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Climate Crisis

Landslides in Kerala more frequent due to climate change, deforestation

Print edition : Sep 05, 2022 T+T-

Landslides in Kerala more frequent due to climate change, deforestation

Paddy damaged by incessant rain in Palakkad in October 2021.

Paddy damaged by incessant rain in Palakkad in October 2021. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

Farmers, fisherfolk, labourers and other marginalised sections are the worst affected.

The dry, sunny afternoon at Vellottupuram in Puthanvelikkara, a village in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, hardly gives any inkling of the fact that this place was under water just about a week ago. Except for the puddles in the marshy areas. “This time, water merely touched the floor,” says Kochu Thresia, a villager in her late 60s, standing close to a small, single-storey house. “But water came till here in 2018,” she says, pointing to patches of exposed concrete on the walls that are at the level of her head.

The residents of this low-lying hamlet close to the confluence of the Chalakkudi and Periyar rivers are mainly labourers and fishermen. They say heavy floods have become an annual affair since 2018. “The kind of floods that we saw only once in 20-30 years have become annual now,” says Lohithakshan, a 70-something resident of Vellottupuram. “We want to leave this place but can’t afford to. Nobody wants to buy our land and even if someone does, the prices have fallen to Rs.30,000-Rs 50,000 a cent since the 2018 flood. What do we do?”

Flooding and landslides

All over Kerala, the monsoon pattern has been changing. This has, in combination with the widespread deforestation and denuding of hills, resulted in heavy floods and landslides especially during the Southwest monsoon when the State receives more than two-thirds of its annual rainfall. Experts attribute the changing rainfall pattern to climate change.

“There is not much variation in the total rainfall data over the season, but rainfall is concentrated over a fewer number of days,” says S. Abhilash, Research Director at Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research in Cochin University of Science and Technology. “Spells of heavy rain, which lead to calamities like floods and landslides, are a result of climate change induced by global warming.”

A landslide triggered by heavy rainfall in Rajamala area of Idukki district in August 2022.
A landslide triggered by heavy rainfall in Rajamala area of Idukki district in August 2022. | Photo Credit: ANI

His team has found that the nature of clouds is also changing: thicker cumulonimbus clouds, which extend up to 14 km in height and could create sudden, short spells of heavy rain over smaller areas, are forming over Kerala during the Southwest monsoon. Earlier, low-hanging, thinner clouds were usually the norm.

The 2018 floods, the worst in the State’s recent history, affected a sixth of the 3.3 crore population (Census 2011) and killed 483 people. That year, in just three days in August the State received a third of its average annual rainfall. Similar monsoonal calamities in 2019 and 2020 claimed more than 100 lives. In 2021, it was the Northwest monsoon which caused landslides and took dozens of lives.

Decreasing catch

According to estimates, 14.5 per cent of the State’s land area is prone to floods, with the proportion as high as 50 per cent in certain districts. Sections such as farmers, fisherfolk and labourers bear the brunt of the extreme events. “Due to storms and other climate-related factors, the number of days a fisherman could go to sea came down to 40 in 2021, compared to 120 days in 2012,” says Charles George, president, Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi.

As heavy rains in trigger high sea waves, fisherfolk move their boats away from the coast in Chellanam, near Kochi, in May 2021.
As heavy rains in trigger high sea waves, fisherfolk move their boats away from the coast in Chellanam, near Kochi, in May 2021. | Photo Credit: VIBHU H

The 1.5-lakh-strong fisherfolk community in Kerala has been witnessing a sharp drop in the sardine catch, the most sought-after fish in the State. Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute data show that last year’s catch was a meagre 3,297 tonnes, compared with 3.9 lakh tonnes in 2012. They attribute this steep drop to “unfavourable changes in ocean environment” and repeated cyclonic storms in the Arabian Sea during the monsoon.

“The Arabian Sea is warming at a high rate and with it, the possibility of severe cyclonic storms is rising. Earlier, cyclonic storms tended to form more in the Bay of Bengal than in the Arabian Sea, but that is changing,” says Abhilash. In 2017, Cyclone Ockhi killed more than 140 fishermen in Kerala during the Northeast monsoon. “For Kerala’s fisherfolk, climate change is the main cause of concern,” says George.

Also read:The next vanishing wetland?

Changing monsoonal patterns are affecting agriculture, too, in Kerala. A study by the Kozhikode-based Centre for Water Resource Development and Management between 2014 and 2019 showed that crop yields fell by up to 33 per cent in this period. Saji Joseph, a 54-year-old cardamom cultivator in Santhanpara, Idukki district, says that he lost 30 to 40 per cent of harvestable cardamom due to rot in the last two crop cycles. Incessant rain and increased humidity in the hilly areas have led to the spread of fungal disease.

Flooded Kochi in August 2022.
Flooded Kochi in August 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

“For the last few years, heavy rain goes on for several days, causing high humidity, which leads to rot. We don’t get enough time to apply chemicals. The rain also results in the non-availability of labour during the harvest season,” says Joseph.

Cultivators of rice, the staple in the State, are in dire straits. Already adversely affected by low profitability and rising labour costs, farmers are trying hard to tackle the waterlogging and flooding during harvest time. The area under paddy cultivation in Kerala dropped from 2,75,742 hectares in 2005 to 1,91,051 hectares in 2020, while total production dropped from 6,29,987 tonnes to 5,87,078 tonnes in this period, according to  Agriculture Statistics 2005-2020 published by the Department of Economics and Statistics.

Kuttanad in peril

Kuttanad in Alappuzha district, called the rice bowl of Kerala, is reclaimed land lying below sea level and supported by fragile dikes. Frequent floods have ravaged it. “Currently we are witnessing an exodus of people from Kuttanad,” says K.G. Padmakumar, director of the Kuttanad-based International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming. “The lands are sinking. With the rise in sea levels, there are also worries of a situation where a tidal flood from the sea and a river flood from land might hit at the same time.”

Kuttanad in Alappuzha was badly affected by the 2018 floods.
Kuttanad in Alappuzha was badly affected by the 2018 floods. | Photo Credit: TIBIN AUGUSTINE

Bindu K., from the hilly district of Wayanad, now works as a home nurse in northern Kozhikode. She decided to move out of her village when it became clear that she could not earn enough money there. “We had black pepper and some coffee that provided us with an income. Later on, due to untimely and heavy rains, the production, especially of black pepper, came down. I had to leave. My current job allows me some savings,” she says.

Agriculture employs 22 per cent of the State’s working population and contributes 8.4 per cent to the State economy, as per Kerala’s economic survey of 2021.

Suresh Babu, professor at the Economics Department of IIT Madras, calls the impact of climate change coupled with price fluctuations for agricultural produce a “double blow” to the State’s primary sector. “Many people who are forced to move out of the sector end up in low-end service jobs. Those who can’t do this, get marginalised. Kerala’s public policy needs to look at this challenge seriously,” he says. He points to the need for creating alternative livelihoods and more value-added jobs in the service sector.

Marginalised suffer most

It is the historically marginalised who have been most affected by the changing monsoon patterns. J. Devika, professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, points out that it is mainly Dalits and marginalised sections who stay in the most environmentally vulnerable areas of Kerala because they did not benefit from the much-celebrated land reforms. The Rebuild Kerala Development Programme document also acknowledges this, saying that floods and landslides disproportionately affect vulnerable groups such as women, the elderly, children, persons with disabilities, Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and fisherfolk.

“The nature of clouds is also changing: thicker cumulonimbus clouds, which extend up to 14 km in height and could create sudden, short spells of heavy rain over smaller areas, are forming over Kerala during the Southwest monsoon.”

Devika is of the opinion that strengthening local government institutions is necessary to find solutions suited to each locality and create income opportunities. “Top-down technical solutions have become the fashion. That has to change,” she says.

Also read:Disquiet in the Ghats

But how aware is Kerala of such challenges?

“Media and civil society organisations need to have climate change in their active discourse. I don’t see serious debates happening in television channels or newspapers,” says Resmi P. Bhaskaran, a policy analyst who has done ground-level work in flood-affected areas as part of humanitarian response teams.

The Kerala government created the Institute for Climate Change Studies (ICCS) in 2014. It is currently being revamped as a single-window agency that supplies policymakers and administrators at various levels and departments of government with climate-related data and information. “Awareness won’t happen in a day. But we are working towards that by conducting workshops, through collaborative efforts and creating channels with different stakeholders,” says D. Sivananda Pai, Director, ICCS. “Making various stakeholders work together is challenging. It is like running a coalition government,” he adds.

Sruthin Lal is an independent journalist and co-founder of the Archival and Research Project, which works to promote Kerala’s cultural heritage.