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Post-floods, Kerala must opt for sustainable growth

This will need some rigorous decision-making and policy implementation, for which guidelines need to be framed.

analysis Updated: Sep 25, 2018 16:54 IST
Kerala floods,Aftermath of Kerala floods
Kerala is slowly recovering from the impacts of floods and is on the path of rehabilitation and rebuilding. Lessons have been learned, but many questions remain.(Bloomberg)

In 1996, I had visited Mt. St. Helens (Washington, USA) and the nearby National Volcanic Monument. The museum there showcases the aftermath of the volcanic explosion in May 1980, most significantly, how it had altered the landscape and the ecosystems. Of all the images on display, what captured my attention was that of a seedling emerging vigorously out of its pod. Set in the backdrop of the greyish flow of ash that had pretty much burned and buried everything on its path, it was captioned as “resurgence of life”. This lone vein of life, amid all images of destruction, I thought, was a powerful expression of resilience in nature. On the slope of the mount, nature is on its own and the sprout would be a full-grown tree by now. When disasters strike modern societies, man is at the centre and his decisions are crucial. Following the nuclear disaster after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, it is reported that the Japanese public lost interest in nuclear power. How much of it was followed is another question, but there was a lesson.

Kerala is slowly recovering from the impact of floods and is on the path of rehabilitation and rebuilding. Lessons have been learned, but many questions remain. Perhaps nature has not revealed it all, or we do not have the wherewithal to understand them. Some of the extraordinary events are about wells going dry or water levels in well dropping rapidly, mass death of earthworms and yellowing of crops. Another curious phenomenon is the development of ground cracks, some of them wide and deep enough to rip apart homes, roads and hill slopes. Catching the headlines was the collapse of a well-engineered two-storied concrete house at Nedumkandam in the district of Iddukki. Just what is causing these unusual happenings, and how much do we understand them? During a TV based discussion, one of the panellists related ground cracking to earthquakes, which he considered as too small to be recorded, but big enough to generate cracks (some as long as 2.5 km long!). I was surprised that no one raised the issue of the safety of the 116 year-old Mullaperiyar Dam in the vicinity. The area had witnessed low to moderate earthquakes in the past (magnitude 4-5), with no big cracks.

The panellists also attributed the events to the conditions of the soil, rate of infiltration, and water chemistry, without any supporting data. With no quantitative measures on water levels, soil profile and the morphology, their ideas appeared random. Also no one talked about the happenings at Kodagu, Karnataka, which was also going through intense rains and landslides around the same time. Here, the floods and landslides had stripped the region off the rich topsoil, but there were no reports of land caving in or development of large cracks. What would be the critical factor that makes for the diversity in these two cases? As of now we do not seem to have any answer. But, we have to see them as new benchmarks in data, in different situations, in terrains of similar or dissimilar characteristics. They have to be studied in detail, because they are the stuff that make viable models, and provide prescriptions for land use.

Kerala is planning rehabilitation and rebuilding with an intensified awareness about environmental issues. It is the opportune time to take decisions that are sustainable and bode well for the future, because we are now in a time window where we can learn, being so close to the event. This would need some rigorous decision-making and policy implementation and guidelines must be debated, with experts from various fields. For example, Kerala currently relies mostly on hydel power. Going solar wherever possible is a viable option, something that can be introduced through mandatory regulations. Water was always considered as an abundant resource in Kerala, but the current drought and ground water conditions are signalling impending water shortage. Roof water harvesting; recycling in larger complexes are mandatory regulations that can be considered. The list could be long, with better green cover and watersheds and more. As the most literate state with its liberal and educated views, the people of Kerala can lead the way to an environment friendly and sustainable model.

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

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 25, 2018 16:54 IST