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Environmental degradation worsened Kerala floods

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
August 21, 2018

In the aftermath of deadly floods, authorities in India's Kerala state have launched a reconstruction and rehabilitation drive. But the massive level of devastation could have been prevented. Murali Krishnan reports.

Floods in the Indian state of Kerala
Image: Reuters/V. Sivaram

Last week's deluge in India's southwestern state of Kerala dealt a severe blow to infrastructure, destroyed standing crops and will result in big losses for the tourism industry.

At least 400 people have died in the floods, with 106 deaths recorded on August 16 alone. Some 720,000 people have been displaced and are living in makeshift camps.

An initial government assessment has put the financial loss from the floods at 185 billion rupees (€2.2 billion, $2.6 billion), and authorities believe it will take at least five years to reconstruct the damaged parts of the scenic state.

Read more: India floods death toll climbs, tens of thousands await rescue 

Officials in the state have called the rains the worst monsoon floods in a century.

Kerala was hit by extreme rainfall in May and then again this month, starting August 8. The severe floods swelled rivers and triggered landslides.

Officials said that 26 military helicopters and 1,200 large boats had been deployed for the rescue efforts. Relief assistance, including air-dropping food packets and water, is also underway.

Health authorities said they were focusing on preventing the spread of disease. In particular, concerns remain over the lack of clean water.

"'God's own country' has been ravaged. It's tragic, but the resilience of the people will ensure that we will get back on our feet," Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala's chief minister, told DW.

Man-made disaster?

Despite the chief minister's optimism, many Indians are questioning why the floods caused devastation on such a large scale, and whether the damage could have been minimized had authorities put proper mechanisms in place.

"The development projects in the state are partly responsible for environmental degradation," ecologist Madhav Gadgil told DW.

Increased deforestation in the state, along with the construction of reservoirs and buildings close to rivers, also aggravated the situation, Gadgil added.

In a 2011 report, Gadgil called on the authorities to take immediate measures to preserve Kerala's natural environment, especially in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats region. Gadgil also urged the state government to impose a ban on industrial and mining activities in the area and strictly regulate development work.

The environmental expert says the government did not pay heed to his recommendations.

Other environmentalists also blame extensive quarrying, construction of new buildings to cater to the demand of burgeoning tourism, and illegal forest land acquisition by private companies for the recent calamity.

"We can't stop floods but we can minimize their devastation. We need structural reengineering to allow Kerala's rivers to flow easily. That means we must remove encroachments from water zones," Himanshu Thakkar, from the organization South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told DW.

Read more: India deploys military to save southern residents trapped by flood 

Inadequate disaster management

Kerala has recorded all-time high rainfalls in the past few years. Experts are of the view that the recent floods could have been less catastrophic had authorities released water from the state's 39 dams by the end of July, when the water levels in most of them had reached 85 to 100 percent of their capacity.

"The government only released water from the dams once it crossed the red line," A. V. George, a disaster management expert, told DW.

India has been hit by massive floods in the past few years. The states of Uttarakhand and Kashmir are still reeling from the 2013 and 2014 floods, respectively.

According to the Central Water Commission, floods account for about 84 percent of deaths caused by natural disasters in India. This year, at least 11,000 people have been killed by floods.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11