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Behind The Kerala Floods: An Unprecedented Ecological Crisis In The Western Ghats

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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.

Blame It On The Rain!

ALAPPUZHA, INDIA – AUGUST 20: People wade through a flooded street as it rains at Kuttanad on August 20, 2018 in Alappuzha, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

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.   

Twin Typhoons In The Pacific Coast

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.

The Changing South Pacific Ocean

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.

Rampant Destruction In The Western Ghats

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. 

Excessive Quarrying In Eco-Sensitive Zones

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.

For Representation Only. Image Credit: Getty Images (2018)

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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