the literate Kerala society of these resounding words from Karl Marx’s Capital (Volume 3): “Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

The author is a former IAS officer and Founder Director General of the World Institute of Sustainable Energy, Pune. He is also a Sahitya Akademi award winning writer in Malayalam.

Published on November 12, 2018
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