Cloudburst may have led to latest Kerala disaster, say experts

Weather experts said cloud bursts must have triggered torrential rain at several places in Kottayam and Idukki districts. Cloud burst is a pattern of torrential downpour in a limited area in a short time.
Flood-hit areas of Kottayam and Pathnamthitta in Kerala on Sunday. (HT PHOTO.)
Flood-hit areas of Kottayam and Pathnamthitta in Kerala on Sunday. (HT PHOTO.)
Published on Oct 17, 2021 06:28 PM IST
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For the last four years Kerala has been witnessing a series of natural disasters. Every year, disasters seem to happen in the state. In August 2018 a major flood, often touted as the flood of the century, claimed 483 lives.

In August 2019, 48 people died after a portion of a hill came down in Kavalappara near Nilambur in Malappuram district and in August 2020, 74 people were killed in Pettimudi in Idukki district after a landslide wiped out a settlement of tea plantation workers. In October 2021, two landslides claimed many lives in Idukki and Kottayam districts. But inhabitants of Kootickal and Kokkayar, two affected hamlets, say tragedy visited them for the first time.

Weather experts said cloud bursts must have triggered torrential rain at several places in Kottayam and Idukki districts. Cloud burst is a pattern of torrential downpour in a limited area in a short time. “The pattern of the rains shows it is a cloudburst. Some of the areas in Idukki and Kottayam received more than 20 cm downfall in two-three hours,” said Dr M G Manoj, head of the advanced centre for atmospheric radar research with the Cochin University of Science and Technology.

“We need long and short term strategies to tackle such tragedies. Usually soil study or soil piping phenomena are not done while constructing houses. Proper geological studies are needed at least for new dwelling units now,” said Dr Manoj adding that in changing times everyone will have to expect the unexpected. “We can reduce the intensity of the disaster by listening to early warnings and disseminating them to targeted audience. We need more studies in hazard reduction areas,” he said adding in India there is no serious study on land use.

After the Kavalappara tragedy in 2019 many experts said soil piping is rampant in many areas of the state but no serious study was done. “Soil piping and lateral spread (it occurs when soil starts moving downhill) are more visible in Kerala these days. These two are recipes for major disasters. Like cloud pattern, soil pattern is also undergoing a sea change,” said Dr V Nandakumar of the National Centre for Earth Science Studies. “We cannot control rain. But we can mitigate damage triggered by extreme rainfall. Human intervention plays a key role in multiplying damages at several places,” he said.

Recently in Kozhikode (north Kerala) there was a mysterious sound and vibrations in a newly-built house. Later geologists and other experts examined the house and found that soil piping or lateral spread may have triggered them and asked occupants to shift from the area for more investigation.

Though natural disasters are largely attributed to climate change many ecologists say human intervention is partly responsible for recurring mishaps. They say many landslides are triggered by unscientific developmental work carried out in ecologically-sensitive areas. They lament such pertinent issues come up for discussion only when a tragedy strikes and is forgotten till the next one occurs.

Renowned environmental scientist Dr V S Vijayan, a member of the expert panel on Western Ghats, said Kerala was going through a man-made disaster and the impact would have been limited if the Gadgil Committee recommendations aimed at protecting the ecologically-fragile mountain range of the Western Ghats was implemented in earnest. He said if the situation continued like this, Kerala should get ready for more such disasters.

“It is a fact nobody can stop rain or control floods. Due to climate change such tragedies are bound to increase. We have seen heat waves in some western counties. But we can take measures to lower the intensity of such tragedies. Quarrying and unbridled developmental activities are still rampant in many ecologically-sensitive areas of Kerala,” said Vijayan.

In 2010, the Union Environment Ministry had set up an expert panel under noted environmental scientist Madhav Gadgil following an uproar that Western Ghats, a UNESCO world heritage site that plays an important role in breaking rain clouds over the subcontinent, was shrinking fast. When all six states falling under the Ghat region (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat) opposed recommendations of the Gadgil panel another committee was constituted under former ISRO chief Kasturirangan. Later many states also opposed the toned-down Kasturirangan report and both are now lying in government cupboards for many years.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022