Kerala floods aftermath: Kuttanad may never be the same again

Its people need to adapt to the climate change which means floods are likely to be a regular event

Published - September 03, 2018 10:11 pm IST - KAINAKARY PANCHAYAT (ALAPPUZHA DISTRICT)

Unlike his neighbours, Sunil Kumar has not lost any valuables to the continuing inundation of Kuttanad, which began in mid-July. His is one of four houses of Kandukrishichira locality which is built on stilts; all constructed within the last two years. Mr. Kumar said the floodwaters had threatened, but not actually entered, his house.

Yet, Mr. Kumar regrets the way he planned the construction. “I should have built the pillars higher, to seven feet or above from the ground. In the coming days, even this six feet height is not going to be enough,” he said.

It was a frank admission that Kuttanad will never be the same again and that its people need to adapt to the climate change that is here to stay.

Neighbour P.P. Manoj, whose house has been declared unsafe to stay by the government, said that he will consider building his next house on stilts once he demolishes the unsafe building.

A series of bunds protect the below-sea level farmlands of Kuttanad, declared a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, from the water around it.

The rains of mid-July had breached some bunds, thereby flooding the padasekharams (literally, collection of paddy farmlands) that they protected from the canal and destroying the recently-sown paddy. The August rains finished off what its July counterpart began: all the padasekharams of Kuttanad are now flooded; bunds that were not breached were submerged; and water continues to inundate houses built on the edges of these fields, sized anywhere between 200-2500 acres.

Pumps within the paddy fields that were supposed to evacuate this water have failed after being inundated. The breached bunds need to be repaired before pumping can happen — by padasekhara samithis strapped for cash due to the failure of the ‘second crop’ this year. All this will delay the ‘punja’ cultivation, due to begin in late October.

Kuttanad, often cited as a model farming system for climate change adaption scenarios, is also critical to Kerala. “One-third of all the water received through all the rivers of Kerala flows into Kuttanad. It means that Kuttanad’s water level decides the water table for midland Kerala,” said K.G. Padmakumar, Director of the Kuttanad-based Government of India-established International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming.

There are reports of the South American native red-bellied pacu being caught widely from Kuttanad’s canals post-flood. This newspaper had reported in July that the fish, widely grown in private ponds, had not yet been cleared for farming by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Padmakumar said the floods will affect biodiversity. “For example, the nutrified water that has come down from the hills will soon turn green due to a noxious algal bloom. This turbidity is harmful for the green chromide fish, which needs crystal clear water,” he said. Green chromide or pearl spot was declared Fish of the State in 2010.

Mr. Padmakumar also said that the silt settling on the Vembanad’s clam bed as a result of this year’s floods is likely to suffocate the clams.

Things have been changing for a while now. Multiple farmers this reporter interacted with said that they have felt that land has been ‘sinking’ in Kuttanad. Ajaya Ghosh of Chenengari pointed to the unevenness of the water level outside his house. He estimated that there was a difference of over a feet in the water level between two extremes of the building and feared the house would sink further when water receded into the adjacent Paruthivalavu padasekharam.

Mr. Padmakumar agreed, saying this was largely due to the ending of a practice where clay from the Vembanad lake was scooped up to layer the farmlands. Kuttanad, a sedimentary formation, has therefore kept sinking.

Among other things, the Kuttanad Package for the holistic development of the area — designed by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) — envisaged the setting up of sluice gates to allow water to enter and exit padasekharams, thereby allowing the deposit of silt. However, the bunds that were constructed as a result had no such mechanism: the water pumps kept the silt in the lake. This was pointed out in a study by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS), which said that the carrying capacity of the Vembanad lake had reduced.

N. Anil Kumar, the Executive Director (In Charge) at MSSRF said the package was poorly implemented without the hydrological and ecological concerns taken into account.

The physics of it all works against Kuttanad: a sinking below-sea level land surrounded by rising waters of the Vembanad. Hence, the newly-built bunds were higher. There are suspicions that they act like levees, merely transferring the flood elsewhere. “We keep raising the bunds now. The bunds built in the 1970s were submersible; water was allowed to come over them,” said Mr. Padmakumar.

There is a warning in it for Kuttanad: Mr. Padmakumar points out that the region is only 700 years old, having formed due to a geological event. The NCESS study cited above had warned that climate change will exacerbate the damage to the ecosystem caused by land use changes, finishing off the wetland system around Vembanad in 50 years.

There will be a lot of adaptation to do. Mr. Kumar of MSSRF predicts that Kuttanad will move from its two crop system to a ‘one rice, one fish’ model. “This will help farmers avoid the intense rainy days as a result of the changing monsoon. This will take time, and the MSSRF will run pilot projects to demonstrate. We will integrate fish into this system, moving into an eco-aquaculture model,” he said.

“A place like Kainakary is a climate hotspot. No habitations should be allowed there,” he suggested.

Mr. Padmakumar said the laws of the land should differentiate between sand and silt, in order to encourage the practice of lifting the latter out of the Vembanad lake for enriching the farmlands. He also suggests using the 13,000 hectares of unused barren land to store drinking water, taking off from a similar project he ran in Kumarakom, which supplied water to 500 households.

Mr. Padmakumar, also the vice-chairman of the district panchayat plan samithi, said that the people of Kuttanad were receptive to climate change mitigation and adaptation techniques. "We have now had a budget for bailing straw rather than burning it. The district panchayat president cleared the proposal without hesitation," he said.

Mr. Kumar of MSSRF said that climate change was a complex process where one change will feed into another, making the results unpredictable. "However, we should see requirements of Kuttanad through the prism of climate change," he said.

Mr. Padmakumar said: “The whole world is looking at Kuttanad. How it survives will be an example for the whole world.”

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