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Facts About Kerala Floods 2019: A Natural Calamity or A Man-made Disaster?

Product Manager with 6+ years of experience in building consumer facing technology products.
Aug 28, 2018 12:09 PM 5 min read

There has been a lot of discussion around the recent floods in Kerala. Even during the worst bits of it, fingers were being pointed trying to assign responsibility for the loss of life and property. I thought it might be useful to lay down some facts, trying to comprehend what exactly happened. In a nutshell:


The primary cause is intense rainfall in a short period of time. But the importance of sustainable development vis-à-vis the vulnerable ecology of Western Ghats has in turn been exposed.


How Bad Were the Rains?


Pretty bad. This was the highest rainfall received in Kerala since 1924. What made it worse was the intensity. In the week leading up to August 15, Kerala received 3 times the normal amount of rainfall. Even for a state used to bearing the brunt of the South West (SW) Monsoon, this was too much to handle.Facts on Kerala Floods: A Natural Calamity or A Man-made Disaster?

Was the Release of Water from the Dams a Cause for the Flooding?


Kerala has 35 dams on its rivers. On August 15, gates of all 35 dams were opened at the same time for the first time in history. Could this opening of gates have been managed better? Yes, and No.


Between 2010 and 2017, there were 3 deficit years for the monsoon, and only one excess year. This meant that authorities were under pressure to store as much water as possible in anticipation of further deficit years. However, nobody anticipated the intensity of rainfall in the week leading up to August 15, resulting in the simultaneous opening of the gates of the dam.


As of today, there is a petition pending in the Supreme Court around bad management of one of the bigger dams, Mullaperiyar, by Tamil Nadu.

Source: Bipinkdas at Malayalam Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0  (], from Wikimedia Commons

Mullaperiyar View


Were There Man-made Causes?


The Western Ghats play a key role in regulating the climate in South India. They obstruct the SW monsoon winds, causing rainfall across the Western coast, home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and regulate the flow of water by absorbing excess rainfall. They are a UNESCO world heritage site. However, the Western Ghats are now classified as a ‘global biodiversity hotspot’ - i.e. a key area with sufficient levels of biodiversity now threatened with destruction.


Circa 2011. A report by Madhav Gadgil, well known environmental scientist, was put in the public domain. Gadgil emphasised the importance of preserving the Western Ghats (running from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu) and recommended declaring the entire Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area. The Ghats were to be further divided into three categories, with allowances for varying levels of development in the three zones. The recommendations included banning of plastic, stone quarries, regulation of tourism, and so on. A good article on the report can be found here.


Notably, none of the affected 6 states agreed to the recommendations laid down in the report. Understandable, since acceptance would have meant that large scale reorganization would have to happen around development in the Ghats. In a densely populated state like Kerala, this was even more problematic. Another committee was set up, called the Kasturirangan Committee, which recommended that only one-third of the area suggested by Gadgil be deemed as ecologically sensitive. This report was notified (i.e. implemented).


So yes, something has to be done regarding the unchecked development in ecologically sensitive areas of the Ghats, particularly construction, mining, and hydroelectric projects.


But the question really is how to identify the ‘unchecked’? Sure there are tons of illegal hotels, resorts, and buildings mushrooming every now and then, but there doesn’t seem to be a holistic plan around how to differentiate between harmful activity, and that carried out by locals who have been living in the area for generations. A blanket declaration of areas being ecologically sensitive does not seem to be the answer. Facts on Kerala Floods: A Natural Calamity or A Man-made Disaster?

Climate Change?


Climate change is a reality. Unpredictable weather is now the norm, evidenced by flooding, droughts, cyclones and rise in the sea level. Things are only going to get worse, and while global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue, countries like India will bear the brunt of unpredictable weather, considering our lack of resources, and focus on growth and development.


Any measures that help us adapt to this weather pattern are going to be long drawn out, and painful for the people involved. However, it is a necessity, and governments should look at educating and empowering the population to contend with adverse events such as this. A strong disaster management protocol, cooperation between the Center and the States, and effective implementation of safeguards for the Western Ghats are short term measures.


Can We Do Anything?


We don’t really care about nature in India. The environment is collateral damage as we move fast into the list of nations with the highest rates of growth in the world. However, at some point the focus has to shift from growth to sustainable growth - i.e. development which leaves enough resources for future generations. It’s time for change and for us to be cognizant of the impact that our actions have on the environment. We can all do our little bit. Let’s start with reducing our use of plastic? The next time you order from Swiggy, in the small box that asks for additional notes, just write that you don’t want plastic cutlery. Carry your own mugs and bottles. Segregate your trash. Every small bit counts.


Until next time.


PS: Despite all the negativity, in my opinion the authorities have done a stellar job in managing the effects of the floods. At its peak, there were around 8.5 lakh people displaced and living in relief camps. Amidst all the destruction, heartwarming stories about the fishermen of coastal villages who spent days away from their homes helping out in relief efforts have surfaced. Offers of help have been pouring in and people everywhere are doing their bit. It will be a long road to recovery for Kerala, but things seem to be well on track. If you want to donate, I suggest the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund. Donations are tax exempt, you get a receipt immediately after payment, and the fund is covered under RTI, meaning details of where the money is spent are in the public domain.


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