Hills coming crashing down, destroying everything in their path, roads broken, valleys inundated, people being rescued by air and boat — these haunting images have become reality yet again in Kerala, as the state barely survived another onslaught of heavy rain and landslides. The unprecedented floods in Kerala and Karnataka for two consecutive years have taken up much of the country's airtime and print space. That they are not isolated incidents is clear enough, and even while climate change plays a role, the contributions made by humans is evident too. And that is why, environment journalist Viju B's Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats, is a timely and important read.
Many of the so-called tourist spots I visited as a child, like the Malampuzha dam, the sacred Bharatapuzha, and the Chalakudy forests, are now cast in a different light. The book shows that Kerala is paying the price for changing land-use patterns drastically, adding to the ecological fragility, while the sage advice in Dr Madhav Gadgil’s Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report submitted in 2011 has gone unheeded.
Viju, a seasoned journalist, has dug out facts to expose the reasons for the large number of landslides and the consequent ecological destruction. He has travelled to areas affected, met people, and retold stories that reflect their deep sense of betrayal and loss. For instance, one of the reports he quotes from came out 17 months before the floods in 2018, yet little action was taken. The Kerala Forest Research Institute’s 'A Critical Mapping of Granite Quarries in Kerala' found 5,924 of them in the state — an average of 116 for each panchayat. Most of them were close to drainage networks, and some were near the epicentre of recorded earthquakes in the past. 50 per cent of the quarry areas were in the proposed eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) 1 and 2, as demarcated in Dr Gadgil’s report. The significance of this data becomes evident when you realise that quarries destroy much of the ecosystem around them, and in hilly areas, they destabilise fragile environments. It also points to why the floods caused so many landslides. The book weaves together data like this, while highlighting ground realities that make it an important and engaging read.
It goes beyond news reports and images of the floods and the destruction, to pinpoint how nature has been wilfully wrecked by humans, at a huge social and environmental cost in complete disregard of the law and Dr Gadgil’s report, which ironically continues to be opposed by residents who have survived the devastating flood of 2018.
The story of gross environmental neglect is all-pervading, with the sensitive Western Ghats sustaining severe damage after being wantonly exploited. Most of the rivers, for instance, the legendary Bharatapuzha have been reduced to a stream, the sacred Pampa is a gutter. A combination of dams, untreated sewage and sand mining has affected all of the 44 rivers which originate in the Western Ghats. The damage seems almost irreversible as the book indicates. Even after last year’s floods, no lessons have been learnt, according to the author.
Flood and Fury is a strong indictment of how short-sighted governments, businesses, and ordinary humans, have joined forces to undermine the ecological importance of the Western Ghats. The book gives us enough background and context to understand why this is happening in each of the places critically affected. It is not only about Kerala, even though it takes up much of the book. The title also briefly discusses areas in Coorg — home to coffee plantations and a paradise for tourists — which has paid a hefty price for its haphazard development. Villages in Goa and Maharashtra's Sindhudurg have borne the brunt of illegal mining as well.
The author points out that of the 452 people who died in the floods last year in Kerala, about a third of those deaths were caused due to landslides, of which there is no record before the 1960s. Even the great floods of 1924 did not witness landslides, according to a member of Kerala’s Disaster Management Authority. Today, all but one of the 14 districts in Kerala are prone to landslides. Most of them took place in the ESZ 1 zone marked out in Dr Gadgil’s report, and where a ban on quarrying was recommended in a phased manner by 2016. Construction on slopes that had an elevation of 30 degrees was allowed here, and the consequences are there for all to see.
Dr Gadgil refers to such petty business interests as being responsible for the destruction in a way. Additionally, the government that previously opposed the WGEEP report is now stopping construction in the ESZ 1 areas — a move that is too little and too late according to Flood and Fury.
Viju expounds on how Kerala does not even acknowledge climate change, and pays scant attention to reasons behind the damaging effects of drastic rainfall reduction, drought of 2016, and cyclone Ockhi. Kerala is in the throes of huge variations in rainfall, — from dense cloudbursts to severe drought — and seems to be in no way prepared for it.
According to the book, it does not even have localised flood forecasting systems to predict floods at the river basins and in the reservoirs, which could have deflected much of the destruction last year. The book reiterates the importance of preserving the entire 1.4 lakh square kilometre area of the Western Ghats, divided into three eco-sensitive categories that was underscored in Dr Gadgil’s report.
After vociferous objections that it would derail development, the centre chose to override it with another watered down assessment by Dr Kasturi Rangan.
The book demonstrates how activities like mining, quarrying, cutting into hillsides, mono-cropping, land-use changes including rampant construction on reclaimed paddy fields, have all come together to create huge stress on the environment. While everyone is affected, it is the poor living off the land who have paid the heaviest price, and have lost the ability to get their lives back on track, as Viju suggests in his book.
It also underscores an important fact — that areas which have been protected have survived ecological demise, for instance the Silent Valley and Athirappally hydel projects and the Aranmulla international airport, which were all stopped after strong opposition from people’s movements. The author travels to Idukki, Panthanamthitta, Kuttanad, Chalakudi, Palakkad, Wayanad to give a cultural and social insight into the significance of nature and how doubly excruciating its loss is to the local people. There are communities which survive barely on the edge of starvation as they have been deprived of access to forests and buck the trend of prosperity and good health indicators in Kerala. In contrast Viju finds on a visit to Asniye, surrounded by forests and streams, in Sindhudurg district, Maharashtra, that people worship the tiger and even allow it to take away their cattle every year as an offering – as a tiger is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. The village fought against proposed mining in their area and preserved their environment while much of the district was adversely affected.
The author travels to Coorg, where the impact of the flood and landslides have been under-reported. “A green paradise had turned into a desert” in a matter of minutes, as one of the residents says. Half of Coorg’s population of nearly six lakh people, and its main city Madikeri, were badly affected. The places that suffered the most were the areas that were deforested, in order to cater to the demands of a growing tourism industry.
The coffee plantations of Coorg were badly damaged, for which the Karnataka government asked the Geological Survey of India to investigate the reasons behind the landslides — a step that should've been taken by Kerala too, according to the author.
The reasons behind these catastrophes seem obvious: human interference and modification of slopes by constructing on them, cutting them for roads, coffee plantations and houses. The slopes are prone to landslides during heavy rain, and the construction often blocks the flow of rainwater, thereby adding to the damage. But the plans to develop Madikeri threefold by 2030 are underway, apart from other construction activity. Changing land-use patterns have caused so much damage, whereas the hills that have not been modified or constructed on have survived despite steeper slopes, according to the book.
The craze for development at the cost of nature, and a business as usual approach have both been denigrated in this book. Wherever nature is protected and even revered, she has let live. The book is a cautionary tale, alerting us to the fallouts of our own decisions that have endangered both humans and the environment. Flood and Fury's message is a vital one that humanity needs to square upto in times of climate change.
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 13:50:26 IST