In the introduction of his soon-to-be-released book, Flood and Fury, B Viju makes a prediction. "The Kerala floods (of 2018) might be a trailer of the grimmer things to come. We have pushed too many boulders down the hill, and the next big disaster might leave us with nothing but ruins."
Viju began working on the book in the backdrop of 2018 Kerala floods - billed as century's worst floods. He travelled along the eco-sensitive districts of the Western Ghats to look at the big picture of what went wrong and attempted to understand the fragmented social, cultural and ecological links between communities and their immediate environment.
His prediction appears to have come true as Kerala is being battered by another spell of rain and landslides. Last week, the state witnessed two major landslides at Puthumala in Wayanad district and Kavalappara in neighbouring Malappuram, killing more than 80 people.
The author tells us the 2018 floods were not an isolated, freak phenomenon, and it signalled the ecological devastation of the Western Ghats. Apart from investigating the crisis, he also suggests policy measures urgently required to mitigate it.
Exclusive excerpts from Flood and Fury:
Pancharakolly village in Mananthavady panchayat (in Wayanad district) was one of the worst-affected regions during the floods. Pancharakolly got its name from the fact that sweet oranges were grown here once upon a time. But nothing sweet remains in C.S. Rameshan's life any more. His one-and-a-half-acre farm plot, which includes coffee and banana plantations, was wiped out in the landslide on 16 August 2018. What is left on the slopes is a partially damaged house in the middle of the hill, with huge mounds of earth, boulders and uprooted trees. Four neighbouring houses on the hills were completely wiped out by the landslide. 'I can never come back to live here as landslides can happen any time,' he says.
The Geological Survey of India (GSI) conducted a spot survey following landslides in Kozhikode, Kannur and Wayanad districts in the wake of rains in June 2018. The GSI's findings pointed out that, though, in a majority of the cases, incessant rains were one reason for the landslides, what triggered the event in many cases was unscientific construction on the slopes of the hills. Citing an example of the landslide at a veterinary college in Vythiri where the office building was damaged, the GSI pointed out that, though the triggering factor was heavy rainfall, the geoscientific cause was 'unscientific slope modification and unprotected slopes made for building construction', adding that 'Incessant rainfall is the triggering factor which resulted in the reduction of strength and increase in pore water pressure'.
The district received an excess of 16.59 per cent in rainfall during the south-west monsoon between 1 June and 30 September in 2018. Even within the district, there was a lot of variation in rainfall, with the higher places receiving more rain. For instance, mountain ranges like Banasura received rainfall of around 4000 mm to 5000 mm. Vythiri municipality received 850 mm of rainfall in a week, which is much more than the normal. The north-eastern region of Wayanad received 1582 mm of rain in the same period.
Vythiri, like Munnar in Idukki, is a popular tourist destination of Wayanad. A parallel to the eco-degradation of Munnar can be drawn here since, even in Vythiri, the topography has changed significantly in the past two decades, with buildings coming up on every slope and hilltop, cutting into the natural landscapes. Cashing in on this huge tourist potential, Vythiri grew in leaps and bounds, throwing all building norms and regulations to the wind. After the floods, a study conducted by the Wayanad-based Hume Centre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology showed that Vythiri suffered the maximum number of landslides in Wayanad. The Hume study pointed out that 90 per cent of the landslides occurred in the south-west region of Wayanad where the slope of the hills is more than 30 degrees. The eco-fragile regions were made more vulnerable after the drastic cutting of the hills. The lands, which had already become very fragile, could not hold the excess rainwater that flowed down, resulting in landslides. 'These regions are prone to landslides and any new construction here will make the region weaker, so a natural calamity is bound to happen,' says Suma R., a scientist with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Wayanad. These areas include Vythiri, Pozhuthana, Padinjarethara, Vellamunda, Mananthavady, Thirunelli, Thondarnaad and Thavinjal.
'The stability of the land depends on the elevation and the rains it can withhold. Based on the rainfall pattern, we need to segregate Wayanad into five zones, and developmental activities should be carried out based only on this classification,' Suma says. 'In effect, the hills of Wayanad do not have the capacity to receive such a huge amount of water,' she adds. WGEEP report (Madhav Gadgil-headed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel) had also stated that many regions in Kerala, especially Wayanad, had started facing acute water scarcity. The report had included Vythiri, Mananthavady and Sulthan Bathery in 'ecologically sensitive zone 1', which means that change in land use is not permitted from forest to non-forest uses or agricultural to non-agricultural, except when extension of existing village settlement areas takes place to accommodate an increase in the population of local residents. The WGEEP recommended that for existing built structures such as hotels and resorts, the tourism policy of the MoEF, appropriately refined by Western Ghats Expert Authority, should be applied. Road and other expansion plans should be submitted for EIA scrutiny before their execution, especially for assessing the cost benefits, considering ecological costs and public benefits. None of these recommendations was taken into consideration.
As you move to the northern side of Wayanad, especially in Thirunelli and Mananthavady panchayats, there are many places where the surface of the earth has cracked and there are wide gaps as if the earth below has moved. Mananthavady and Vythiri were flooded because 75 per cent of the streams, the primary water sources for Panamaram and Mananthavady, whose confluence becomes the Kabani river, had been reclaimed. Buildings and roads had come up over them.
The soil survey department in 2017 showed that 70 per cent of the first- and second-order streams that joined three rivers at Panamaram, Mananthavady and Basavali had been encroached upon. There were some attempts by the district authorities to implement regulations in Wayanad, but like in Munnar, they were opposed by the real estate lobby. Wayanad district collector Keshvendra Kumar had imposed restrictions on the heights of buildings in 2015.
As the chairperson of the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), he had observed that high-rise buildings were posing a threat to the environmental sustainability of Wayanad district. The order, issued under the Disaster Management Act, restricted the height of buildings in municipality areas to 15 metres (maximum of five floors). It further set height restrictions on buildings in eco-sensitive areas like Lakkidi and Vythiri to 8 metres (two floors) and other areas in the district to 10 metres (three floors). He noted that the presence of high-rise buildings in a high-altitude landscape could cause landslides and earthquakes. 'The threat is serious and devastating as it will cause destruction of human life, flora and fauna along with the collapse of the surrounding landscape, in case of a landslide or earthquake,' he said while issuing the order.
The real estate lobby wanted the order to be scrapped and in November 2015, the United Democratic Front (UDF) Kerala government passed an order lifting the restrictions after two businessmen, who were constructing buildings in Lakkidi town, approached the High Court bench. But the Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samiti (WPSS) approached the court, challenging the stay order. The Samiti contended that no power could be conferred under the Disaster Management Act on the state government to nullify or keep in abeyance the proceedings initiated under the Act (an earlier single bench of the High Court, however, allowed the two businessmen to complete their ongoing construction). Significantly, the same bench also upheld the rights of the DDMA to frame and implement its own policy on high-rise restrictions.
(Flood and Fury published by Penguin Random House will be available in stores, offline and online, on August 19.)