Kerala’s disaster is partly man-made

In the last few days, Kerala has been in the grip of the worst natural disaster to strike the state in decades. It is reeling under it, with many areas still inundated by flood waters caused by torrential rains, especially in the higher ranges of the state. One round of high monsoon rainfall had already hit the state last month, causing much damage to life and property. When the rains returned with greater fury now, the damage and losses are unprecedented. Over 30 lives have been lost and thousands of people have been moved to camps. The sluice gates of 24 dams were opened as they reached their capacity. The state has seen extreme vagaries of weather in the last few years. The monsoon is sometimes deficient and at other times excessive. Its schedule has gone awry. Summers are hotter. While there was a shortfall of about 30% rainfall last year, this year some districts have already got 50% excess rains, and it is still raining. 

There is a huge humanitarian problem, though advance warnings and timely actions have lessened the impact of the tragedy. The rescue and relief operations were largely efficient and are continuing. The administration, the army, the navy and the disaster relief force have done a good job. But the meteorological office has predicted more rains and the situation can turn grim. Landslides have occurred in many places, mainly at higher altitudes, houses and roads have been washed away and farms and crops have been destroyed. Entire towns and villages have been pounded and it will take a long time for them to emerge from slush and water. People will find it difficult to rebuild their lives. 

Like many other abnormal weather events in many parts of the world, the excessive rainfall in Kerala might be a sign of climate change. Kerala’s vulnerability to floods may also have increased because of the rise in sea levels, induced by climate change, and especially because its rivers are short. But when the waters recede and people go back to their homes, some lessons will also have to be carried home. It is the assault on the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats, which has continued for decades, that made it difficult to contain the impact of the rains. Human habitations and the construction of houses, roads, etc, and the destruction of forests have reduced the capacity of the earth to absorb rain water. Governments and politicians have supported and protected such attacks on nature, which is now hitting back. The recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee on the Western Ghats are nowhere near implementation. There is a lesson here for states like Karnataka, too. 

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