For the people of Kodagu, August could well be the cruellest month of the year. In the last three consecutive years, incessant rains in the first two weeks of August have pounded this small hilly district of Karnataka known for its pristine weather, verdant greenery and coffee plantations, leading to devastating floods and landslides.
The southwest monsoon hit Kodagu in the first week of June this year. Rainfall records for July, however, showed a departure of -47% from normal. In what could be seen as an eerie rerun of the incidents of the last two years, the situation began changing drastically in the first week of August.
Between August 1 and August 11, the district had received 647 mm of rain, according to Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre website. Bhagamandala and Aiyamgeri in Madikeri taluk received an astounding 408.50 mm of rain in 72 hours, according to a tweet by Deputy Commissioner of Kodagu, Annies Kanmani Joy on August 5.
Last year Kodagu received 935 mm of rain during the first 10 days of August – August 1 to August 9, way more than the average rainfall of 600 mm for the entire month, reported Mongabay-India. The rainfall record for 2018 shows that Kodagu received an average rainfall of 1,033 mm in August.
In 2018, a landslide in Mukkodlu village killed 25 people in August rains. While Thora in Virajpet taluk witnessed the worst landslide last year with close to 10 people losing lives, it was Bhagamandala near Talacauvery temple in Madikeri taluk that bore the brunt this year.
In a devastating landslip on the night of August 5, two houses at the foothills of Brahmagiri Hill with its residents, including the chief priest of the Talacauvery temple were swept away and vast swathes of coffee plantations were buried under the debris.
According to the state natural disaster monitoring centre data, in the 24 hours ending at 8:30 am on August 6, Kodagu had received 116 mm rainfall which is a 454% departure from normal. News reports suggested that Bhagamandala received 784 mm of rain between August 3 and August 9 as against the normal rainfall of 341 mm.
Cracks on Brahmagiri Hill
This devastation did not come at short notice. The Geological Survey of India, in its report after studying the floods and landslides in 2019, had pointed to a surface crack that had developed near the mid-slope of Brahmagiri Hill.
The geologists who undertook the survey had suggested in the report that the crack could have resulted from the multiple contour trenches made by the forest department at the mid-slope for the conservation of water and prevention of soil erosion.
“It cannot be ruled out that the trenches with standing water may have allowed infiltration into the overburden material,” the report had said. It had also indicated that the crack could’ve formed as a result of the slope cut made for road expansion which was left unsupported. Director of GSI, KV Maruthi refused to comment on this year’s landslide saying a thorough study needs to be conducted at the landslide area to ascertain the actual cause of the landslip.
While experts admit that there have been noticeable changes in the rainfall pattern in the district in the last few years, they are reluctant to attribute the annual flooding completely to climate change.
A district with an area of 4,102 sq km that is used to heavy rainfall – as much as 2,693 mm of average annual precipitation, compared with 1,248 mm in the southern state – for years, the devastation of this magnitude is unprecedented.
Speaking to Mongabay-India after last year’s floods, the director of India Meteorological Department Gita Agnihotri had then said, “Kodagu and the Western Ghats region are used to heavy rainfall, but why this is leading to landslides, floods and other natural calamities now is something that needs to be studied properly.”
Unscientific land-use modifications
TV Ramchandra from the Energy & Wetlands Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science who has done extensive study in the area attributed this solely to the unscientific land-use modifications that have been happening in the district for years.
He said that the development of Kodagu and the district’s status as a tourist hotspot have seen many resorts and villas coming up in the area in modified coffee plantations.
“These villas and structures by highly influential people, mostly politicians, tamper with stream networks,” he said.
He said that common property resources like streams and sacred groves that provide important ecological services have been occupied by private parties and have led to large scale deforestation in Kodagu.
“In Kodagu, the forest decides people’s economy. If these forest systems are messed with, people pay the price. People lose water and food security,” he said.
Linear corridors like rail lines, power lines and highways are another major threat to Kodagu’s contiguous forest cover. Col Muthanna of Coorg Wildlife Society, a Kodagu-based NGO, said that seven linear infrastructure projects were planned for Kodagu but they have been stayed after much protest by the locals.
The talk of the town still is the Mysuru-Madikeri Economic Corridor Expressway Project along NH-275 by the National Highways Authority of India at Rs 6,000 crore for which land acquisition was underway.
“One stretch of this road through Kodagu, planned through forest and Ghat section, has been stayed for now after we protested but there could be some mischievous character raising the issue again,” said Muthanna.
The newly proposed Thalasserry-Mysuru rail line, if implemented, will cut across large swathes of forest land in Kodagu and will spell doom to the fragile ecology of the district.
A 400Kv power transmission line from Kaiga to Kozhikode in Kerala through Kodagu that led to the felling of thousands of trees in the 4.45 km of forest land and private coffee estates acquired for the project had invited large scale protests in Kodagu before it was completed in 2015.
A 2019 study by scientists including TV Ramachandra says that linear corridors (such as roads, power line, and oil and natural gas lines) lead to fragmentation of forest landscape. This, in turn, would reduce the quantum and duration of stream flows due to lowered catchment’s capability to retain water.
Forest fragmentation also results in reduced soil binding capability, making these regions vulnerable during high-intensity rainfall with instances of landslides and mudslides occurring.
The study goes on to say that the likelihood of landslide and surface erosion is higher in the areas disturbed by linear infrastructure through alteration of hill slopes. The recent landslip at Brahmagiri Hill stands testimony to this.
Another study at the Harangi catchment area in Kodagu to understand the impact of land use modifications on the catchment capability to retain water says that the vegetation cover is one of the important factors which partitions rainfall into various hydrologic components such as surface runoff, baseflow, groundwater flow, evapotranspiration etc.
If the catchment doesn’t have the capability to retain water, rainwater will not percolate into the ground and will flow to the ocean causing floods, said Ramachandra pointing to the fact that in most areas in India, floods in the monsoon is often followed by drought because groundwater doesn’t get replenished during monsoon.
The study showed that in the Harangi catchment area, while the areas under plantations, waterlogged areas, urban areas and water bodies have increased from 87.11 sq km to 124.82 sq km, the forest area, fallow land and wasteland have been reduced from 324.86 sq km to 285.73 sq km.
This is not good news for this ecologically sensitive area and could explain why it is seeing increased water logging and floods.
The solution to the recurrent problem lies in saying no to any development activity in Kodagu henceforth, believe experts and environment activists in Kodagu. Ramachandra said, “Kodagu provides water to the entire south. This district needs to be protected at all costs. Local people need to be incentivised to protect their land from destruction.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.