‘Kerala to face frequent weather hazards’ | Interview with climate scientist Maarten van Aalst

Prof. Maarten van Aalst.
Prof. Maarten van Aalst.

Kerala will face frequent weather hazards, such as floodings, landslides, coastal erosions and cyclones, all because of global warming. Hence, the state should invest heavily in disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness, said world renowned climate scientist Professor Maarten van Aalst.

In an email interview with Malayala Manorama newspaper, Van Aalst, who is the director of International Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre based in The Hague in the Netherlands and a faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said, Kerala can stop weather hazards from becoming disasters with better planning and preparedness.

“Better water management can reduce the risk of flooding even if the rainfall gets more intense. And better preparedness allows us to save lives, even in case of extreme floods,” he said.


Edited excerpts from the interview.


The Enthayar Bridge connecting Kottayam and Idukki district that was destroyed in the floods. Photo: Manorama

What would be the main impacts of climate change on Kerala?
» Climate change is driven by global warming due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. This is a global pattern, which also means that on average, temperatures in Kerala will likely get a bit hotter.

However, it is not this small increase in temperature we are most concerned about. The overall warming also means there is more energy in the climate system, so it is getting more volatile, with more heatwaves, but also a more intense water cycle and more extreme rainfall, which also means an increased risk of flooding and landslides. What that means may differ from place to place, but on average it means that we should be prepared for a rise in hazards, and also for more surprises – the past is no longer a good guide for what to expect in the future. So we should invest more in early warning, disaster preparedness and risk reduction.


Those are mainly implications in the atmosphere. Given that Kerala is a maritime state, are there other changes that we should be worried about?
» Indeed, the oceans are also warming. This means the water in the oceans expands, so Kerala will be facing higher sea levels. And the warming sea surface temperatures mean that cyclones can grow more easily, meaning Kerala could be at risk of more cyclones passing through the Arabian sea, possibly also at earlier times in the year, such as the big storms in recent years. Again, another reason to increase our investment in disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness for such hazards.


Untimely cloudbursts and intense rainfall events caused many landslides, floods in Kerala that resulted in huge loss of property and lives in the last four years. Will this be the pattern to expect in the coming years?
» Yes, unfortunately, the warming climate is bringing more intense rainfall events. However, not all extreme rainfall events need to lead to loss of life and property. Climate science only tells us that the hazards are increasing, but that does not have to mean a similar increase in disasters. Whether hazards become disasters is partly in our hands. Through better planning and preparedness we can limit the consequences of more extreme rainfall. Better water management can reduce the risk of flooding even if the rainfall gets more intense. And better preparedness allows us to save lives, even in case of extreme floods.


Kerala refuses to learn from the bitter aftermath of recurring natural calamities
The damages caused by flooding and landslide in Kottayam.

You have examined the activities of the Disaster Management Authority of Kerala (KSDMA). Are these activities in the right direction towards reducing medium to long-term risks?
» I have examined the work of KSDMA and I am very impressed by the systematic approach that they have adopted to guide Kerala towards a more resilient society. Let me highlight a few medium to long-term resilience-building initiatives that KSDMA has taken up.

The first initiative that really impressed me is the local government-centric approach to disaster management, which attempts to build the capacity of local government and thereby take disaster management closer to the citizens who are at the receiving end of all these hazards. Empowering local governments and providing expertise for local actions is the way forward in this time of Code Red for Humanity. I noticed over 1,000 disaster management plans are already published online, prepared by the respective local governments. At the level of these local governments, Emergency Response Teams are formed by the local population.

In addition, Kerala has laid a vision towards empowering local governments in disaster management and climate adaptation by providing them with decision support and action tracking tool for local risk-informed spatial planning. Under the joint initiative of the Local Government Department, KSDMA and KILA, Kerala is planning a state-specific Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment (CORDEX) to provide information regarding future climate change scenarios to local governments, to enable planning for changing risks.

This is a challenge to the global climate change modelling community and this aspiration of the Government of Kerala is itself a role model for the world.

The second initiative that caught my eye is Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction. This is a one-of-a-kind project that translates the noble vision of 'Leaving no-one behind' from a metaphor into reality, for instance by translating disaster risk reduction knowledge and safety protocols into Braille, Sign Language and Daisy format on a regular basis. It is no wonder that this project led to the development of national guidelines and received global attention.

A third impressive example is the Vulnerability-Linked Relocation Plan. Unfortunately, climate science suggests that in some cases, retreat may be among the better options to deal with rising risks in some areas where the magnitude and frequency of hazards are rising rapidly. But how such retreat is considered and decided makes all the difference.

Fishing boats lined up for a rescue mission in Kuttanad. File photo: Manorama

I am impressed that Kerala has already started implementing a vulnerability-linked relocation plan for highly vulnerable areas such as severely landslide or flood-prone areas or people dwelling within 50m from the high tide line. The project is particularly interesting given the fact that the vulnerable families are permitted to retain the title for their vulnerable land with the condition that no permanent dwelling unit can be built there once they accept the Government benefit to move to safer land. This implies that the vulnerable population is motivated as they get a safer dwelling unit but could use their original piece of land for cultivation or traditional livelihood practices. These are examples that are still rare and may be needed at larger scales globally.

A fourth example that I really liked is the Orange Books and other guidelines.

The Orange Book of KSDMA is a unique document. It seems to be covering even the most trivial aspects for early actions before the monsoon season and for coordination between departments for reducing disaster risk during various emergency situations, including for instance heat and lightning action plans on KSDMA's website. And as always: a guide is only as good as its implementation, so it’s also good to see that relevant training is conducted for stakeholders.

And maybe that leads me to the fifth and final observation: the amazing technical human resources of SDMA. While everyone invests in hardware and software, it is impressive to see that the Government of Kerala has also been investing in young human talent, motivated to not only handle core disaster resilience planning, but also emergency response coordination – one cannot be done well without the other. And the multidisciplinary blend of skills and perspectives is critical and tends to improve over time, by continued exposure to global standards and constant capacity building. It is great to see that investment.

While I hope the State of Kerala will continue and build on these excellent initiatives, I cannot emphasise enough that it is critical to mainstream disaster risk reduction in all development plans, including risk-informed spatial planning at the local government level, implementing restrictions in land use in vulnerable areas with incentives for those who voluntarily undertake climate change adaptation and risk reduction measures.

When it comes to early actions for short-term disaster risk reduction, many near-term actions could further improve preparedness even before the next monsoon season. Let me give a few examples:

Kerala Rain
Prof Aalst has been impressed by the formation of Emergency Response Teams by the local population.

First and foremost early warning can trigger early action to save lives and livelihoods. It is critical to use the best forecasts from public and private sources, ensemble and use them for early warning and early action at the local level. In addition to warnings to the general public, such forecasts can feed a spatial decision support system to improve emergency management and support the network of Emergency Operations Centres and local governments. Weather forecasts can be linked to geospatial data (starting with the excellent geo-database that KSDMA and then over time improving spatial resolution) to anticipate areas that may be affected.

Second, and of course, connected to early warnings, it would be valuable to develop site-specific evacuation plans, for instance by connecting the information on population categories exposed to floods and landslides from the Orange Book of Monsoon preparedness to the Local Government Disaster Management Plans, enlisting and mapping these populations. Ideally, all households would have emergency safety kits for all households, particularly the most vulnerable who were impacted during the Kerala floods of 2018 and 2019.

Third, farmers and crops are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. It’s really valuable to assess and manage risk to agriculture, also with a perspective of changing risks. Crop insurance schemes can be an effective tool to protect farmers.

Fourth, many disasters are about water and ensuring a smooth flow of water from the hills to the backwaters and then into the sea is of great importance in reducing upstream landslides, debris flows, flash floods and lowland flooding. Hence, cleaning of all rivulets and canals in the months of February and March should be considered.


What is your advice to KSDMA and the government for ensuring a more resilient Kerala?
» Well, of course, it’s not up to me to tell the experts in Kerala what to do – they have excellent expertise and I would not pretend to know better than the local experts. But let me highlight a few elements I noticed in plans and suggestions already considered.

First, I have noticed that KSDMA has recommended checklists for disaster risk assessment before sanctioning any infrastructure projects, and a checklist for examining the landslide susceptibility of residential land parcels, which may be used by Local Governments before sanctioning new building permits. It would be really valuable to ensure such checks are made and consider a climate change and disaster risk reduction perspective in such decisions. This might also include demarcating certain areas as ‘no-development zones and construction restricted zones’ to provide more room for water, particularly along river banks, but possibly also in the face of coastal erosion.

This is linked to a second point that may need to be considered: do we invest in more protection or also consider retreat? Given the changes that are coming our way, living in coastal areas will not be business as usual. In some cases, a vulnerability-linked relocation plan (which I am told is named as Punargeham) could be considered, adapted to the rapidly changing climate. In some cases, this may require specific financial allocation for Local Governments to identify vulnerable populations living in hazard-prone areas and support their relocation to safer areas, and facilitate alternative livelihoods.

In urban centres along the coast, a mix of hard engineering and nature-based solutions may be most effective to mitigate the impacts of current disasters and increasing climate impacts. It would be good to develop design guidelines for climate-resilient infrastructure and ensure proper enforcement for all the physical construction works to improve the quality of infrastructure being developed. Developing effective urban blue and green infrastructure incentives for individual actions can be highly effective. For example, the Cool Roof concept in the heat action plan of KSDMA may be incentivized by Local Governments to individual households.

More broadly, cadastral data are crucial for site-specific planning of resilient infrastructure and this data should be the base layer for local governments, disaster managers and all other departments for risk-informed spatial planning.

And that leads me to a key point. Disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change cannot be done by any single government agency. A wide range of technical departments needs to accept their lead roles in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation and facilitate monitoring of various environmental parameters relevant for taking early decisions for risk reduction. For example, the Water Resources Department could be the one deploying necessary river stage monitoring systems, which would be used for short-term early warning of floods, but also to facilitate long-term research and water engineering.

And along with such integrated planning, we should accept that this risk management will never be completely “done”, or can be planned in one big plan for the coming decades. Instead, risk management should be part of everything we do and requires a continuous adaptation of planning and operations. We should be ready for surprises and be flexible to adapt plans and budgets to new conditions or new scientific insights.

Finally, let me say that at ITC at the University of Twente, we have many students from India who are conducting research to solve these wicked problems humanity is facing due to climate change and vulnerability to disasters. Many of them already work with scientific and professional experts from Kerala.

The Netherlands Government has already reassured its commitment to join forces to make Kerala more flood resilient. From the perspective of the Centre for Disaster Resilience of Faculty ITC of the University of Twente, as well as the IFRC Climate Centre, I consider KSDMA as a sister organisation. We look forward to supporting the State in strengthening its resilience and to facilitating the transfer of scientific expertise, including through our 4TU network (comprised of the four technical universities of the Netherlands, namely the University of Delft, University of Wageningen, University of Twente and the University of Eindhoven) through capacity building programmes and collaborative projects.

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