Biggest lesson from Kerala: The developmental agenda should be sustainable
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Biggest lesson from Kerala: The developmental agenda should be sustainable

We all know that development comes with a cost, but as such tragedies strike, the poor suffers the most and they seem to pay a higher price.

analysis Updated: Aug 25, 2018 20:03 IST
Residents collect food and water from a truck distributing relief materials to those stranded by floods in Pandanad in Alappuzha district, Kerala, August 21, 2018(AFP)

“Many cities are caught in a ‘perfect storm’ of population growth, escalating adaptation needs and substantial development deficits created by a shortage of human and financial resources, increasing levels of informality, poor governance, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, poverty and growing inequality”, noted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. The flood disasters in various parts of India, especially the recent events in Kerala, only reiterate this statement.

The 2018 floods in Kerala have no parallels in the state’s recent history; the last such was in 1924. The intensity of flooding then was probably the same but with a much lower impact. What has changed between 1924 and now? I recount the backdrop of my small village named Thalayolaparambu in central Kerala. Built in 1934, my riverside home was in the middle of a large coconut plantation, bordered all around by canals. The compound was flooded during most monsoons but not our home, built a couple of meters above the ground, probably based on the experience of the 1924 floods. Over the years, the region has been transformed and the numerous canals have been reclaimed, to make approach roads. The 2018 flood inundated the ground floor of most houses in this region, but spared ours.

A narrow strip of land with its highlands transforming to steep slopes, midlands and coastal tracts, Kerala it picturesque, and is a favourite destination for tourists. But this topography is also sensitive to anthropogenic alterations. Construction projects, deforestation and excessive quarrying affect the stability of hilly regions. Madhav Gadgil (former professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore), an expert on Western Ghats ecology, shared his concern recently that “rainfall is the natural trigger, but the severity of outcome is entirely man made”.

Reclaiming of wetlands, conversion of paddy fields and alteration of flood plains are the most widely accepted reasons for flooding, as in the case of the Cochin International Airport, which had to be closed due to water logging. It is ironic that the airport has been awarded with the highest environmental honour ‘Champion of Earth Prize -2018’ by the United Nations, for its operations based on solar power, with panels installed on reclaimed wetlands and former paddy fields. The airport is just about 400 metres from the Periyar river, the longest in the state and with the largest discharge potential. Local people point out how a creek --- Chengal Thodu --- and three irrigation canals were realigned to make space for the runway, which is now flooded. It is not unusual that runways get flooded, and for airports remain closed following intense rains, as it has happened in other airports of India and elsewhere in the world. But what happened at the Cochin airport is an example of a river recapturing its flood plains.

There are other examples: the 2013 Uttarakhand flood, which happened due to a cloudburst, was followed by numerous landslides. The river overflow was caused by the intensity of the rainfall together with the blockages in the river due to debris. There are also numerous urban examples like the 2015 Chennai flood. As with most urban floods, the anthropogenic factors for the Chennai flood far outweigh the natural causes. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India blamed the authorities for the unplanned development by encroachment of lakes and river floodplains. The same is the story with metros like Mumbai and even Bengaluru (geographically better positioned as it is away from the sea and at a higher elevation). Clogged drainages, unplanned underpasses, shrinking wetlands, fading green cover, vanishing lakes and other inherent problems of urbanisation are considered as the culprits.

Although the reasons and zones of impact may vary, there are many common underlying reasons, such as unplanned and excessive development, poor management of tourism, reduction in forest cover and encroachment of water bodies and wetlands. We all know that development comes with a cost, but as tragedies of such dimensions strike, it is the poor who suffer the most. The biggest lesson from the recent flood is that developmental agenda should be sustainable, transparent, socially and economically inclusive and protective of ecological systems.

Kusala Rajendran is professor at the Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 25, 2018 20:02 IST