Restoring resilience

Western Ghats

The unprecedented calamity that struck most parts of Kerala and Kodagu in the Western Ghats evoked strong feelings about the way governments and politicians have implemented the development dream, enticing their supporters to destroy these fragile mountain ecosystems.

The politicians fought over whether to declare it a national calamity or not; the Centre decided to call it a “calamity of severe nature”. However, nothing could compensate for the loss of over 370 lives. The UN has now estimated the financial loss at Rs 31,000 crore. The only silver-lining was the way the floods cemented the bonds of humanity, especially the participation of the youth in rescue and relief operations.

While the damage and loss to property was huge, the psychological trauma faced by the people will live with them forever. Individuals and communities had to begin rebuilding their lives from scratch.

The plantation sector, especially the spice gardens, the paddy fields and livestock rearing will take several years to recover. Every aspect of daily life was affected and it will require an entirely new strategy to address this challenge.

What are the factors that led to the disaster? Looking at the monumental financial and social costs, it is important to ask, who should be held accountable for this disaster. Addressing that question and enforcing accountability is one way to avoid such disasters in the future.

The debate about whether this was a man-made disaster or a natural calamity caused by unprecedented rainfall will always be contested. Assigning this to climate change and pointing the finger to other factors is the strategy of governments to hide their mistakes.

A blame game played out as the Kerala government told the Supreme Court that the sudden release of water form Mullaperiyar dam in Tamil Nadu was the main cause for the deluge. The Karnataka government appointed a committee of geologists to find out the causes for extensive landslides in Kodagu.

Sahyadri, the ancient name of the Western Ghats mountain range literally means ‘sahya’ the mountains that have resilience. Obviously, it connotes the time period in Indian mythology when this mountain system was said to have been retrieved from the ocean. It is also said to be the creation of Parasurama.

The Sahyadri has existed from much before the formation of the Himalayas, and it is geologically well-proven that the resilience of these mountains helped the ecosystem to adapt to the overwhelming changes that have occurred over the millennia. 

With this glorious history, what are the factors that have led to this resilience being degraded? Obviously, the population pressure and the brazen development initiatives implemented over the last six decades has had much to do with it.

The highlands of Western Ghats are the water towers as they are the main catchment of the major rivers that feed the southern states. These watersheds were opened up for development and luxury projects like expanding tea and coffee estates, creating hill stations and holiday resorts. They caused loss of green cover due to encroachment of mountain slopes with the backing of political parties and religious institutions.

The removal of old-growth natural forest ecosystems in the steep slopes of Western Ghats is one of the main factors that led to faster water runoff during the heavy monsoon rains. The existence of a number of dams has also disrupted the hydrological water cycle, hindering the natural flow into the coastal areas. As the dam management failed to respond to the crisis, the sudden release led to the deluge.

Flood plains, essentially the area where a river meanders, were encroached by construction of buildings, with Kochi airport flooding for days proof of the utter disregard towards natural waterways. Change in land use and constant development pressures are the main reasons for the degradation of the Sahyadri’s resilience capacity.

What to do now?

Under these circumstances, is it possible to build the mountains resilience? What are the chances of rejuvenating the fragile ecology?

The first and the foremost priority in rebuilding resilience should be to stop the current, ongoing development onslaught that has a negative impact on the forests and water sources. Inclusive, decentralised policies that empower the local communities should be the basis for regeneration.

In practical terms, it is to re-green as well as to take urgent steps to conserve the remaining natural forests in Western Ghats. The Gadgil Committee stated that less than 10% of the Sahyadri has natural forests, in contrast to the mandatory requirement of 66%.

Realising this precarious condition of the green cover, governments have to come to an agreement to stop projects that take a toll on the existing forests.

To bring back the resilience of this region, we need to conserve existing biodiversity of both flora and fauna. Every year, new species of frogs, etc., are identified in the region. Recognised as one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots of the world, this is the only area in South India that has tropical forests. Like the forests of Amazon and Africa, they play a major role in mitigating climate change, and are known as the ‘lungs of the world’.

On the occasion of the silver jubilee celebrations of ‘Appiko’ movement in 2008, Sunderlal Bahuguna, the leader of the Chipko movement, gave a call to celebrate September 8 every year as Sahyadri Day. He said “these mountains are the fountainhead of water sources for South India and these catchments should be protected to provide water security for this region”.

We need to draw lessons from the disaster in Kerala and Kodagu and set policies that build natural capital. The mindset of political parties and leaders has cost us dearly. The water and livelihood security of people cannot be sacrificed at the cost of further destruction of Sahyadri.

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