While there is no doubt that unexpectedly heavy rains played a part, the recent floods in Kerala were a primarily man-made tragedy.
In a 2011 report made to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, warned that an overt focus on development was having an adverse impact on the biodiversity of the Western Ghats, the hill chain that run the length of India’s western peninsular coast, including the Malabar in the south. The panel urged a number of states, among them Karnataka and Kerala, to limit their harmful developmental activities such as quarrying and dam-building near ecologically sensitive zones, and to implement a policy of conservation in those areas.
The Ministry, as well as the two states mentioned, rejected the Panel’s recommendation. Fast-forward to 2018, and the worst flood damage took place in the areas identified by the Gadgil panel.
So what now? As rebuilding and rehabilitation gets underway, the state needs to do so in a sustainable manner. Aside from having Emergency Action Plans and Operation and Maintenance Manuals (none of the 61 dams in the state had either), the state needs to identify other ways of providing the resources that rested solely on the dams.
A shift from hydroelectricity to solar power, for example, could take some of the pressure to produce electricity off the dams. The Indian Meteorological Department had predicted very heavy rainfall in August, which should have prompted the immediate, slow release of water from the dams. However, the desire to meet electricity and irrigation demands caused the government to stay its hand until the dams became overburdened due to the predicted rain. While the state as a whole received 41 per cent more rain than the average, districts like Idukki and Palakkad received far more than that; the Idukki dam on the Periyar river is Kerala’s largest, and that district was one of the worst-affected by the floods.
Renewable energy would reduce the state’s dependence on hydropower, and therefore on dams. While dam removal is an expensive and perhaps inconvenient process, it is important to undertake the process in its entirety without cutting corners to ensure long-term sustainability. Building on reclaimed land- for instance, the Kochi airport- pretty much guarantees flooding in excessive monsoon, and research, both domestic and international, points to wetter climes as temperatures rise (no matter what certain Presidents claim, climate change is not a hoax).
The response from the Kerala government to the floods has been both admirable and exemplary. It is important that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan does not repeat the mistakes of his predecessors by following a course of unfettered, unchecked development that future generations of Keralites will have to pay for. The writing is on the wall: responsible, sustainable development, sensitive to both the environment and the people, is the need of the hour. As Kerala rebuilds, it must make responsible, sustainable choices.