The ‘Magic’ Papaya That Survived The 2018 Kerala Floods

WhyOnEarth logo mobEditor’s Note: Are you bothered by the drastic changes in our climate, causing extreme weather events and calamities such as the Kerala Floods? #WhyOnEarth aims to take the truth to the people with stories, experiences, opinions and revelations about the climate change reality that you should know, and act on. Have a story to share? Click here and publish.

Created by Yamini Suresh

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“Do you see those ripe mangoes on the top branch?”, asked Ashokan* pointing at the native mango tree in his backyard. 

“Last week, I spent all my afternoon plucking them only to find out that I’d been fooled with this year’s yield. While some mangoes are deceiving with their bright yellow looks and bitter taste, the others are decaying and falling off before ripening.  Things look very bad this year. The banana plants have not flowered as well,” he said in distress.  

As he led me through the plot that was connected to his home, I was taken aback at the sight of enormous trees covered with rotting mangoes. These mangoes have suffered much decay that even squirrels and crows choose to ignore them. 

“Is it because of the floods last year?”, I asked. 

“No. The Karuvannur river did overflow and submerge my house for four days. Our well was unusable and there was mould growing everywhere, but when the water receded, the deposited silt enriched our soil with extra fertility and nutrients.” 

“So, do you think it is because of the unusually hot summer we have had this year?” 

“I think it was both. The floods cost me my banana plants as they were taken over by weeds, whereas the heat waves this year cost me the most. Since it occurred during peak flowering season for my mango trees, some flowers got burnt out while the others produced immature fruits.”

A view of Thrissur during August 2018 floods in Kerala

As we walked back, he stopped in front of a younger plant bearing long, green fruits. With an amused smile, he then said, “But, you know what’s funny? In between all this stress, none of us noticed this foreign papaya plant that somehow managed to grow on its own. I have never seen it before. It probably floated from somewhere upstream and found its way into fifty odd houses in our village.”

And this is the story of the papaya that survived. 

Being a climate geek, I was intrigued by this ‘magic‘ papaya. I decided to take a step back and revisit the story with a climate change lens. 

Ashokan is a retired government officer living with his family in the village of Karuvannur in Thrissur district of Kerala. His family has always been engaged in growing bananas and mangoes for domestic and economic purposes. During ordinary weather conditions, he used to make a profit of nearly ₹3,500-4,000 per month as a seasonal farmer by selling his surplus in the neighbourhood. This year’s poor yield forced him to have to purchase his mangoes to experience the celebrated ‘mango season’ in Kerala. 

Thrissur was one of the worst floods affected districts in Kerala. According to the Memorandum of Floods released by Kerala SDMA in 2018, Thrissur counted the highest number of fatalities with 72 persons. It further caused nearly 200 crores worth damage to the crop sector in the district, leaving a large number of agriculture-dependent, rural households in peril. 

As the water receded, the state strived to restore normalcy in the lives of the victims. Most of the affected were yet to come to terms with the repercussions of the megaflood. But the August floods were followed by unprecedented heat that left Thrissur in the list of red alert districts. The deadly heat waves accompanied by delayed summer rains resulted in the failure of cash crops like paddy and bananas in Thrissur. 

Given the series of unfortunate climatic events, it will be interesting to know what gave this papaya its superpowers. Whilst the question of origin remains, what gives this papaya the ability to withstand climate stressors that affect other crops? Is it an example of adaptive evolution observed in plants due to abiotic stress? Is it an example of Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’? If yes, how did this species develop a response at a physiological or biochemical level in order to adapt to its environmental stressors? Or, is it just an example of one man’s loss and another man’s treasure?

The answer to this super resilient papaya lies in ‘climate adaptation‘ or ‘adaptation to climate change’.  

This kind of adaptation can be roughly interpreted as the ability of natural or human systems to moderate harm and exploit beneficial opportunities in response to a climate stressor. The papaya is an example of autonomous adaptation as it has, in its own way, physically escaped the climate stress. Autonomous adaptation can be described as the change which has the potential to balance the negative impacts of climate change. 

A detailed biological study of the papaya species can help determine its properties of resilience, which can be mirrored to complement planned adaptation. 

Planned adaptation describes deliberate policy changes undertaken by the State. This study has the potential to be used as an example of how adaptation can be developed at different levels when it has been presented with the right potential and resources. Taking the example of Karuvannur, the said papaya has the potential to be developed as a crop for adaptive agriculture in Thrissur.

Climate-resilient plant/crop thriving in drought caused stress

Kerala, being a prime exporter of fruits and spices, is expected to see income depreciation in rural households for several years due to sustained damages. The effects of the floods and subsequent climate stressors have had an impact on the state’s livelihoods, employment, and agriculture-related income. This deteriorating trend and the unparalleled ripple effect of climate change is difficult to quantify.

Sometimes post-stress effects present themselves later in the future as well. The development of comprehensive studies regarding the post-flood consequences on a local or district level is challenging and demands time, but we know for sure that climate change comes with a timer.

Social media made the August 2018 floods the face of climate change in India, but it is only one of the many examples of the multiple climate stressors that have occurred in the country this past year. As a country, we are not equipped to study the implications of climate change primarily due to the lack of data. The unavailability of reliable and timely data puts major constraints on developing precise studies. 

Given these data gaps, neighbourhood climate stories can play an important role in studying micro-level adaptation, whether natural or planned. The stories can complement the deciphering of climate adaptation. They also serve as an entry point for climate researchers. These examples can be incorporated by individuals and organisations in different parts of the country. 

The story of this autonomously adapted papaya can help build a sense of consciousness amongst individuals who have directly or indirectly been affected by climate stressors in the country. Victims of climate stressors are surrounded by stories of change and survival as well. 

As engaging citizens, we can contribute to climate resilience by recognising these stories and mapping the ‘out-of-normal’ incidences in climate exposed or affected areas. On the last note, I would like to encourage the readers to keep an eye out for climate peculiarities and an ear open for climate change survival stories. 

This post has been written by a YKA Climate Correspondent as part of #WhyOnEarth. Join the conversation by adding a post here.
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