The state of Kerala has been facing unusually high rainfall since early August, which has led to statewide floods taking several lives and causing severe damage. According to the government, there hasn’t been a flood of this scale in last 90 years.

A red alert was issued until August 15 in eight out of 14 districts of the state. As per information from officials, in one week alone more than 53,000 people were moved to 439 relief camps across the state. According to a report from the National Disaster Management Authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, 130 people died in Kerala this monsoon from May 29 to July 19. Adding to this the deaths from the August rainfall, the death toll for Kerala is 168.

As nature’s fury takes over Kerala, environmentalists point out past irresponsible policy decisions which have led to this “manmade disaster”.

Buildings submerged in Kerala. Photo credit: Special arrangement

One of Kerala’s worst floods

There has been mobilisation of resources to deal with the floods, one of the worst ever, that have taken over the state. In a a press release, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, “As per the primary assessment, the state has incurred a loss of Rs 8,316 crore (Rs 83 billion). Kerala is facing its worst flood in history after 1924. Ten out of 14 districts were badly affected. 27 dams in the state were opened due to water rise. 37 people died in just four days. There were mudslides and landslides in 211 different places across the state. Central forces, National Disaster Response Force and all the state forces are full time engaged in rescue mission at different districts. More than 20,000 houses were totally ruined, about 10,000 kilometres of public roads were also destroyed. The state will have to bear the loss of this disaster for a long time.”

Union Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh, after his visit to the flood hit areas of the state, called the situation of Kerala “very serious”. He also announced an immediate relief of an additional one billion rupees.

After his aerial survey, Singh tweeted: “The floods in Kerala have caused severe damage to crops & infrastructure. It has also caused loss of precious lives and forced thousands to take shelter in relief camp. We are providing all possible assistance to the state. Centre to provide additional 100 crores to Kerala.”

Ten columns of army, along with navy and air force personnel and 14 teams of the National Disaster Relief Force, are engaged in relief-and-rescue operations in the badly hit districts of Idukki, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Alappuzha, Wayand and Kozhikode.

Army personnel join the relief and rehabilitation efforts at Munnar. Photo credit: Prasad Ambatt

Idukki dam opened after 26 years

Though 27 small and big dams were opened across Kerala in this crisis, the opening of the Idukki dam’s shutters at Cheruthoni gained media and public attention. Idukki is the biggest arch dam in Asia and the last time this dam’s shutters were opened was in 1992.

In the wake of the heavy rains this year, the water level in the dam had reached almost 2400 feet, just a few feet lesser than its maximum capacity of 2403 feet. On August 9, following a warning to the public, the officials opened shutters of the dam, after 26 years.

It was the first time in the history that all five shutters of the dam were opened. After the shutters were opened, it caused rapid swelling of Periyar river that flows through Idukki and Ernakulam districts. Nearly 700,000 litres of water per second was discharged from the Idukki dam into the Periyar river.

“Because of torrential rains and landslides, 18 relief camps have been started in different parts of Idukki district and almost 1000 peoples have been relocated to these camps. Opening of the shutters of Cheruthoni dam due to increased water level of Idukki dam has also resulted in people being moved to camps. We have taken enough measures to provide all the necessary facilities for the affected people,” D Balamurali, Idukki district collector, said.

School children wading their way through a submerged road in Thrissur district. Photo credit: Sneha Binil

Environmentalists point at poor policy decisions

Most of the regions, impacted by this monsoon were once classified as ecologically-sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel also known as the Gadgil Committee.

The report was crafted by a team headed by Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. According to environmentalists, the committee’s recommendations were strong enough to protect the sensitive Western Ghat region.

The committee had suggested to classify 140,000 kilometres of the Western Ghats into three zones as per the requirement of environmental protection in the areas. In some areas the committee recommended strong restrictions on mining and quarrying, use of land for non forest purposes, construction of high rises etc. The report was first submitted to the government in 2011.

But the Kerala government rejected the committee report and did not adopt any of its recommendations.

Speaking to regional media, Madhav Gadgil has said that irresponsible environmental policy is to blame for the recent floods and landslides in Kerala. He also called it a “manmade calamity”. He said that the committee report had recommended to protect the resources with the cooperation of local self governments and people, but those recommendations were rejected. He also pointed out that quarrying is a major reason for the mudslides and landslides.

Other environmentalists also point fingers at the extensive quarrying, mushrooming of high-rises as part of tourism and illegal forest land acquisition by private parties as major reasons for the recent calamity.

V Thomas, former scientist at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, told Mongabay-India that nobody wants to discuss the reasons behind natural disasters. He also believes that the Gadgil committee report had to be taken seriously.

“Landslides caused major damage this time. Most of the people have died in landslides. These landslides were severe in hilly districts like Idukki, Wayanad etc. – the regions that came under Gadgil Committee report,” said Thomas. “The report had clearly mentioned how to protect ecological sensitive areas with the help of local communities. But state did not accept it. None of the authorities tried to convince people in the area over Gadgil report. So people were also against it. That was a failure of government as well as other concerned organisations. We implemented some other recommendations which were not suitable for the environment.”

He added that water raising in dams will not cause a big issue and that discussions on environmental concerns are needed. “Quarrying is a major reason for environmental hazards like landslides. Apart from that, buildings in environmentally sensitive areas are also a reason. Resorts, hotels and religious institutions built on such areas destroying the nature can also contribute to a disaster,” he said.

He also said that learning from this experience the state should give priority to environment hereafter.

CM Joy, environmental activist and a retired college professor, alleged that people who are engaged in quarrying and illegal encroachment of forest land are the ones that lobbied against the Gadgil Committee report.

“All these districts that were badly affected have got wide range of quarries, both legal and illegal. Underground is a huge source of water. But doing unscientific constructions, mining and quarrying, the soil that covers this water storage been removed. This causes pressure, which results in land slide or mudslide,” he said.

He added that quarrying also causes tremors. “There are more than 1500 illegal crusher and quarrying units in Kerala. Apart from that, illegal buildings appear in water zone areas, so a heavy rain can cause flood. We humans are responsible for all these,” he said.

Flooding at the confluence of the Kanniyar, Nalla Thanniyar and Kuttiyar rivers in Munnar. Photo credit: Prasad Ambatt

This article first appeared on Mongabay.