In Retrospect

Floods: Nature's Fury or Policy Disaster?

Kerala’s deluge was another grim reminder of how Man will always be subservient to Nature. Simultaneously, the floods raised important questions on how governments with inadequate policy implementation pave the way for calamities to become catastrophes.

More than half-drowned and trapped in his waterlogged house, a middle-aged man in a light-green shirt donning rounded spectacles stood submerged, recording his desperate pleas on his mobile camera. Name still unknown, this man from Kerala was trapped in the recent floods, begging for help. Among many other gory reminders of Kerala's devastation, this video too became instantly viral. The deluge in Kerala has, yet again, raised a most unavoidable question: are natural calamities entirely natural or are they partially man-made?

In the last two weeks, nearly 483 people have died, hundreds of people are still missing and close to 11 lakh people have been displaced and are living in camps set up by the government.

Flood and rainfall pattern

In the last few years, scientists have observed that the pattern of rainfall has drastically changed. While some parts of a state received 50 per cent excess rainfall, the other parts suffered from drought. This unpredictability has caused many scientists to ponder over the causes of floods.

"Three scientists of IMD — Surinder Kaur, Sumant Kumar Diwakar and Ashok Kumar Das — have studied the long-term trend of annual and seasonal rainfall over different districts and meteorological sub-divisions of the country between 1901 and 2013. They have also carried out an annual rainfall trend analysis between 1961 and 2013. A total of 632 districts and 34 meteorological sub-divisions were included in their study and daily rainfall records from 6,995 rain gauge stations across the country were collected," noted a media report.

The study, Long-Term Rainfall Trend over Meteorological Sub Divisions and Districts of India, published in 2017, notes: Based on rainfall analysis, researchers have found that between 1961 and 2013, 64 districts show an increasing trend of annual rainfall, whereas 85 districts show a decreasing trend. Uttar Pradesh (UP) has a maximum number of districts (32) showing a decreasing annual rainfall trend.

According to the report, at the national level, 10.3 per cent area in the country (except Leh and Ladakh district, Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep) has reported an increasing trend in annual rainfall between 1961 and 2013; and 8.03 per cent area has reported a decreasing trend in annual rainfall during the same time period. Scientists sense that there are certain external factors affecting nature and, hence, the changing rainfall patterns. Some people call this external factor "Climate Change" but the prime detriment is environmental degradation.

Delineating Climate Change

Until a few years ago, Climate Change was considered a myth in India. But, with time, scientists have disclosed that environmental degradation is causing havoc to the climate. "Climate Change is not anymore a myth or a discussion only for summits. The condition of the climate is changing and it is evident from the recent incidents," said environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, while talking to Millennium Post. He added that all the recent incidents of natural calamities have certain similarities – which is why, the most-affected areas of such calamities are urban areas which have witnessed unplanned, drastic development.

Jha said, "Starting from Chennai to Kerala, all these places have undergone unplanned development. The illegal cutting of trees, illegal construction works and illegal mining are the most prominent reasons for such disasters."

Adding to his statements, earth scientist K Siddhartha observed, "The only constant is that climate is changing, and climate has changed in the past and will keep on changing in the future."

The scientist further added that, over the last decade, intensification of monsoon rainfalls in central and southern India have occurred due to overheating of the landmass.

"Of course, there has been an increase in the temperature of the Indian Ocean and especially the Arabian Sea. This temperature increase has caused greater evaporation and, thus, higher incidences of atmospheric disturbances. This has been the reason behind the genesis of a tropical cyclone early this year and this abnormal rainfall," said Siddhartha.

Siddhartha added that the weather pattern behind the destructive downpours is well understood, even if the fingerprint of global warming is still hard to distinguish from natural variability. The Arabian Sea has started experiencing a new type of weather fluctuation, which may soon become a climatic trend.

Policy failure

Studying the recent floods and its reasons, one aspect becomes clear: the respective governments have failed to implement workable policies to control floods. For instance, the Gadgil Commission headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil had suggested that 1,40,000 kilometres of the Western Ghats be classified into three zones as per requirements of environmental protection. In some areas, the committee recommended strong restrictions on mining and quarrying, use of land for non-forest purposes and construction of high-rises.

"We had first submitted the report in 2011. Since then, we were in a sense boycotted by the government officials as we had recommended them to stop all illegal activities being encouraged by them," said Gadgil in a media interview. The Central government itself formed the committee but later rejected it by saying that the report is "too environment-friendly".

"The government has neither a short-term plan nor a long-term plan and has always avoided questions of the environment. They have also diluted the work of all other bodies which functioned as watchdogs for the government's environmental policies," elaborated Vimlendu Jha.

He added, "The random cutting of trees in the name of government projects is very dangerous. It's not only about Delhi, the same thing is happening across NCR. If such things are not stopped, it would have a massive effect on the environment. If the Yamuna dries up, it could be the scariest thing for Delhi-NCR."

Alongside unplanned development, the experts have also blamed incorrect river policies and construction of dams without adequate research. "One of the major purposes of rivers is to collect rainwater and then carry it to the oceans. But the dams on the rivers obstruct the flow of water and the rivers fail to fulfil their natural work. The dams encroaching on floodplains also obstruct the water flow. Kerala has many such dams and, definitely, they have played a major role in the recent floods. It has a natural flow, hence, anything which is artificial and obstructs such a natural process will cause havoc in the long run," said Manoj Mishra, an expert on rivers.

The way ahead

The remedy for such disasters would be in taking cognizance of the fact that there is drastic environmental degradation in India. "Projects like shoreline management for deciding soft and hard solutions should be taken up for the coastal region, estuaries and rivers of Kerala. Moreover, flood management should be accorded top priority for coastal states, including the preparation of Flood Disaster Risk Management Plan at regional and local levels to establish an adequate carrying capacity for flood mitigation. Lastly, vulnerability zone mapping should also be done for the whole state. This would help to act on the risks associated in each of the zones and provide immediate relief for the future," said Anil Kumar Bansal, Director in Urban and Infrastructure from IPE Global Limited.

However, other experts believe that the government has many plans and if they are implemented immediately then the situation will change. The government should first acknowledge the problem; only cognizance can pave the way for policy formulation.

With many people across the country falling victim to natural disasters – rescue operations cannot be the only answer to the problem. Rather, more emphasis should be laid on the recognition and containment of causes. With the environment being ignored, there has been an inevitable increase in disasters. It is time for the state actors to assume a key role in preserving the environment.

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