Widespread Quarrying, Soil Erosion Make Floods Worse in Kerala's North

Environmental experts blame the Centre's and the state's dismissal of the Gadgil report recommendations for Kerala's current plight.

For Kerala, the first weekend of August was just a repeat of last year as torrential rain wreaked havoc across the state. Two village neighbourhoods, in Malappuram and Wayanad districts, were wiped out by massive landslides. According to local residents, around 80 people are missing. Twenty-eight bodies – 19 from Kavalappara in Malappuram and nine from Puthumala in Wayanad – had been recovered as on August 12.

Seventy-five people have lost their lives across the state, according to official sources. This year, the Malabar area has faced the brunt of the onslaught. Four districts in this area were hit by 84 landslides. In preparation, over 60,000 people from more than 75,000 families have been shifted to 1,650 relief camps spread across 13, with Kollam being the only exception.

Kavalappara, a village about 25 km from Nilambur town, has not recovered from the shock yet. People continue to excavate the area to recover bodies. Earthmovers and other machinery has been deployed, but the process has been time-consuming as usual. Villagers who lost their loved ones have also joined the rescue effort.

Also read: Kerala Floods: Search for Missing Persons Continues After Landslides

“We have to be very careful using the machinery to excavate buried people. After all, it is a human body, and we cannot do it in haste,” Rekha Nambiar, a member of the NDRF Chennai regiment and leader of the 30-member team, told The Wire.

According to the state’s soil conservation department, a soil-piping issue exacerbated the flood damage in Puthumala. Officials estimate that nine separate mudslides deposited around five lakh tonnes of mud in the Puthumala area. Disaster management experts explained that when water erodes the surface of the ground, it creates an underground tunnel called a soil pipe.

Such hollows usually begin in the form of small pores and become larger with more erosion, sometimes widening enough to allow a human to crawl through. In places where the soil is porous or loose, water moves into the soil pipes and further weakens the land, causing the materials above to collapse inward and create a depression in the ground.

Indeed, many survivors think this tragedy could have been averted had they been alerted of the risk of mudslides. The Geological Survey of India had conducted a study after the floods last year, according to one of the members of the team. “We heard that it had a suggestion about the fragile nature of the region, but no follow up action was taken on it,” Ramesh Kumar, an engineering student involved in the rescue operations, said. The member however added that “the report is yet to be submitted to the authorities.”

Environmentalists have been of the view that excessive quarrying is to blame for the floods being as bad as they are this time. According to T.V. Sajeev, of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, there are 27 quarries within 5 km of Kavalappara, of which seven are still active. He added that the large scale change of crops and unrestricted construction on sensitive areas contribute to the ecological imbalance.

He and his peers are unhappy with the Centre’s and state’s dismissal of the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, prepared by Madhav Gadgil. The panel had suggested classifying a 140,000-sq.-km swath of the Western Ghats as ‘ecologically sensitive’. But after much dawdling, the Centre notified only 56,824 sq. km last year. The Kerala government was also against implementing the report in full because it considered the report to be against the interests of farmers across the region.

D. Mohankumar, a meteorologist, speculated that a cloudburst could have triggered the major landslides in northern Kerala. “Cloudburst is a sudden, very heavy rainfall, usually local in nature and brief. This is a rare phenomenon but occurs in Himalayan regions,” he explained. “It happens in large cumulonimbus clouds through a process called Langmuir precipitation,” whereby small droplets rapidly fuse to form larger droplets. “It may cause flash floods suddenly.”

Workers have also reported that they haven’t received as much relief material or financial support as last year. The blame for a part of this has been laid with right-wing trolls on social media, who have alleged that the state’s CPI(M) is misappropriating funds. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has rubbished the allegations. But there are other reasons, too.

“People, especially those who live in the southern part of the state, have not recovered from last year’s devastation,” Mujeeb Rahman, a surgeon with a city hospital, said. “Last year, almost all districts were affected and it could have resulted in people responding very positively. When it happens every year, not everybody will be able to contribute like they did earlier.”

P.K. Vijaya Lakshmi, who works with a bank in Kochi, said, “People do not have spendable money with them now. The economic situation is not very sound as it was last year, and the recession has hit commoners very hard.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party has been looking for a chance to push Vijayan onto the back foot. V. Muraleedharan, the minister of state for external affairs, has accused Vijayan’s government of not efficiently utilising the Rs 500 crore allocated by the Centre last year. At the same time, CPI(M) leaders have accused the Centre of ignoring Kerala after Union home minister Amit Shah conducted an aerial survey of the flood-hit areas of Karnataka and Maharashtra but skipped Kerala.

Also read: Why the Western Ghats Keep Conservationists at Loggerheads With Policymakers

However, the Congress-led opposition has not criticised the CPI(M) and has in fact extended its cooperation for relief and rescue operations. Rahul Gandhi, the MP of Wayanad, visited the affected areas and has said he will be camping in the constituency for a few days.

To the relief of the state’s people, the government has not sounded any alerts for the next three days. However, meteorologists are tracking another cyclonic depression over the Odisha coast that could bring more rain to Kerala by next week – the anniversary of last year’s disaster.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.