Weakening Western Ghats and the rising monsoon fury in Kerala

View of the Western Ghats from Illickal Kallu. Photo: Shutterstock/Manu M Nair

Kerala is facing the brunt of monsoon fury yet again. Landslides and flashfloods have become a regular feature in the state in recent years. The climatic change is causing weather patterns to be less predictable and posing many complex challenges as the state passes through a crucial phase.

What threats need to be addressed to prevent torrential rains from leaving a trail of destruction year after year? Why are landslides happening in hilly regions at such an alarming frequency? Just a few hours of heavy rainfall is enough to trigger them. Are our coastal areas no longer safer? What is the reason behind the unseasonal rainstorms wreaking havoc in the state?

Dr. S. Abhilash, Research Director at the CUSAT Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research, throws light on some of these aspects while speaking exclusively to Manorama Online as part of the interview series 'The Insider.'

Tackling the monsoon fury, a major challenge at hand
The unexpected change in weather patterns has necessitated the state to maintain a high vigil every monsoon.

August 2022 Rain -Ernakulam
Representational image. Photo: Josekutty Panackal.

Intermittent rains lasting one or two days are a characteristic of the monsoon. The state used to get 20 cm rainfall daily, one or two cm per hour. However, the scenario has changed.

It now records 15 to 20 cm precipitation in just an hour or two, resulting in natural disasters. Kerala has become a disaster-prone region, with the threat of flash floods looming large.

The state received 59 % rainfall in June, which decreased to 20 % in July. However, the one-month deficiency in rainfall was more than made up in just four or five days of incessant rains. That means we now experience a downpour lasting four or five hours instead of continuous evenly-distributed showers earlier. A significant change has also happened in the pattern of cloud covers. Much denser clouds with increased water-vapour content are acting as a reservoir up there in the atmosphere. More water is in the air, which can result in intense rainfall, resulting in flashfloods.

kerala rain alappuzha
Representational image. File Photo.

Even now, the state has a rainfall deficiency of 20 %, yet natural disasters occur. What’s the message that we can infer from this scenario? Climate change is happening at a real pace, resulting in extreme weather patterns. An increase in intense precipitation comes with an increase in intense dry periods as well. The rains may subside, and a drought-like situation may occur. And then again, thick cloud covers might reappear, and cyclones can happen. The whole thing has become unpredictable. A central challenge before the state is to adjust to the changing weather patterns and take necessary precautionary measures.

Western Ghats unable to withstand the monsoon fury

Only the plains experienced scant rainfall in June while the rains lashed the hilly regions. As a result, the soil there became wet, and its water holding capacity got significantly reduced.

The incessant rains occurred after that. The weakening of the Western Ghats, the bio-diversity hotspot that covers nearly half of the state, is resulting in more flashfloods and landslides.

Kerala Rain
Roads in Kochi were inundated following the incessant rains here. Photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

We could no longer close our eyes to the fact. A lot of unscientific development activities, including quarrying, mining, tourism-related initiatives, and unsuitable farming methods, are severely affecting the ecologically-sensitive areas. What is of concern is the fragility of the Western Ghats over the years; it could not even withstand a 10 cm rainfall.

Coastal areas too turning into disaster zones
Not only the Western Ghats, but our coastal areas too have got ecologically weakened.

Representational image. File Photo.

The beaches in the Varkala-Vizhinjam stretch have disappeared, and the natural sand deposit process is no longer happening at our beaches. Places like Alappad are a classic example of this. Like the Western Ghats, activities like construction and sand mining have accelerated coastal environment degradation.

The geographical classification of Kerala into ‘Malanadu,' 'Edanadu,' and 'Theera Pradesham’ is only for technical purposes. All of them are interlinked, and any adverse ecological impact in any region will affect the others.

Fast-changing farm calendar
We have to change our agricultural calendar and farm practices in tune with climate change. Here monocropping is predominant.

Destruction of crops is a huge challenge. One invests everything for farming.

And if it goes for a toss, what option is left other than backtracking from farming? If the data for the past few years is collected, it can be well understood that several people have stepped back from farming.

It's time we thought of farming practices that are in tune with climate change.

We should understand that farming is not something that's done on terraces. Natural calamities are taking place, not in Kerala alone. It happens in other states too. It has started severely affecting production, leading to the price rise phenomenon.

Kerala will have to witness different kinds of natural calamities in the future. It is not going to affect farmers alone. When fishermen were all prepared to venture into the sea after the trawling ban, the wind became fierce, and restrictions came in place. The social and economic impacts of the same are not minor in scale.

Water conservation the key
Since the lessons of 2018 are before us, the dams of the state do not pose a threat to us. This is because of the steps carefully taken in dam management.

Idukki Dam. File Photo.

Our key subject is water storage. There was a natural system that resisted floods and drought. The rain stored by the Western Ghats during monsoon regulates water flow in our rivers. The water stored by wetlands, ponds, and rivers during floods sustains the water level in wells during summer.

Since the Western Ghats have become weak, the water storing process is not taking place.

Water flows down fast, and the topsoil gets eroded with it. This affects farm production.

Kerala is still in the condition that it faced in 2018. People are clueless as to what to do when floods occur. It is because our disaster management is still on paper. It is just another alert for us.

There is an element of uncertainty in weather prediction even now. Hence it is crucial to understand how to act according to it. Our local bodies have not been strengthened to act in tune with it.

The present condition requires more interventions. A multi-faced disaster reduction system involving local people should be put in place.

The system is in such a condition now that, to act, it needs a phone call from Thiruvananthapuram.

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