At least 491 people have died in Kerala since the onset of the monsoon on May 29, according to news reports. In addition to this, the heavy rain that led to massive flooding in the state last month also sent at least 10 lakh people to relief camps and damaged property worth hundreds of crores of rupees. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac said on September 3 that Kerala would need Rs 30,000 crore to rebuild.

Several factors are said to have led to the flooding. In the week ending August 15, Kerala had received three times the amount of rain it normally gets at that time of the year. Two districts alone, Idukki and Wayanad, received almost as much rain as the entire state expects to get during that period.

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But it wasn’t just the rain.

Environmentalists have pointed out that the Kerala government’s willingness to allow quarrying and indiscriminate construction even in environmentally sensitive zones, created the conditions for the landslides that devastated several areas last month. Wayanad district alone has recorded 247 landslides, landslips and land subsidence or cave-ins since the start of the monsoon.

Scroll.in asked prominent social scientist KT Rammohan about the factors that could have caused the flooding, the preventive measures the state could now take, and whether comparisons with the massive floods of 1924 are justified.

Edited excerpts.

What do you think led to the recent floods and landslides in Kerala?
The heavy rainfall is the most obvious cause, but I would think it is merely the most proximate cause. We must consider the medium-term and long-term historical factors that influenced Kerala’s ecosystem. I shall focus on internal factors as I do not have the expertise to comment on larger variables such as climate change.

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First, construction activities in the state have placed heavy demands on natural resources. These include stone quarrying that hollow out hills, the levelling of hills to enable construction (this earth is subsequently sold and used to fill wetlands that are usually the receptacles of water), and sand mining in riverbeds. Both stone quarrying and the removal of earth from hills causes drastic soil erosion and landslides. In Kerala, there has been a construction boom since the 1970s following the massive increase of foreign remittances by migrant workers. The vast spread of tourism-related activities, beginning especially from the 1990s, have prompted a further boost in construction everywhere – the highlands, river and backwater areas, and the coast. The spread of built-up space prevents water from sinking into the earth. Hill roads tend to disrupt natural processes like flow of water and soil stabilisation. The construction of roads goes hand-in-hand with the construction of buildings. The Malayali obsession with monstrously big houses, a greater number of roads, and wider roads has been antithetical to the sustenance of the ecosystem.

A resident of Puthenvelikkara in Kochi cleans his house on Wednesday after the floods. (Photo credit: PTI).
A resident of Puthenvelikkara in Kochi cleans his house on Wednesday after the floods. (Photo credit: PTI).

How does sand mining in riverbeds contribute to flooding?
Removing sand from riverbeds deepens the rivers, allowing them to hold more water. But this also restricts its natural flow and alters the sub-surface system, thus preventing the water from draining into the backwaters and the sea. The consequent stagnation of water has caused rivers and streams to be choked with non-biodegradable waste like plastic, causing them to overflow faster than they used to. The incessant activity of loading sand into tipper trucks, and the associated movement of these trucks to and from the riverbanks damage embankments too.

You mentioned the spread of tourism-related activities as a factor in the floods. What about eco-tourism?
Eco-tourism was supposed to be responsible tourism, but in practice it has turned out to be the very opposite. In the case of forests, even when their core areas were not opened up for tourists, the bustling activity in the fringes was far from environment-friendly. In areas where tourists are now allowed, there has been an increase in clearing forest paths, constructing handrails and rest points. The increase in the number of tourists also led to an increase in construction activity – new hotels and resorts are being built to accommodate the growing tourist traffic – and increased dumping of waste around fringe areas and in nearby town centres. Resorts tend to be located in the most exotic locations, which, by default, are also the most ecologically fragile areas. A good part of such land originally belonged to the Adivasis and was usurped by real estate dons acting in collusion with government officials and politicians. It is not that I am against the revenue model of eco-tourism altogether, but it is high time that the resort-model of tourism is replaced by the home-stay model.

(Photo credit: Reuters).
(Photo credit: Reuters).

Are dams to blame too?
The construction of dams reduced the flow of water in the rivers, facilitating human habitation and cultivation on the banks. When heavy rainfall occurs and the dam shutters are opened, the river reclaims the land that originally belonged to it. The scientific management of dams is hence critical. In the case of the most recent floods, there seems to have been a delay in opening the shutters of many dams. In many cases, the shutters were opened all at once rather than slowly and steadily. Similarly, water from a large number of dams was released simultaneously, and the release of water was not synchronised with low tide in the sea. It could also be the case that in the absence of regular de-silting, the capacity of dams was reduced substantially, causing them to be filled to the brim faster than usual. Further, since dams are mostly situated upstream in the highlands, their construction and the associated building of access roads have caused severe damage to the forest ecosystem.

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What explains the increasing number of landslides in hilly regions?
To the above mentioned activities like stone quarrying, sand mining, hill cutting and increased construction, one may add changes in the cropping pattern, especially the shift to mono-crop cultivation. The cultivation of tea dates back to the 19th century. As a significant level of economies of scale is associated with tea, large areas of forests were cleared for its cultivation. Coffee is literally a shade better. Shade-grown coffee is of better quality and called for retention of at least some trees in the holdings. Moreover, in Kerala, coffee is often grown in small holdings and do not involve massive clearing of forests as in the case of tea. Cardamom is best grown in forest-like conditions, but some of the new varieties do not require shade and this has led to felling trees. These varieties are highly productive, which means that a much greater quantity of firewood is needed for the curing process. Unlike tea and coffee, which are closely planted shrubs and have strong root-systems that resist erosion, rubber plantations are characterised by spaced-out planting. As undergrowth is strictly ruled out in rubber plantations there is a lot more exposed land. Also, the rubber trees are susceptible to strong winds and uprooting.

A landslide on the road to Munnar in Kerala's Idukki district. (Photo credit: S Senthalir).
A landslide on the road to Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district. (Photo credit: S Senthalir).

It has been pointed out that the hilly region of Munnar, which falls in Idukki district that saw several landslides, was largely spared.
Munnar is essentially tea country and the destruction of the forest ecosystem to set up these plantations happened over a century ago. However, over time and as against what happened subsequently, tea proved to be a stabiliser of land. The management of tea has some science in it in terms of land use. The recent floods damaged the standing crops and the incessant rain prevented plucking, but no major landslide or flood was reported in the core tea planting area. The most serious threat the Munnar ecosystem currently faces is resort tourism-related construction activity that I mentioned earlier. The social dynamics of land transfer in Munnar is especially worthy of note. The local politicians exert pressure on the government to assign land to Dalits. Soon after, the land is taken over by the politicians themselves by paying a pittance to members of the Dalit community. They then sell it to others.

Are there any measures the local administrations can take to prevent such floods from happening again?
Restrictions on construction and allied activities are important but the substantive solution lies in Kerala fundamentally rethinking the very idea of development. Several measures, especially regulations on construction activities, including limiting such activity in environmentally sensitive land and limiting the floor-area allowed in such areas, have already been recommended by experts. Measures such as an embargo on stone quarrying and sand mining have also been suggested. Several restrictive legislations in this regard have been enacted in past years, but real estate agents, who are invariably hand-in-glove with politicians, have flouted all these. In the post-flood scenario, the real estate mafia might grow stronger as many areas will no longer be available or preferred for construction, and the pressure on the rest of the land is likely to shoot up. Breaking the unholy alliance between the real estate agents and politicians is an urgent necessity. In a situation where many of the local administrators are essentially land brokers there is hardly any hope.

People wait for aid next to makeshift raft at a flooded area in Kerala. (Photo credit: Reuters).
People wait for aid next to makeshift raft at a flooded area in Kerala. (Photo credit: Reuters).

What are the parallels between the floods of 1924 and 2018?
There is a tendency to argue that excessive rainfall is the major cause of the 2018 floods, with people pointing out that the situation was similar in 1924. Another argument doing the rounds currently is that while the 1924 flood was due to natural causes (the rain), the 2018 flood is essentially man-made. Indeed there was excessively heavy rainfall in July and August 1924. I would however think that human intervention was the major cause of the 1924 flood as well. Beginning from the mid-19th century, extensive areas of forests in the highlands had been cleared for growing plantation crops like cinchona, coffee and tea. During the first decade of the 20th century, rubber was introduced in the midland. The plantations necessitated a network of roads leading up to these and within these, and a greater part of this had been completed by the early 1920s. As I have said earlier, the hill roads disrupted flow of water and soil stabilisation. This was the background of the 1924 flood. Of course, unlike the 1924 flood, the damage caused in 2018 is substantively higher owing to the great rise in population and the tremendous growth in public and private assets that have occurred since then.

KT Rammohan is the former dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.