When people at Karinchola in Kerala’s northern district of Kozhikode objected to the construction of an illegal check dam on the top of a hill in the village, they had never imagined that it will lead to a disaster.
The unimaginable happened on 14 June, when a slope of the hill slipped and swept away nearly five acres of land, including five houses, in the small village, 40 kilometres away from the district headquarters. The landslip that erupted around 5:30 am claimed eight lives and left another six missing.
Experts are not sure whether the landslip was triggered by the check dam or not but they are unanimous in their opinion that it has certainly intensified the impact of the disaster. Noted environmentalist C Jayakumar said that the water that gushed from the check dam, which reportedly has a capacity to hold four lakh litres of water, may have carried heavy stones and mud far downstream wreaking more havoc.
He told Firstpost that the closure of a culvert by a private individual for construction of a house in the area may also have contributed to the intensity of the disaster. The green activist has, therefore, called the landslip that has thrown the lives of 50 families haywire at Karinchola as a man-made disaster.
"We cannot blame a few individuals for the disaster. The people who have built concrete structures without considering the capacity of the land to withstand them and the officials and politicians who have permitted them are responsible for the loss of human lives and property," he said.
The environmentalist said that the village had seen a spurt in construction activities in the recent past with many building new houses and some upgrading their old houses. They are now paying the price for ignoring fragile nature of the land, he said.
Jayakumar told Firstpost that the Madhav Gadgil and Kasthuri Rangan commissions had identified Karinchola as an ecologically sensitive area and recommended restrictions on constructions activities in the village. The people opposed the reports tooth and nail with the backing of political parties and religious groups.
The Catholic Church was in the forefront of the agitation against the implementation of the report of the Kasthuri Rangan Commission, which identified 123 villages across the state as ecologically sensitive. Thamraserry Bishop Remigius Inchaniyil, who led the protests, went to the extent of warning of even "bloodshed" and "another Jalianwala Bagh" if the Centre were to implement the Kasthuri Rangan Commission report.
Bowing to the pressure, the government sought exclusion of inhabited areas from the list of ecologically fragile areas. Though the central government has rejected the proposal, the state government is in no mood to implement the report.
Jayachandran said that the fate of several villages in Kerala will be the same if the state government does not learn a lesson from the current disaster. He said that drastic changes in the land use pattern following the surge in tourism and the opulent lifestyle supported by remittances from abroad in the last three decades were the main culprit for the ecological disasters that the state is facing now.
According to KG Thara, former head of the state Disaster Management Authority (DMA), unscientific construction is the major reason for the increasing landslides in the state. She said construction of resorts and high rises has been increasing the landslide-prone areas in the state.
“Karinchola had not figured in the disaster management plan and map prepared by the DMA even two years ago. Landslide ravaged the village because of unscientific human intervention in nature in the last two years. The political class and the bureaucrats who permitted this intervention are accountable for the disaster," the geologist said.
She said that politicians have been opposing suggestions to regulate environmentally harmful activities citing the development needs. Development is required but it should not be at the cost of the environment.
"Bulk of land in the state is being used for construction activities. There is a tendency among the affluent people in the state to build multiple houses. If the government can fix a cap on houses on the lines of the ceiling on land holding, the problem can be solved to a great extent," Thara said.
Atmospheric scientists view climatic variations as a major fallout of the unscientific human intervention in nature. The climatic variations have been affecting Kerala both ways -- flood during monsoon and drought during summer. Large swathes of the state came under unrelenting drought last year, forcing the government to resort to water rationing.
Abhilash S, assistant professor of Atmospheric Studies at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), said that the two extremes are the result of climatic variations induced by global warming as well as local factors. He said that the global warming has been leading to floods during rainy season as it has reduced the capacity of the atmosphere to hold water.
The local factors responsible for the current climatic variations, according to Abhilash are indiscriminate forest encroachment, tree felling, mindless quarrying, sand smuggling and poor water conservation. He considers the change in the rain pattern as a matter of serious concern in a state like Kerala with high population density.
"Kerala was used to mostly two types of rains-short duration high-intensity rain and long duration low-intensity rains. What we are observing now is long duration high-intensity rains. This marks an abnormal change in the nature of rains in the state," said Abhilash.
He told Firstpost that the northern region of the state, where the rain has wreaked huge havoc, had recorded 200 percent rise in rainfall in the last seven days. The normal rainfall during this period is 20 cm, but the region has witnessed 60 cm rainfall. If the rain continues at this rate it will have its impact in the rest of the state too, he said.
The heavy rain is likely to continue till 18 June, according to the predictions of the Indian Meteorological Department. Abhilash said heavy rains in the northern region could lead to floods in low lying areas in the downstream districts like Idukki, Thrissur and Ernakulam since the watersheds that used to absorb the excess water have been destroyed in most of these areas.
"If Ernakulam district witness long duration high-intensity rain as in the northern region it could even submerge the city of Kochi in water majority of the watersheds in the district has been replaced with concrete structures. The district has already recorded 100 percent increase in rainfall during the current season," he said.
The city is also facing the prospect of getting sunk as a result of the global warming. The Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) has predicted that the rising sea levels caused by global warming could submerge large swathes of coastal land in the city within 100 years.
"Factors behind global warming are outside our control. But we can certainly check the local factors that aggravate the impact of the global warming. Kerala is sitting on a water bomb now. If urgent measures are not taken to check the environmental deterioration the bomb will explode and affect all of us," said Abhilash.
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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 19:02:28 IST