A few days of unending rain in August turned Kerala into a theatre of destruction. The state is limping back
to normalcy after the deluge that caused nearly 500 deaths, inundated thousands of homes, displaced 15 lakh people, and damaged roads. The Kerala deluge is a man-made calamity predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2007 report.
As predicted by the IPCC, the number of rainy days were less and the volume of precipitation far greater than the normal average. Uninterrupted rain lashed most of the 38,852sqkm state from August 9 to 15. The downpour was over 257 per cent of the normal rain during this period. And this unending rain was falling on a soil that was already soaked by rain that started on June 1. This was was already in excess of the normal by 41 per cent. The carrying capacities of waterbodies to hold the run-off water were also exhausted. The irrigation and hydel dams on the Western Ghats on the eastern part the state were already getting to their peak storage capacity.
The rain on August 15 was an unbearable—130mm against 10mm average of the previous years' on the same day. What followed was a tragedy of unprecedented scale—flood across the state and landslides in the mountain areas. There was unprecedented death and destruction.
Kerala has the memory of a calamitous flood of 1924, but the present one surpasses that in the scale of the havoc. Enjoying moderate climate, Kerala was unprepared to face the challenge of the deluge.
Was it due to the loss of forests? Kerala has a forest and tree cover of 23,280sqkm, 60 per cent of the terrestrial area of the state, in comparison with the 21.54 per cent forest coverage of India, as mentioned in the latest report on forests in the country by the Forest Survey of India in 2017.
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It also reports a net gain in forest cover by 1,043sqkm in Kerala during the reporting period, though this is attributed to the increase in commercial plantations. As for the waterbodies in the forest districts, the state expanded its spread by 71sqkm during the decade 2005-15, the report records. Obviously, the local environmental factors hardly had any influence in the making of the tragedy. There are cases of stone-mining in some parts of the state, but the deluge cannot be attributed to that as some tend to argue. The sheer volume of the precipitation inundated the entire landscape and wrought landslides. Global warming operates as an invisible process and one can miss it and get engaged with local factors digressing from the central issue.
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The damage caused by the deluge was astronomical. Tentative estimates put the figure at $3 billion. The flood mortality was kept to the minimum by the dedication and unity of the people in rescue and relief operations. The fishermen took their boats on elevated trucks to the inundated areas and rescued around a lakh people marooned. The defence forces too played a commendable role although the scale of deployment of their assets was disproportionate to the scale of the disaster. The public showed remarkable solidarity and sense of sharing in helping the affected in the relief camps spread across schools, public halls, churches, mosques and temples.
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The greatest ever tragedy in the state also witnessed a great display of human solidarity.
IPCC had predicted the change of floods from 100-year cycles to four-five years. With the atmosphere having over 400 parts per million warming gases, the highest ever in the past three million years, this prediction is set to become a reality. And the Kerala deluge is further proof of drastic weather changes. Half of the 48 million people exposed to river flooding is in Asia and this is set to increase with the growing incidents of floods.
The losses from floods across the world are set to escalate from the current staggering figure of Euro 110 billion per year. And the victims have barely any role in the making of this tragedy. According to a World Bank study of 2013, the US per capita emission was 16.4 tonnes while India’s contribution was only 1.6 metric tonnes.
All developing countries have similar or even lower rate of carbon emission than India. And this excludes the disproportionately huge levels of carbon emission by the US in the past, and same is the case with other industrial economies as well. Yet, the Paris Agreement is inherently weak in reversing the climate change and the US is seeking to sabotage even that.
The calamity is a debilitating blow to Kerala’s economic order that spends heavily on education, has a renowned primary health care system and an egalitarian social prole.
Yet the relief assistance from the central government has been meagre in comparison to the scale of damage. Rs 600 crore is offered when the devastation is to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore.
The UAE government was contemplating an unconditional grant of $ 1 million, but that was rejected by the Centre even when India is a leading recipient of foreign assistance from multiple countries and multilateral banks. India is encumbered with a staggering debt, but foreign assistance for the helplessly sinking state was denied, even as the federal government itself is declining to contribute to the state.
The global community has the responsibility to not let Kerala sink as it too is reeling under the onslaught of global warming. And, this should be based on the principles of 'polluter pays' and common but differential responsibility enshrined in international law.
With the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change projecting the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as the lethal 55 gigatonnes in the year 2030, it has to be seen how the world responds to the onslaught of global warming.
It is also time Kerala sat up and reviewed its own policies and practices that harm the integrity of the mountains and the ecosystems since more such extreme climatic events are likely in the future.
It is sad but true that Kerala’s science and technology establishment miserably failed in predicting the deluge. It is high time that the government seriously reformed the science and technology sector.
(Dr Faizi is an ecologist specialising in international environmental policy, a member of the Biodiversity. Convention’s Expert Group on Poverty and Biodiversity and president of the Ethological Society of India)