Nature's signs portend bleak scenario for Kerala, disaster mitigation measures must

(Editor's Note: This is the final part of a four-part series by Malayala Manorama. Click to read the first part, second part and third part)

We can't stop natural phenomena, but its impact on land and living beings can be lessened with apt interventions at the right time. Kerala has yet again been buffeted by a severe natural calamity. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently issued a strong warning, saying climatic changes could trigger massive natural disasters in the State within the next 20 years. The signs paint a bleak picture ahead if disaster mitigation measures are not initiated.

The increasing surface temperature of the Arabian Sea would whip up several low-pressure areas and cyclonic storms. High tides would lash Kerala, and sea erosion would become rampant, the IPCC alerted.

It has also been warned that the rising sea level would prevent the smooth discharge of water from rivers, and floods would be the norm even during moderate rains. Cloud bursts would lead to landslips and landslides, triggering flash floods. Additionally, the weakened structure of the Western Ghats would add to the enormity of the disasters.

A study published by the University of California in the journal "Nature Climate Change" has warned that climate change would cause extremely severe disasters in the south Indian states, including Kerala. The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information (INCOIS) has forecast high tides, sparked by climate change, would cause extensive damage along the Kerala coast.

Mukkalam region in Kottayam district devastated by landslide and flood.

What has to change

The current norm has been to launch rescue operations after a disaster. It has to be changed; instead, there should be debates and initiatives to avoid disasters and protect lives and properties. Kerala should also give priority to earmark enough funds for environmental safety while planning development projects.

Obsolete action plan

Kerala had its first action plan to thwart the effects of climate change in 2014. Though the plan was to be renewed in 2019, the process has not yet been completed. The plan was supposed to be the basis for the framing of policies and Central funding. The Central government has now issued a final directive to submit the plan by February.

Leadership at local level

The State Disaster Management Authority took the positive initiative of formulating disaster relief and mitigation plans at the local body level. All self-government bodies in the State, barring four, had already drawn up a mitigation plan, which also included the mapping of flood- and landslide-prone areas. The governing bodies concerned have been made responsible for launching projects to mitigate disasters and launch relief operations based on the plans.

Model plans of Munroe Thuruthu and Kattakkada

Munroe Thuruthu, a disaster-prone island in the Kollam district, came up with the best disaster mitigation plan, which laid stress on public participation to avoid disasters.

In Kattakkada, Thiruvananthapuram, local MLA I B Satheesh took the lead to make his constituency the first carbon-neutral segment in the State. Automatic weather stations have been installed in higher secondary schools spread over six panchayats. The stations could record and make available the temperature, rainfall, wind direction and speed, humidity and pressure.

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel carry out rescue operations in a landslide-affected area following heavy rains in Dungree village of Chamoli district. PTI

A model worth emulating nation-wide

The State Disaster Management Authority publishes an 'Orange Book' on procedures that have to be taken during a disaster. The State also has an Incident Response System, detailing the roles and responsibilities of officials.

Kerala's disaster mitigation plan which includes the differently-abled is now being emulated across the country.

The State government has formed a 3.8 lakh-member strong disaster volunteer force, besides civil defence force units of 50 people each under the Fire and Rescue Department at 129 centres. 

Additionally, a rapid response force of 42,000 members, too, have been formed under local bodies.

As many as 421 volunteer organisations under the District Disaster Management Authorities are active in disaster-hit areas.

Climate change and Kerala

What could a small State like Kerala do against climate change is an oft raised question. Kerala, in fact, could contribute much to a better world.

The State's population is higher than over 150 countries in the world. The people-to-vehicle ratio is higher in Kerala than in several developed nations.

Kerala has 391 vehicles per 1,000 people, while the global average is merely 180. The State boasts 360 vehicles in one square kilometre, much higher than the 30 vehicles in the US.

These statistics point to the fact that Kerala, too, could do much to prevent, or at least ameliorate climate change.

Missing: Virtual cadre

The State government had decided to form virtual cadres in all departments to coordinate disaster relief operations soon after the 2018 floods. However, only 15 departments have formed the cadres. The existing cadres have drawn up relief plans at their department level.

What next?

The State needs to take up the following measures to secure itself better next time when a natural calamity befalls it.

• Plan disaster mitigation initiatives after considering all available related studies.

• Kerala should coordinate with the India Meteorological Department to immediately address the shortfalls in the weather forecast. The State should also press for the installation of new radars and automatic weather stations, besides conducting a flood mapping and spreading awareness among the public. It should also employ innovative technologies, like artificial intelligence, to meet this end.

• Prepare an action plan for a carbon-neutral Kerala.

• Develop the decentralised disaster mitigation mechanisms. It should set aside 10 per cent of the plan funds of local bodies to mitigate disasters.

• Form policies based on an in-depth study of land utilisation in the backdrop of climate change.

• Ban granite quarries and new constructions in landslide-prone areas. Rejuvenate streams.

• Conduct awareness programmes on safe and scientific farming methods in hilly regions.

• Introduce and pass Bills to protect water bodies.

• Initiate action to clear encroachments along rivers. Remove sand and silt deposited in the rivers.

• Desilt dams to increase the storage capacity of reservoirs.

• Chalk out an action plan by taking climate change into account. Constitute a high-level committee to implement the action plan on a war footing.

• Create a mechanism to disseminate live official information on natural calamities to the public.

• Strengthen the State Disaster Management Authority by making permanent appointment of tech experts. Currently, the Authority is being run by temporary employees, barring the member secretary. The posts of tech experts have been remaining vacant in several district-level Disaster Management Authorities.

•Install a satellite-enabled mechanism to provide advance warning against landslides. Monitor landslide-prone areas with the help of synthetic-aperture radar and interferometry, which is a measurement method using the phenomenon of interference of waves, usually light, radio or sound waves. 

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