Last week, Kerala faced the brunt of an unprecedented flood, which has almost brought the state to a standstill. An anguished tweet put out by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan summed up the crisis: “Kerala is facing its worst flood in 100 years. 80 dams opened, 324 lives lost and 223,139 people are in about 1,500+ relief camps."
Worse is feared, with most of the 44 rivers of the state still in spate and the heavy downpour refusing to yield. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on the ground estimate that about 1 million people have been displaced and about 10,000km of roads washed away; the number of people moved to relief camps is spiking by the day and, as of Saturday, it was estimated at a staggering 374,658. In short, it is an unprecedented calamity and the scale of devastation is scary.
What happened? Undoubtedly, the trigger is excess rain: in the week ended 15 August, rainfall was at a staggering 255% in excess of normal—too much rain in too short a period. This deadly impact of extreme weather got exacerbated when it intersected with the fallout of continued environmental neglect (captured in the exhaustive report authored by a committee chaired by ecologist Madhav Gadgil) combined with the high density of population and unique geography of the state.
Without hurting the sensitivities of those whose lives have been severely disrupted by this situation, this tragedy, with the benefit of hindsight could have been avoided or at least mitigated. This is not to play a blame game—as some immature politicians are already doing—but it points to a larger lesson that can be learnt. It is a collective failure over decades.
The immediate takeaway is that the consequences of environmental neglect do not manifest in normal weather conditions. But when they intersect with extreme weather conditions—as it has happened in the case of Kerala—the impact can be devastating.
It is a lesson that should be held out nationally as this is neither the first nor will it be the last instance of extreme weather.
Call it climate change or whatever, but the incidence of extreme weather has been going up rather dramatically in the last three to four decades. According to the data base compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, the instances of extreme weather have gone up from 71 in the 1970s to about 224 in the 1990s and 350 in the first decade of the millennium.
More recently, we had the disaster that hit Kashmir when the Jhelum river overflowed and virtually drowned Srinagar; a year earlier, Odisha bore the brunt of the cyclonic storm Phailin, the worst since 1999; in the same year the Chaurabari lake spilled over and inundated Kedarnath (miraculously, the shrine escaped serious damage); and then in 2010 there was a cloudburst in Leh—given its remote location even rescue work was hampered. Clearly, extreme weather conditions are here to stay.
The only response then is mitigation. The obvious first step is to ensure better preparedness to deal with such inclement situations and, in this, the dharma is forewarned is forearmed.
But going beyond, there are larger questions to be answered wherein the proffered solutions are not in simple binaries. Instead, they have to be weighed in terms of the risks associated with trade-offs: like environment vs development. At the moment this debate is framed as an either-or; this is a zero-sum game. The time has come to introduce an element of nuance in this debate. Maybe one option is to introduce sustainability in the assessment of any initiative.
But keep in mind that there will be no pat answers (as we are accustomed to in the binary public debates) and opportunistic politicians are bound to exploit the gaps to their own advantage. Regardless we can ignore nature’s latest warning only at our own national peril. Time we rose above our petty differences, arm ourselves with the resolve that “yes we can" and walk the talk on “India First".
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.