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What caused the rain havoc in Kerala

August 15, 2018 10:44 IST

'A lot of unauthorised encroachments have taken place in our forest area.'
'The landslides are partly because of such encroachments.'
'The other factor is deforestation.'
'Protection of forest resources is not on the agenda of any government.'
'The damage caused by the rain in Kerala is a man-made factor.'

IMAGE: An elderly woman is carried to safety following a flash flood triggered by heavy rains in Palakkad, Kerala. Photograph: PTI Photo

Kerala has been receiving unprecedented rains, especially the central and northern parts of the state.

For the first time in its history, Asia's largest arch dam, the Idukki dam, had to open all its five shutters because of the incessant rain, and at one point 800,000 litres of water per second poured out of the dam, inundating the downstream.

The debate raging on in the state is: Whether the floods were man-made or natural.

"The most affected area is Kuttanad which is the agricultural part of Kerala. The Kuttanad area is fully inundated and all the crops are destroyed," G Madhavan Nair, ISRO's former chairman, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.

 

We have been witnessing a lot of natural disasters like floods, droughts, wildfires etc across the globe. Do you think the calamity in Idukki is connected to climate change and global warming?

About the global phenomenon, we do not know where it exactly originated and how. But we do know that local weather and climate are controlled by many factors.

One is the temperature of the ocean and the ocean currents, and also the atmospheric wind density. But the most important factor is solar radiation. All these factors together led to the global phenomenon.

Of course, global warming also contributes to some extent as ocean currents are modified because of ice melting in the poles.

This alone cannot trigger such a phenomenon; it is much beyond that.

If you look at the history of Kerala, maybe more than 80 years ago, such a heavy downpour and damages have taken place. Afterwards, such an event has not taken place at all.

I would say this is more like a freak event coupled with the global phenomenon.

Elderly people in Kerala compare this with the 'floods of 99'; (referring to the Malayalam year 1099, which corresponds to 1924 on the Gregorian calendar, when the Periyar river was inundated).

Yes, after that, practically such a heavy downpour had not taken place.

In the last 4-5 years, rainfall in Kerala has been much below average.

Suddenly this year, it has increased several fold, but the damage caused by the rain are mainly due to, I would say, human intervention.

A lot of unauthorised encroachments have taken place in our forest area. Because the mountain slopes are cut and encroached upon, the natural support land has is lost.

The landslides are partly because of such encroachments.

The other factor is deforestation.

You have a lot of legislation prohibiting the felling of trees in the forest areas, but it is happening in an uncontrolled way.

Protection of forest resources is not on the agenda of any government.

On the other hand, if you look at any foreign country, they have a deliberate plan for tree planting in the forest areas.

If thick trees are there in the mountain region, it prevents landslides. It also helps in absorbing water in the area. So, the heavy drainage of water downstream will not take place.

This (the damage caused by the rain in Kerala) is a man-made factor.

You mean what happened in Idukki has to be looked at from two angles. One is the way we have exploited nature and another due to climate change which is a global phenomenon.

Exactly. We do not have much control over climate change except the factors which we can intervene like carbon dioxide emission, methane emission, etc. When we do that, climate change can be kept under control.

But what we have to do is plan the things that play a major role locally.

During the rains, water drains off to the rivers and lakes, and they in turn flow to the sea.

Almost all the rivers in Kerala are choked with sand deposits, which reduces the capacity of the rivers to hold more water.

The net result is, with the slightest increase in water level, there flood. The same thing applies to lakes also.

Protecting the river bed is something we have to do urgently.

Some environmental experts have labelled what happened in Idukki as a man-made disaster...

I would say it was a freak phenomenon. But damage is compounded because of human intervention in the area.

The most affected area is Kuttanad which is the agricultural part of Kerala. The Kuttanad area is fully inundated and all the crops are destroyed.

Kuttanad is situated below the sea level, naturally we have to plan very carefully.

It is an ecologically sensitive area and the government has to stop construction of buildings in this agricultural area.

This area is a trigger factor for all the floods in the nearby areas.

It is high time we have a master plan for Kuttanad and implement it aggressively in a time bound manner.

In fact, a few years back, the father of India's Green Revolution Dr M S Swaminathan had worked out a plan.

Before the next rain comes, efforts have to be taken to have proper flow of water.

Floods have been there from time immemorial. Do you think the way we look at natural calamities has changed?

In ancient times, there was no proper means to manage the floods except pray.

With the advancement in technology, we should use modern means to assess natural calamities and plan in advance so that damage due to floods are minimised.

Technologically advanced countries also suffer due to natural calamities. When Kerala was severely affected by floods, France also suffered from heavy floods.
Do you think they have learnt to minimise the damages in terms of losing human lives?

Firstly, in India, people living on the banks of rivers is much higher than compared to France.

In countries like France, nobody will construct a house close to the river. They are supposed to assess the safe height and distance before building a house.

So, even if water level rises, damage will be minimal. Sometimes, when water level rises beyond expectations, their cities also get flooded.

The difference is that they have disaster management authorities which are structured and efficient. And they deploy the entire machinery in such situations.

Do you feel this time, Kerala managed the situation quite well co-ordinating all the departments and minimising the loss of human lives?

Yes, there is a lot of improvement.

After the disastrous way they handled cyclone Ockhi, the government has now woken up.

With the first indication itself, they sprang into action harnessing all the resources from the state and central government and deployed them.

That was why they could effectively manage a disaster of this magnitude. Yes, the number of deaths was very minimum compared to other occasions.

This kind of a mechanism should be permanently there as natural disasters can occur any time.

We have to strengthen this mechanism with proper communication and discussions on decision making.

See, decision making during disasters should not be taken to the political level. It has to be beyond politics.

People who are expected to do the work, should be allowed to take decisions.

That's why I would say, this is a good beginning.

More than trying to stop natural disasters, how we face it and manage is more important.

I would say so. Out of the factors which contribute to natural disasters, hardly 5% is in our control. 95% of the factors are happening at the Poles, in the oceans and in other parts of the globe.

Any type of intervention on them is humanly impossible because the energy level involved is very huge and nobody has succeeded in modifying, for example, cyclones or tornadoes so far.

They are all due to the compound action of the ocean, atmosphere and air.

We can only make predictions, that also not for long periods.

With such predictions, disaster warning can be given to the area where the cyclone or heavy rains can hit.

This information can then be given to the district authority so that they can evacuate people from the dangerous areas before the disaster strikes.

Two years back, a huge cyclone hit Manila and they lost 10,000 lives.

Around the same time, we had a cyclone in the Orissa coast and because of the advance action using satellite technology, we were able to minimise the deaths to less than 100.

So, our disaster monitoring ability is maturing. But in some places, even if the warning comes, the concerned officials who were supposed to take action, fail to do so.

That was exactly what happened when cyclone Ockhi struck the Kerala coast.

Some 48 hours before the cyclone, there was a warning from the department in Delhi, but there was no official in Kerala to receive it and take action based on it.

They woke up only after Ockhi struck the coast.

What is needed is a 24/7 mechanism for receiving such warnings.

You spoke about using technology to predict such disasters. There was a report about IIT-Bombay developing an AI-based algorithm that can help track natural disasters on the ground, monitor cities from the skies, and help security forces identify insurgents in the dark.
Do you feel there should be more research in India in this direction?

Our planning should be in such a way that we have to find the disaster-prone areas.

Ecologically sensitive areas should not be confined to the map alone.

You have to have local surveys to collect all the data scientifically and demarcate the areas where such disasters can happen.

These areas have to be marked as red areas and authorities should not allow anyone to occupy such red areas.

Along with this, protection of our forests and rejuvenation of them also are a must.

Is it over-population or our general attitude to break laws and rules, and also corruption, that is causing more damage at times like these?

Yes, we have more people compared to many other countries. But when you are providing place for people, it should only be after demarcating the sensitive areas. Such areas should not be given for development.

But corruption is the root cause and politics is the fuel which is adding to that.

Those in power do not let anyone touch their people even if they are sitting on the danger zone.

Action has to be well beyond politics and authorities should be empowered to take decisions.

Unfortunately, what happens is all those young IAS officers who have the courage to act are shunted out by the political system.

Breaking the law is the rule here. This should change. People have to learn to obey the law.

Shobha Warrier / Rediff.com
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