Fury of floods: Persistent neglect of drainage & conservation


Extraordinary tragedy in Kerala has brought into sharp focus the persistent, pervasive and profound neglect of drainage, waterbodies, conservation of catchment areas, excessive denudation of forest, and several other areas of resource management. With environmental clearance further relaxed by the Ministry of Forest and environment, such disasters are likely to recur more often and widely. The human deaths are most tragic but animal deaths are no less tragic. Let me enumerate the factors which are well known but needs restatement responsible for floods: having excessive rains in western ghat area is not extraordinary. In 1924, the rainfall was almost double but the loss was much less. Why has damage increased with less intense rainfall? The western ghats have been denuded and devastated with unbridled exploitation through mining. Gadgil Committee had suggested conservation measure which were ignored by everybody including civil society. His report was seen as anti-development. The chickens have come to roost now.

The damage in the catchment area can be easily seen through ISRO maps. The filling up of tanks and urban water bodies can also be mapped block by block through similar maps. The frequency of landslides, the turbidity of river water due to soil erosion and various other blockages of drainage can be mapped and quantified.

The point is clear: the persistent neglect of desilted tanks and cleaned up drainage channels is bound to precipitate floods with even lesser rain in future. This is a countrywide problem but Kerala is a special case because it receives already very heavy rainfall both at the time of onset and recession of monsoon.

The landslides and damage to the road are no less serious. Some of this will have a cascading effect. While rainfall cannot be managed, but its consequences can be. Post-flood several other adverse consequences for human, animal and environmental health are going to follow. The shallow water wells have been polluted by the flood, a lot of them will need cleaning and treatment. The carcass of animals which died due to floods will cause serious environmental and health problems. Collection of these carcasses and safe disposal would need a time-bound strategy. Use of DDT and such other persistent organic pollutants will be disastrous for the environment. They will further pollute the future generation through the breast milk of the mothers.

The damage to the buildings poses a challenge of disposing debris properly. The widely prevalent unfortunate practice of dumping waste in low lying areas will further clog the drainage channels. The floods will become more frequent.

The biodiversity in the western ghats helped in slowing down the flow of water and thus the rate of erosion. Higher the denundation and mining, greater the erosion and siltation of rivers and tanks and thus higher the overflow. The system of tanks all along the rivers acted as a buffer. Maharashtra recently witnessed hiring JCBs by self help groups and other NGOs to desilt the tanks before rain. The results have been extremely impressive. Kerala will have to create new rituals to take similar steps to ensure lesser fury of floods and minimal damage to property and people. Many infections will spread after flood and preventive medication for human and animal use are imperative. Rivers have dumped a lot of waste that we had put in them back into our backyards. Cleaning up of all these wastes without creating more problems requires careful thinking and application of technology and innovations in handling them.

The loss has been extraordinary and the Honey Bee Network expresses deep condolence to all the bereaved families. We feel equally sorry for the livestock and pets lost during flood. We will in fact be very disappointed if no lessons are learnt, no course correction takes place in the future policy of managing resources, drainage, conservation and sanitation. We are very optimistic that Kerala will show the way for the future transformation.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place