INTERVIEW | Even after several flood disasters in Kerala, politicians’ mindset has not changed towards developmental projects, says geoscientist

C. P. Rajendran says State must think how to implement an advanced environmental protection system that will ultimately reduce the human cost.

“The mindset of politicians in their approach to development projects has not changed even after several flood disasters in the recent past in Kerala,” says C. P. Rajendran, geoscientist and Adjunct Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, in an e-mail interview to The Hindu as the State continues to reel under the effects of flood and rain havoc.

What are the lessons not learnt from the deluge in 2018, 2019 and the increasing incidents of landslides in Kerala triggered by extreme weather events?

The 2018-2019 flood was a warning that the State should have heeded and accept vagaries of climate as a new norm. Kerala must think how to implement an advanced environmental protection system that will ultimately reduce the human cost. But I doubt the State has made any meaningful advances in bringing about a change in that front despite the recommendations. Some of the recommendations include the production of flood zonation maps in Kerala that should be available on digital platforms. I don’t think such facilities are available. Combined with the weather forecasts, these maps should have been used to issue warnings to the local population. Even after several flood disasters in the recent past, the mindset of politicians has not changed in their approach to developmental projects. Take the case of the new railway project [semi-high-speed SilverLine rail], which will have a direct bearing on future flood disasters. This project will require the State to acquire 1,383 hectares and will cut through many of the State’s ecologically fragile coastal ecosystems, including wetlands, forest areas, backwater regions, densely populated areas and paddy fields. The line will also cut through a number of eco-sensitive heritage sites such as the Madayipara biodiversity park in Kannur, the Kadalundi bird sanctuary in Kozhikode, the Ponnani-Thrissur Kole wetlands and the historical Thirunavaya ponds, lakes and wetlands in Malappuram. As a result, the construction and operation of the railway will quite likely degrade, fragment and ultimately destroy these ecosystems. The construction activities will also hasten soil erosion, land degradation, flooding and habitat destruction, decimate water bodies, hamper the movement of the dependent biological entities and, indeed, the livelihoods of many of the local inhabitants.


On the unchecked land use pattern in the hilly districts

It is important that for the hilly districts of Idukki and Wayanad, both the local and State authorities should rely on scientific reports on the landslide vulnerabilities to reach decisions on land allocations for various constructions. While deciding on it, local soil properties and slope stability should be important factors to be considered rather than political expediency. It is important to bring in restrictions on machine-mediated quarrying activities. A blueprint that demarcates areas suitable for habituation and those to be left untouched should help strictly implement the basic tenets of land zonation. A comprehensive master plan on land utilisation strategy based on a clear environmental vision needs to be prepared at macro and micro-levels to ensure that encroachment is minimal. These documents should contain clear guidelines for constructions, including recommended designs of houses, that will match with local landscape and scenery.

The short-term and long-term solutions?

Climate change, population growth and related economic aspects should have compelled Kerala to move towards a more integrated, catchment-based approach to the management of land and water, if necessary, through environmental legislation. A key component of this integrated catchment-based approach is the recognition that only by strengthening the natural processes, the rivers would be able to find their pathways for flood waters. For that to happen, the immediate need is to develop flood zonation maps for various catchment areas. By now, the State should have developed macro- and micro-level flood vulnerability maps based on flood histories. These maps should have been used to issue both long-term and short-term warnings to the local population. For the long term, these maps available locally should be used for land zonation and thus help the residents to move out in exchange for land elsewhere. The same procedure should be followed also in the case of landslides. The incidents of landslides in the State have increased exponentially over the last several years. We need to follow the land zonation map in identifying the areas vulnerable to landslides and discourage building houses in such places.

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Sagar Biswas

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