Climate and Us | Why there should be no delay in protecting the Western Ghats
While a six-month extension may seem inconsequential, implementation of the Western Ghats ESA policy has been pending for 10 years
The link between the climate crisis and extreme weather events such as cloudbursts and flash floods is now well understood, thanks to innumerable research papers and consensus reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Mindless construction and land use only exacerbate these impacts, particularly in ecologically vulnerable regions. But the Western Ghat state governments (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat) and the Centre appear to be oblivious of this science when it comes to land use planning in the Western Ghats region. The Centre has kept the notification of the Western Ghats ecologically sensitive area pending since 2011.
An expert panel led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil in 2011 recommended that 75% of the 129, 037 sq km area should be declared an environmentally sensitive area because of its dense forest and a large number of endemic species.
In 2013, a panel headed by rocket scientist K Kasturirangan scaled it down to 50%. The Kasturirangan report’s recommendations were further diluted, and four draft notifications have been issued since.
On December 31, the Centre extended the deadline till June 30 to notify the 2018 draft Western Ghats eco-sensitive area (ESA) notification, citing difficulties in consultations due to the coronavirus pandemic, a notification from the Union environment ministry stated. Earlier, the deadline was set to expire on December 31, 2021.
While a six-month extension may seem inconsequential, implementation of the Western Ghats ESA policy has been pending for over 10 years now. Environmentally degrading activities such as mining, operating thermal power plants or specified polluting industries, building townships, and area development will either be completely banned or severely restricted when the ESA is implemented.
In the intermediate years, the climate crisis has gained momentum —floods have ravaged the ghat areas of Kerala thrice in four years in 2018, 2019, and now, in 2021, killing hundreds of people and delivering an overwhelming blow to infrastructure and livelihoods; landslides and flash floods ravaged the ghat areas of Konkan this year; and cyclones area gaining in intensity with the warming of the Arabian Sea leaving the west coast especially vulnerable. By the coming monsoon, more polluting industries, quarries and mines, roads, and townships may be planned due to the absence of the Western Ghats ESA policy and that would mean more damage in future to the fragile landscape of the region.
IPCC in its sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis concluded it is very likely that extreme rainfall events will be more frequent and more intense over most of the mid-latitude land masses and wet tropics in a warmer world.
Global warming increases the atmospheric water-holding capacity. This results in an increase in extreme rainfall on a global scale. On a regional scale, changes in extreme precipitation are further modulated by dynamic changes. Future warming may amplify monsoonal extreme precipitation, IPCC said adding that changes in extreme storms, including tropical/extratropical cyclones, severe convective storms, result in changes in extreme precipitation. Changes in sea surface temperatures (SSTs) alter land-sea contrast, leading to changes in precipitation extremes near coastal regions. These findings should be particularly worrying for the Western Ghats.
Many friends, colleagues have contended with me that the idea of demarcating an ecologically sensitive area is inherently against people and their developmental aspirations. But my understanding is that local people have no information on what is an ESA; whether it will derail development in the region and what are the alternative models of development. That can be perhaps discussed through detailed public consultations in every part of Western Ghats so that the policy is not seen as a top-down scheme when it's not.
The other issue which needs to be considered is the importance of Western Ghats from the biodiversity point of view. Veteran ecologist, Madhav Gadgil articulated this in detail in his report.
In the Western Ghats, the annual rainfall ranges from as much as 8,000 mm in the southwestern corner of the upper Nilgiris to a mere 500 mm in the Moyar gorge just 30 km to its east. In contrast, the annual rainfall spans a range of no more than 1,000 mm over hundreds of kilometres across the Deccan plateau.
Mountains also create isolated habitats far away from other similar habitats, promoting local speciation. Hence, distinct species of the flowering plant Rhododendron and the mountain tahr goat Hemitragus occur on the higher reaches of the Western Ghats and Himalayas, with a large gap in the distribution of these genera in between, the report had said adding that “Not only are the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas biological treasure troves, they are also two of the world's biodiversity hot spots, a hot spot being a biodiversity-rich area that is also under a high degree of threat.” Such a region requires a different, careful approach to planning and conservation.