They are still doing the maths in Kerala, and will for some time: the number of dead and displaced, houses and public property destroyed, quantum of funds/ aid needed for the restoration and rehabilitation. Once that is over the blame game will, as usual, begin in right earnest. Lost in the din of ” experts”, panelists and politicians will be the the admission that Nature is being blamed unfairly for the destruction and havoc. Yes, the rains in August were about 46% above the average, but Kerala’s rivers could have handled most of it if the landscape had not been subjected to gang rape by politicians, administrators, mining barons and the builder mafia. There would have been some damage, certainly, but this kind of apocalypse could have been avoided.
If only the Centre and the state govt. had paid heed to the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil report of 2011. After a painstaking, two year ground survey of the Western Ghats Gadgil had identified the main activities which were destroying the natural balance of the Ghats: mining, quarrying, illegal construction, deforestation and encroachment of the flood plains of the rivers. He noted that 25% of the 1,64,248 sq. kms of the WG had already been lost and recommended that 64% or 120,000 sq. kms be declared an eco-sensitive zone where none of the above activities, plus hydel projects, should be permitted. All six states trashed the report and the centre appointed another committee- the Kasturirangan Committee – to give a fresh report. The gentleman was a strange choice to begin with and it gave the game away- a distinguished space scientist he probably knew even less about environmental matters than Mr. Javadekar and Mahesh Sharma, the previous and current union Ministers for Environment. It was clear that what was expected from him was a “political” report and not a scientific one, and he obliged. He reduced the ESZ to 37% or 60000 sq. kms, half of Mr. Gadgil’s recommendation. This was further reduced by executive fiat to 45000 sq. kms. by Mr. Javadekar and he also allowed mining, construction and hydel projects to continue. And here’s the shocking clincher- even this eviscerated decision has not yet been implemented ! Is it any wonder then that Kerala’s lovely rivers ( all of which originate from the WG and flow westwards to the Arabian Sea) have been choked with debris and landslides from denuded mountain slopes, its floodplains strangled with all kinds of unregulated construction development, its dams silted ? The correct nomenclature for the current floods is neither Man- made Disaster nor Natural Disaster but Politician- Made Disaster, with Virappa Moily and Javadekar being the presiding deities.
There is a second cause for this calamity which has not yet been emphasised but will in the coming days: indiscriminate construction of dams and their incompetent operation. Kerala, I learn from reports, has 80 dams of which 39 are major ones. Of the latter, 36 opened their flood gates almost simultaneously precisely at the exact moment when the rainfall was at its most intense, releasing tens of lakhs of cusecs into rivers already drowning in their own waters. The contribution of these dams to the flooding of the state should not be underplayed or passed off as a routine operational hazard- by some estimates they may have been responsible for 40% to 60% of the floods. These dams were meant to prevent floods but have done just the opposite. The last great flood in Kerala was in 1924 when there were no dams at all, but the damage was much less than now. This one fact itself speaks for itself.
Why does a small state, with abundant water availability, need 80 dams ? Second, why did the govt. or those operating these dams not heed the warning of the IMD that very heavy rains were expected in the second week of August ? The last intense spell of rains had subsided by the end of July and the dam reservoirs were already full to capacity. The New Indian Express has reported on 23.8.2018 that Tamil Nadu had warned the Kerala govt. both in May and June that the reservoirs were filling up and a phased release of water should be initiated immediately. This, along with the IMD forecast should have prompted the dams to gradually release some of the stored water during the ten day window of relatively fair weather in the beginning of August, if not earlier. Not doing so was a criminal error of judgment, and the panic driven opening of the floodgates later was an inevitability.
Water is an inventory for dams, whether it is used for irrigation or for power generation, or both, as is usually the case. Dam authorities therefore do not want to waste this inventory, for every cusec of water has a monetary value. But water stored in dams is also a potentially massively destructive force if released in an unplanned and uncalibrated way ( as it was in Kerala). Scientific management of dams therefore demands that there must be proper, real time meteorological and flood forecasting data which could help in deciding on water releases. Unfortunately, Kerala has access to neither: IMD data is patchy at best and , even worse, the Central Water Commission or National Flood Forecasting network has no stations in Kerala. I believe they have NOW decided to set them up.
The bare fact is that there was criminal mismanagement of Kerala’s dams. A CAG audit report quoted in the 20th August issue of Down to Earth magazine pointed out that none of the dams have either an Emergency Management Plan or even an O+M manual. Siltation had hugely compromised the storage capacity of the dams. Kerala is naturally flood prone: the Rashtriya Barh Ayog has estimated that 8.70 lakh ha. ( or almost 25%) of its total geographical area of 38 lakh ha. is susceptible to flooding. Experts believe that the flash floods in Wayanad, Chalikudy, Palakkad and Raani are mainly attributable to the opening of the flood gates.
Not that the mismanagement of dams is unique to Kerala alone. A 2016 CAG report reveals that of the 5254 dams in India Emergency Management Plans exist for only 7% of them; in 8 out of 17 flood prone states there are no integrated flood management plans for river basins either. Most dams are managed by State Electricity Boards, not flood control departments, and the former are naturally reluctant to release any water at all if it is not used for generation of power. There is a clear conflict of interest here, which has played out in Kerala with devastating consequences. The 72 hour weather forecast of IMD is not used to create simulation models for water releases; instead rule of thumb and gut instincts is the normal practice, which is incomprehensible when advanced scientific tools are available.
The whole country and its policy makers should learn lessons from this calamity. There is no point complaining about ” unprecedented” rainfall. Every shred of evidence about climate change indicates that EWEs ( Extreme Weather Events) shall now be the norm and we can throw the old logs out of the window. We need to prepare for these paradigm climate changes and not, like our Science and Technology Minister Mr. Harsh Vardhan, trash them because they are ” carried out by foreign, not Indian agencies.” We need to stop this corporate and mendacious assault on nature, if for nothing then for just the bloody economics of it. How much did Kerala earn out of all those real estate developments, mining, quarrying and power generation accruing from the serial rape of nature all these years? Whatever it was it wouldn’t be a fraction of what the state will now have to spend on reconstruction, rehabilitation and lost productivity for years to come. And this does not even factor in the deaths and human misery, even if our rulers treat them as collateral damage in the cause of “development.” Tampering with nature is increasingly becoming a zero sum game.