Until last month, the quaint village of Puthumala, known for its picturesque meadows, lay quietly nestled in Kerala’s Wayanad’s district. It doesn’t exist anymore. The village—that once comprised a few dozen houses, a temple and a mosque was wiped off by a huge landslide and massive floods this year.
Exactly a year after Kerala witnessed the worst floods in a century, the state is experiencing a similar situation, with heavy rainfall and deadly landslides having already claimed 121 lives. The districts in Kerala’s north—in particular, Kozhikode, Wayanad, and Malappuram—are amongst the worst affected.
Extreme weather events seem to have become a norm for many Indian states. In what is now a familiar pattern, the monsoon that started slowly in June has already wreaked havoc in western Maharashtra, northern Karnataka, Kerala and coastal Karnataka. Western Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Bihar are flood-ravaged as well.
The dire situation, especially in India’s Western coast, is also linked to the rampant destruction in the Western Ghats, the biodiversity hotspot of the world. The floods that devastated large parts of Kerala in 2018 were not an isolated, freak phenomenon; they signalled something graver: the ecological devastation of the Western Ghats.
So, what exactly caused the floods to happen two years in a row, you ask? Experts say a confluence of factors could be at play in powering the extreme weather.
According to IMD, the current flooding is the result of a strange monsoon phase that defies the normal rainfall pattern of the state. According to IMD, Kerala received 2,346.6 mm of rainfall against a normal of 1,649.5 mm since the beginning of June—an excess of 42 per cent.
Experts say the current pattern of monsoon winds (in India) is such that it is feeding two monster typhoons that are happening 2000 metres apart in the Western Pacific Ocean, namely Typhoon Lekima and Krosa. The typhoons are likely to affect parts of China and Japan, respectively. This, experts believe, is pulling air in such a manner that it’s leading to heavy downpour in Kerala.
Experts also point to the increasing influence of the Western Pacific Ocean in the Indian domain as a contributing factor, which is changing the pattern of South West Monsoon in the country, resulting in south Indian ocean becoming a ‘hotspot’.
“There has been a global change in the ocean since the 1970s and we cannot do anything. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that all tropical countries will lose their boundaries because of flooding, owing to the warming of oceans,” Venu G Nair, a meteorologist at the Centre for Earth Research and Environment Management, told The Newsminute.
“Around half of Kerala belongs to the Western Ghats. If state planners had taken into account this simple fact, they would have thought twice before giving approval for expanding highways on hilly terrains and issuing notifications allowing quarrying activities within 50 metres of residential areas,” writes Viju B, author of the recently released book Flood and Fury on the 2018 Kerala floods.
“All the forty-four rivers of Kerala that originate in these mountain ranges are being degraded due to human interference and massive deforestation of riparian forest systems,” he adds.
In a matter of less than a week, Wayanad district witnessed 10 landslides, while there were 23 minor landslides in Palakkad, 11 landslides in Malappuram and 13 landslides in Idukki.
Majority of these landslides occurred in areas demarcated as ecologically sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report, that was submitted to the MoEF in 2011. The report which was disregarded by all political parties had recommended a ban on quarrying in ESZ-1 in a phased manner, and strict regulation and social audit in ESZ-2 and ESZ-3 zones.
The WGEEP led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil had recommended designating the entire Western Ghats spanning the six states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). It further graded the area into three levels – Regions of highest sensitivity or Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 (ESZ1), regions of high sensitivity or ESZ2, and the remaining as regions of moderate sensitivity or ESZ3. The Gadgil report, as it is popularly known as, recommended strict regulation on development activities including quarrying, mining and infrastructure projects such as roads, railways lines.
“It is now ironic that the government is denying fresh building approvals in the ESZ-1 post floods, saying the area is eco-sensitive when they rejected the Gadgil report,” environmental activist John Peruvanthanam says.
But probably, the most damning thing of all, is that even in the face of such unprecedented damage in the state, the government is still not willing to accept climate change as a reality.
“The most important threat of climate change is an increase in the number and intensity of extreme climatic events like severe droughts, extreme participation and resultant high floods, heatwaves, large wildfires and super cyclones. Many of these are related to water and are termed hydro-hazards,” says S.P Ravi, director of the River Research Centre.
According to Viju, Kerala has already witnessed extreme climatic events in recent years. In 2016, the state faced the worst drought in 120 years. And in November 2017, the Ockhi cyclone devastated the state causing huge casualties.
“We should have obviously gone for facilities that allow more robust monitoring of weather, thoroughly updated the landslide-prone area mapping, done flood line mapping and flood forecasting in at least flood-prone river basins. Unfortunately, all these measures were ignored by authorities,” Ravi said.