The first week of August, yet again, saw Kerala battling natural disasters on an almost State-wide scale. Between July 31 and August 7, 22 people lost their lives in heavy rainfall incidents across the small southern State, while more than 14,000 people, including 2,407 children, were forced to relocate temporarily to 337 relief camps (as on Sunday) opened by the government. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams had to be deployed in 10 districts while the armed forces were on standby.
Ever since Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, when Kerala was rudely awakened to the reality of natural disasters and the ever-looming spectre of climate change and its grim consequences, such arrangements appear to have become an annual affair for the State, often dubbed ‘God’s Own Country’ in glitzy tourism advertisements.
The devastating, back-to-back floods of 2018 and 2019 impressed upon the small State that natural disasters are not aberrations that occur, perhaps, once or twice in a century.
In October 2021, the State was again hit by torrential rainfall which triggered flooding and landslips in some districts.
Extreme weather events have heavily impacted the State’s social, economic and development landscape over the past four years, forcing the government to weave in disaster management and risk mitigation as critical components of the planning process.
The Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) carried out by the UN agencies in the aftermath of the 2018 floods found that Kerala would require ₹31,000 crore ($4.4 billion) for “recovery and reconstruction”.
The variations in geography and the pan-Kerala vulnerability to disaster risk – no geographical region has been spared, be it the high ranges of the east or the long coastline – has made the job of the State Government an unenviable one, at best.
The State Planning Board, in the Economic Review for 2021, observed that “climate change poses serious threat to Kerala’s environment and has become an agenda for development planning in recent years”.
Again, in the approach paper to the 14th five-year plan for Kerala published recently, the State Planning Board stated that Kerala will pay greater attention to preventive action for disaster risk mitigation, especially to engineering solutions “that integrate local environmental and ecosystem peculiarities with the demands for social welfare”. The back-to-back disasters have prompted Kerala to question the traditional land-use patterns, especially in the ecologically important high ranges of the State.
The heavily populated, 590-km coastal belt of Kerala has been especially exposed to the vagaries of climate change in the past few years. Large stretches of the coast are fighting losing battles against coastal erosion on almost a day-to-day basis.
Seashore Erosion in Kerala: Review and Recommendations, an independent review by a group of scientists in 2021 advised Kerala to urgently switch to nature-based and scientifically sound, multi-pronged solutions to protect its coastline from erosion and adopt urgent measures to protect the fishing communities.
The increasing frequency of cyclones and related weather systems in the Arabian Sea have critically affected the livelihood of fishers, many of whom have already lost their homes to erosion.
The recurring natural calamities, especially the intense rainfall spells that are becoming increasingly common, have, predictably, swung the spotlight on weather forecasting and its inadequacies in Kerala. After the 2018 floods, the State government had shot off a letter to the Union government demanding that the India Meteorological Department (IMD) urgently ramp up its weather forecasting infrastructure, calling its services in the State “inadequate”.