Devastation in coasts and hills underlines ecological fragility, calls for revisiting development paradigms -

Devastation in coasts and hills underlines ecological fragility, calls for revisiting development paradigms

This monsoon season has given ample evidence of extreme weather events, long foretold by climate science experts. In July, a fortnight of torrential rain left a trail of destruction in the mountains of north India and the coastal parts of Western India. The elements have continued to behave chaotically even as the southwest monsoon retreats from the country and the easterlies are replacing the westerlies. At least 20 people are feared to have lost their lives in another bout of floods in Uttarakhand. In Kerala, incessant downpour in the past four days has swelled rivers and caused landslides, sweeping away homes, bridges and claiming at least 38 lives — worse is feared with the IMD predicting another spurt of rainfall from Wednesday. Both states have issued flood alerts and begun to evacuate people from flood-prone areas. But these states require much more than emergency measures to address and mitigate their climate-related vulnerabilities. Whether in the Western Ghats or the Himalayas, there are pressing reasons for states to rethink development paradigms.

The topography of most hilly regions makes them prone to landslides. Deforestation, quarrying, road construction and other land-use changes that pay short shrift to ecology increase vulnerabilities of such areas during episodes of heavy rainfall. That’s why several expert committees have counseled utmost caution in implementing infrastructure projects in both the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. In 2011, for example, the Madhav Gadgil committee recommended that a roughly 1,30,000 sq km stretch spanning Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu be declared an environmentally sensitive zone. The panel headed by one of the country’s top ecologists called for strict regulation of developmental activities in this stretch. None of the six states agreed with its recommendations. Kerala, in particular, objected to the proposed ban on mining, restrictions on construction activities and embargoes on hydroelectricity projects. The substantially diluted recommendations of another committee headed by K Kasturirangan — it proposed to whittle down the Western Ghats’ eco-sensitive zone by about half of what was earmarked by the Gadgil panel — also did not get much traction in the Western Ghat states.

The Kerala government has opened the shutters of the Idukki dam as the state’s largest reservoir is rapidly filling up with heavy rainfall. In recent years, state governments in most parts of the country have been criticised for leaving such decisions till it’s too late. Dam operators blame the delay on not being alerted about extreme weather events in time. There’s surely a case for greater coordination amongst forecasting agencies and reservoir management authorities. This would ensure the timely opening of dam spillways and create holding capacity in the reservoirs to absorb excess rainfall. With studies and IPCC reports warning about more destructive floods caused by sea-level rise and high-intensity rainfall, the country can ill-afford to delay investments in such disaster management systems.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 20, 2021 under the title ‘Flood and fury’.

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