Explained: Why Are Monsoons Flooding Homes in Kerala?

In a capsule, rivers and rains alone cannot be blamed for Kerala's flooding. The river is making its way into the homes of people, because, over the years, the city has encroached river bodies.

The state government was bound by its duty to protect Kerala’s blanket – the Western Ghats – and to further disallow proposals for quarrying, construction work and deforestation.

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However, prioritising 'people’s interest' over ecological sustainability, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said in 2014, “No one is against protecting the Western Ghats, but the government took the stand that people’s interests should also be considered when the Ghats are protected.”

As of 18 August, Vijayan said that Kerala has lost over 357 lives and counting, has suffered a loss of Rs 19,512 crore and property worth over Rs 8,000 crore. But how did the situation become so severe?

The Quint spoke to environmentalists who said that this deluge, partially a man-made disaster and partially an unprecedented amount of rainfall, could have been averted.

The Ghost of Madhav Gadgil Committee Report Haunts Kerala

Termed anti-development and against people's interests, the Madhav Gadgil committee report made recommendations to preserve India’s Western Ghats in August 2011. The Ghats is one amongst the world's eight biodiversity hotspots. The Gadgil committee report, which divided areas of Western Ghats intro three ecologically sensitive zones, recommended 57 restrictions to preserve it, which include:

  1. Ban on construction of buildings
  2. Use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides
  3. Disruption of hydroelectric projects
  4. Ban on construction of roads.
  5. No new dams based on large scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1.

The committee noted that, by and large, the Western Ghats have been subjected to a rapid erosion of natural capital with the building up of man-made capital, regrettably imposing excessive, unnecessary environmental damage in the process, accompanied by a degradation of social capital.

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Amongst other things, the committee recommended that Athirappilly hydel project, which is located in Thrissur district, not be accorded environmental clearance.

The report, submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) in 2011, was not considered by the Centre. Three years later, the Central government told the NGT that they will not follow the recommendations of the Gadgil Committee, but agreed to follow the Kasturirangan report which covered only 37 per cent of the total Western Ghats and which placed lesser restrictions on the government while allowing space for developmental works.

Talking about the Kerala floods, Madhav Gadgil told reporters that irresponsible environmental policy is to be blamed for the recent floods and landslides in Kerala. He also called it a "man-made calamity" – as quoted by an India Today report.

Kerala Floods Explained by Experts

The Kerala floods did not occur overnight or over a week.

An elderly woman is rescued in a cooking utensil after her home was flooded in Thrissur, Kerala. 
Pampa Manalpuram on the foothills of Sabarimala gets flooded following heavy monsoon rainfall, Pathanamthitta.
A car engulfed in water following heavy rain and landslide in Kozhikode.
An aerial view of Aluva town following a flash flood after heavy rains, in Kochi.
*All units in mm

VR Raman, policy head at WaterAid India, told The Quint that since Kerala is an ecologically vulnerable area, a lot has to be learnt from the Gadgil Committee report.

However, he said that such issues needs to be flagged and discussed separately, not during a time when the state is facing a massive disaster situation.

While the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is the most reliable source of information as of now, Raman felt that the systems and tools of the IMD yet need to be improved in order to adequately inform the planning, decision making and actions for tackling Kerala like situations.

“The state does not lack a comprehensive understanding of a fierce monsoon trend. When I was there in July, I could foresee the indicators of a troubling monsoon. In fact, if rains continue for more than 12-15 hours in certain districts, there is flooding in the streets,” Raman said.

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Despite understanding the gravity of the monsoons, Raman criticised the IMD for their inability to foresee the disaster – "The current tools of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) couldn't foresee this situation," he said.

Idukki Town in 2011 and in 2016
Idukki in 2011 and 2018
Kochi city in 2018
Periyar creek in 2003 and 2018

John Samuel, former Director of UN and President of the Institute for Sustainable Development and Governance in Trivandrum, Kerala, told The Quint that the floods are a collateral damage to the state which is striving for economical gains. He added that the deluge is driven by three major reasons –

"Firstly, Kerala has borne the brunt of severe damage inflicted to its wetlands due to pressure put on Western Ghats. Secondly, the state resorted to urbanisation in areas like Idukki, Trivandrum, Alappuzha, Thrissur, Ernakulam and Wayanad which was done without proper drainage system; the latter would have allowed the rain water to leave the state. Thirdly, the problem was compounded by underestimating the rains."

Citing an example of ill-thought out urbanisation, Samuel spoke about the Kochi Airport –

"This is the outcome of building an airport on a canal which connected the land and a water body. Kochi airport is now obstructing the outlet of water and ultimately, during floods, broke the wall and inundated the airport."

According to Jaikumar C, an environmentalist and activist at Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO Thanal, it is the staggering encroachment of paddy fields in Kerala which has impacted the state ecologically.

Also Read: Reporter’s Diary: When I Saw My Flooded Ancestral Home in Kerala

“30 years back, Kerala had 8 lakh hectares of paddy field land. At present, we have roughly 1.5 lakh of paddy field land left with us. Moreover, 8,000 quarries are digging up the hills in Western Ghats,” Jaikumar told The Quint.

Jaikumar explains that paddy fields, which had the threshold to absorb water, has been converted into urban infrastructure. Simultaneously, no outlet has been provided that is adequate for water to leave Kerala.

Devasahayam, former IAS officer living in Kerala, said:

"A river which was flowing in one direction is now flowing in three directions in a city and sweeping the district along with it."

He said that the disaster unfolding in Kerala should serve as a reminder to the state government on why it should actively protect the Western Ghats.

While Kerala has not seen such monsoons in 94 years, the government and the people ought to do whatever they can to ensure such a calamity doesn't sweep into their homes again.

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