The unprecedented floods in Kerala send out a single message: The world will have to pay a terrible price for disrespecting the environment
The unprecedented floods in Kerala, and the massive grief and loss of life and property it has caused, send out a single message: The world will have to pay a terrible price for undermining the environment. The environmental causes are both transnational and regional. The foremost, and perhaps the most relevant, is, of course, climate change. This becomes clear if one views the Kerala floods, the primary cause of which has been very heavy rainfall, unprecedented in decades, in the context of extreme weather conditions that have brought misery to many parts of the world. Consider events in the US. Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas in August, 2017, matching the damage caused to New Orleans by hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. Hurricane Irma, caused massive damage in the Caribbean and Florida Keys in September, 2017, followed by hurricane Maria which devastated Dominica and Puerto Rico in the same month.
Flash floods had hit Baltimore in June, following unprecedented rainfall, and Virginia and New Jersey in August, 2018, the month in which flood waters submerged roads in Wisconsin, and storms and torrential rains flooded parts of Toronto in Canada. Forest fires continue to rage in California, consuming houses and towns and forcing thousands out of their homes. Havoc has also been caused by snow. Blizzard Jonas, which had deposited snow, as much as three-feet high at some places, had paralysed travel in north-eastern and some parts of central, Atlantic coastline, of the US, for several days in January, 2016
Outside the US, flash floods had hit the German city of Wuppertal in May, 2018, following heavy rains. In the following month, there was flooding in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. In June this year, again, Lausanne and other parts of the Lake Geneva region in Switzerland experienced flash floods following heavy thunderstorms and a record downpour. Roads in the town of Rosita, east of Turin came to resemble canals following torrential rainfall in upstream rivers. In Britain, parts of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire were submerged in May, 2018, as heavy rainfall caused flash floods. France has also suffered floods. In fact, the frequency of floods has increased significantly in Europe since 2014. Outside Europe, heavy downpours in southwestern Japan in June and July caused flash floods, landslips and the deaths of over 200 persons.
These instances have been cited to underline the fact that extreme weather conditions, caused by climate change, is a worldwide phenomenon. India, cannot counter the process on its own and the Trump administration’s disregard for it and the US’ withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Accord, portend ill for the future of transnational efforts to cope with global warming. India can only do its best to contain the impact of the phenomenon on itself. The need for this is all the greater because, according to a World Bank report, temperatures are rising — and rainfall becoming erratic — throughout South-East Asia and the trend will continue for decades. Cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai. Dhaka and Karachi would be under a substantial risk of suffering from flood-related damages in the next century.
India has been trying but its efforts have not been enough. It is not just a question of money but also of administrative efficiency, alertness and anticipation. The Kerala Government ought to have taken cognizance of the fact that rainfall has been steadily increasing in the region since 2015 and prepared itself to cope with a severe calamity with a clear plan of action,
An area which should certainly have received attention was the release of water from dams to prevent the pressure of water accumulating inside from causing breaches in their walls. In the present instance, Kerala was forced to release water from 35 out of its 39 dams. The impact below was made worse by the fact that the adjacent States had also to release water from their dams as the pressure within swelled. Regulated release in smaller quantities would have made the impact of each surge much less lethal. This did not happen. An example is the Idamalayar dam operated by the Kerala State Electricity Board. The authorities waited for the water level to rise to its full height of 169 feet and then opened all the four gates simultaneously when they should have started releasing water in smaller quantities earlier.
It is, of course, easy to be wise in hindsight. People under pressure while dealing with extraordinary crises are vulnerable to making mistakes. One, however, cannot ignore the violation of environmental norms like deforestation, illegal stone quarrying, constructions in the flood plains of rivers, and illegal changes in the character of forests, which have made things worse. Deforestation, for example, has led to soil erosion and increased the silt content of river waters which, in turn, has reduced the holding capacity of dams through silt deposits on dam floors. Stone quarrying and deforestation have together led to landslips with horrific results.
This, of course, is not the time for a blame game. The focus has to be on relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation, Kerala would need help, and the whole of India has to stand by it.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)