Climate change takes a toll on Western Ghats
Ten days after an entire hillock collapsed and buried a village of 44 families, giant excavators continue to scoop out mounds of earth in search of human remains to tally the count of missing persons. The stench of decay and medicinal spray to avert a disease outbreak hangs heavy; the remains recovered are taken to a village mosque for post-mortem examinations and identification.
Both these disasters occurred in what were described as the “ecologically sensitive zones” of the Western Ghats by a committee headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil in 2011, and again in 2013 by a high-level working group on the Western Ghats headed by former Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chief K Kasturirangan.
Survivors at relief camps in Mallapuram are mourning the loss of 28-year-old Vishnu, an army jawan and the pride of the neighbourhood, who along with his family was among the 59 buried in the landslide that struck at 8pm on August 8.
Most villagers haven’t come to terms with the horror they witnessed. “I have seen many floods but not an entire hill collapsing within moments. All I can say is the rain was very intense. I had already lost everything. Now I saw an entire village and kids like Vishnu disappear,” said Ammani, 79.
V Nandakumar, a scientist from the National Centre for Earth Sciences who visited both sites to assess what could have led to the disasters, said: “Two structural streams were completely missing in Kavalappara; they were probably built upon. There was also a lot of pit making for rubber plantation. The soil couldn’t contain and slowly slid away. In Puthumala, too, where the slope is nearly 2.5km long, I suspect there was something similar amiss which aggravated the slide.”
In Puthumala, a hamlet was washed away within minutes at around 4pm on August 8. “It was a beautiful village amid the tea plantations. The Gram Panchayat suspected that the area was landslide prone and asked villagers to evacuate the previous day. But some people stayed on. They were washed away. I have never seen such a horrifying tragedy,” said Abdul Rasheed from Meppadi village, who has volunteered to serve tea and refreshments to rescue workers.
The team recovered 12 bodies by Tuesday, August 20; more people are suspected to be trapped. Mujeeb, who works as a labourer, claims that large resorts built uphill above Puthumala may have eroded the soil over time. Though Wayanad is one of the most biodiversity rich regions of the Western Ghats, very little forest cover is visible in Vyithiri and Meppadi, where only plantations of tea, coffee, areca nut and rubber are seen.
Though not linked directly to the two big landslides, Pullikal village in Mallapuram is also an example of how quarrying has affected the fragile hills of the Western Ghats. Entire hillsides have been eaten away by granite quarries, with some being rapaciously mined from both slopes, leaving a narrow table on the top. “These (mining operations) are unlicensed and definitely have a major environmental impact,” added Nandakumar.
In Pullikal, at least eight quarries can be seen. “There are several more. It’s all quarry in Mallapuram. I have seen forested hillsides being completely denuded in less than a year. They use blasting to mine, which also makes the hills shaky. I fear for people here,” said Naushad M, a resident of Mallapuram, who does temporary jobs after recently returning from a 17-year stint in Kuwait.
Naushad is among very few people willing to talk about the quarries and sand mining, which is rampant on the coast.
A study by TV Sajeev and Alex CJ of the Kerala Forest Research Institute published in 2017 based on GIS mapping found there are 5,924 quarries in Kerala, 657 in Mallapuram, 509 in Kozhikode, and 161 in Wayanad. Thirteen are within a 1km radius of a protected area or reserve forest.
The two worst-affected regions also received exceptionally high rainfall between August 8 and August 14, according to data with India Meteorological Department (IMD). Mallapuram received 500% more rainfall (594.3mm) than the normal of 99.1mm. Wayanad received 401% excess rains, getting 707.5mm against a normal of 141.1mm.
“There was intense rainfall in a very short period and land use change may have aggravated the damage. So both factors are responsible. The water must have flowed down through the slopes and the soil must have been very wet. The Western Ghats and the Himalayan region are extremely vulnerable and need a careful strategy to mitigate such disasters,” said M Rajeevan, secretary, ministry of earth sciences.
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