In a span of two weeks, 324 people lost their lives and the number of casualties is expected to rise. More than 700,000 people have also been displaced from their homes and are now living in camps. Kerala has received 2091 mm of rain as of August 15. and although rainfall has subsided, weather forecasts say heavy rain will continue for another few weeks.
With the water subsiding, the damage that the floods have caused show a state in utter turmoil. The floods leave behind innumerable debris with houses, roads, and agricultural land severely damaged. A pertinent question that arises is, “Could something have been done to contain the floods or lessen the damage?”
Kerala has 58 dams and reservoirs which are usually only filled up to 50 per cent capacity around this time of the year. However, this year, the dams were almost filled to 100 per cent capacity. Why didn’t alarm bells go off at the increase in the water levels? Environmental experts say that if the water from the dams had been gradually released at regular intervals, the floods could have been contained and minimum damage caused.
Kerala lies in the Western Ghats which is ecologically sensitive. In 2011, the Madghav Gadgil Committee led by the renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil had made certain recommendations. The report suggested that the Kerala government ban mining and quarrying and restrict non forest activities in areas they deemed sensitive. This report was rejected by the Kerala government. Last week, Gadgil stated that quarrying was a major reason for the mudslides. Other environmentalists also agree and have added the illegal acquisition of land by private parties as another reason. This encroachment has brought about high rise buildings which have mushroomed in many parts of Kerala.
The government has grossly underestimated how vulnerable the state is to natural calamities. It is difficult to assess the amount of damage the floods have caused. An initial report by Livemint stated an official as estimating costs to rebuild at INR 50,000 crores but latest reports from India Today suggest that costs to rebuild are estimated between INR 150,000 to INR 200,000 crores.
Livemint recently reported an analysis by India Meteorological Department researchers. The report raised concerns over climate change and its impact which signalled extreme weather events in India where intensities of flood have increased. According to Dr Roxy Matthew Koll from Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, “Our vulnerability to extreme rainfall is increasing as more people are living in low-lying areas and land development is changing drainage patterns. When there is more rain than the soil can absorb, water will quickly run-off overwhelming streams, drains and rivers, and causing flash floods.”
Recently, US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noted the extreme rainfall in India and also raised concerns over 800 people dying last year.
The Kerala State Disaster Management Policy classifies floods as a Category 1 disaster which is one of the most critical. The Army and Navy have been quick to respond to the crisis and rescue operations are still ongoing. On an official document on the Kerala government website, it shows emphasis on pre-disaster policies which include prevention, mitigation and preparedness but as recent events show, these were not put in place. Health officials are now concerned over what will happen in the next few weeks as rainfall subsides. There are concerns over outbreak of water and air borne communicable diseases. Unhygienic conditions and contaminated drinking water pose the biggest contributing factors.
Early warning signs are of significant importance in Disaster Management and the Department of Disaster Management which was tasked with the job of alerting the state government failed to issue any warning. It is unclear whether the Indian Meteorological Department or any other nodal agency issued some warning. What is clear is, had there been a more proactive policy in place, the crisis could have been averted.
The last natural disaster in India to cause such grave damage was in 2013. Uttarakhand witnessed the worst flash floods which it is yet to recover from. Kerala will also take time to recover from the aftermath of these floods. With natural disasters now only intensifying due to activities such as quarrying and mining, state governments should be quick to listen to committees who are tasked with making policies for the protection of the state. Lessons need to be learnt sooner rather than later, cliched and redundant as it may sound right now.
Author: Jessica Passah
Jessica Passah is a Staff Writer. She has a B.A in English Literature from Hans Raj College, New Delhi, and an M.A in Public Administration from the Indira Gandhi National Open University.