Time to begin anew

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What is sad about this disaster is the fact that this was so predictable. I had, in fact, predicted it. After the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, I had written: “[An] astounding quantity of water rushes through the rivers at once during floods. It could raise water levels to unprecedented heights, and in the case of rivers that do not usually flood, this could impact places far away from them. But such floods are rare and happen only once in 50 or 100 years. That, exactly, is the problem too. With the passing of generations, people forget how far the river will swell, but nature never forgets. Even after decades or centuries, the river reclaims its natural boundaries. By that time, humans may have built a resort or a hotel there, and all of that will be destroyed. Remember the ‘Great Flood’ of 99 (Malayalam era 1099) in Kerala. There are records that have documented how far the water levels of the rivers rose. It happened in July 1924. Most parts of Thiruvithamcode went under water and there were large-scale losses…but most people in Kerala today have forgotten it. After the dams were built in Idukki, people are vying to build ‘beautiful’ houses on the banks of Periyar.

“It is in those parts that were submerged during the 1924 flood that we have built establishments ranging from pesticide factories to airports as part of our ‘development’ during the last 50 years. Statistically, it is a fact that such rains will occur again, and these places, too, will be submerged again. So before we build more flats or supermarkets, it would be wise to check whether such places were submerged in floods earlier.

“There is a general understanding that dams prevent floods, and it is true during most of the years. But during huge floods, dams are double-edged swords. During the floods in Pakistan in 2010, and in Thailand in 2011, the dams actually worsened the situation. When water levels rise beyond limits, and when the shutters of dams are raised only considering the safety of dams, it multiplies the intensity of the tragedy that unfolds below. At the same time, if dams are not opened during floods, it could turn into a tragedy for people who live above the dams. In many places, during the time of floods, there are often arguments and fights between people living below and above the dams.”

I made these predictions entirely based on my experience in dealing with many disasters in other parts of the world. I had also suggested that there are ecosystem-based approaches to disaster risk reduction by which one could continue to develop but still reduce the risks from floods.

I wrote: “What needs to be done is to reserve enough land for the river to expand during flood times. That means, not to build houses near the river but reserve them for agricultural purposes, and declare in advance that farmers will be compensated for any loss due to flood, if at all it occurs. If there are cities near rivers, they have to be protected by building safety walls, but never let the density of population rise beyond a point. That is what is happening in many parts of Europe now. Institutions like the United Nations Environment Organisation are propagating these ideas as a measure to prevent environmental disasters.

“The disasters due to floods are further worsened by landslides and debris flow near the origins of the river. Both are man-made disasters caused by people occupying steep hill slopes, building roads and undertaking construction there. These actions invite disasters. In Kerala, in addition to all these crimes, there is extensive quarrying too.”

Actually, a “flood” is not a natural disaster; it is a natural phenomenon. It is due to floods that many positive things, such as the recharging of groundwater and the increase in micronutrients, and so on, happen in the river valleys. If we adopt land use planning that recognises the natural boundaries of rivers, if we do not destroy forests in the catchment areas, if we do not destroy the hills, any huge rain will find its way through land. On the contrary, if we build houses, hotels, factories and airports along river valleys, we cannot complain about them as natural tragedies when the river reclaims its rightful space.

It is a common fact across the world that communities forget about disasters very quickly. However great the disaster is, the society forgets it in a few decades. Japan has developed an innovative approach to deal with this problem. Every time there is a tsunami, they mark it on the ground with a stone tablet—called “tsunami stone”—so that the information is passed on to the next generation. In Kerala, we should mark the boundaries till which the river reached physically in public institutions such as temples and panchayat offices.

However, now is not the time to ponder about how we could have avoided this tragedy. Instead, now is the time to look forward and plan a new Kerala. Naturally, the community wants to build back and that too, as soon as possible. However, if we rebuild in the same location, using the same building materials, then we are naturally recreating disaster risk. In that case, in another hundred years, our great grandchildren, who hopefully will be richer, will suffer even greater losses. We will be failing them as responsible forefathers if we let that happen. What we need to do is to create a risk-sensitive land use planning across the state, introduce new building technologies and train our people to respond to disasters better.

Dr Muralee Thummarukudy, Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations Environment Programme, is from Kerala. The opinions expressed are those of the author and may not be that of the U.N.

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