• The recent floods in the Kerala has brought the issue of Disaster Management again into the limelight.
  • Rise in average global temperatures have led to a worrying trend of no rain for long periods and then a sudden bout of excessive rainfall in short period.
  • Climate change has had extreme impacts in India causing extreme weather events, particularly floods which took lives, destroyed homes and agricultural yields as well as resulted in huge revenue losses.
  • The unique geography of Kerala, with its steep climbdown from 900m high elevations of the Western Ghats to the coast of Malabar, has resulted in a land with a vast riverine network.
  • There are no less than 44 fast flowing rivers that drain the rainwater Kerala is blessed with into the Arabian Sea.It is a lifeline that supports a very fertile land, some of the most singular flora, fauna and also a people and their lives in a symbiotic way.
  • But the recent onset of South West monsoon and the failure of Kerala government to tackle it has brought Kerala again into the world’s view.
Definition of Flood:
  • Flood is such a high stage in a water course i.e. river, river tributary or a water retaining body i.e. lake, pond, reservoir, seas, ocean or other low-lying areas – the level at which water over flows over its banks and inundates the adjoining areas.
  • They are one of the natural calamities that India faces almost every year in varying degree of magnitude.
Major reasons Behind Floods:
  • This drainage basin has seen massive urbanisation over the last two decades with the erstwhile wisdom of coexistence with the State’s waterways beginning to fade away.
  • This linear development which has been along major road networks, has completely ignored the varying and ecologically sensitive landscape.
  • Substantial portions of revenue lands in the State are wetlands and forests, which has resulted in a shortage of buildable land parcels.
  • This in turn is creating huge pressure on these ecologically fragile areas for conversion to government-supported infrastructure projects as well as private profit-making enterprises.
  • With increased deforestation, the surface run-off has increased at the cost of infiltration, leading to tons of sediment being deposited on the riverbed on reaching the plains reducing carrying capacity further. Building dams will exacerbate this effect.
  • There are various factors, including wide variation in rainfall over time and space and inadequate carrying capacity of rivers.
  • The problems get accentuated due to silting, bank erosion, landslides, poor natural drainage, glacial lake outburst, etc.
Implementation Failures:
  • All landslide and flood-affected areas in the State are in Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ-1), as categorised by the Madhav Gadgil report. This shows the failure to visionise the fore coming danger.
  • The Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) report that was prepared by the UN for Kerala following the massive flooding of 2018 looks at some of the gaps in law and policy.
  • The State Action Plans on Climate Change elucidate measures for disaster-risk reduction in the wake of an increasing frequency of heavy rainfall in turn leading to more flooding and landslides.
  • Though plans and laws such as Integrated Water Resources Management or Coastal Regulation Zone Notification hold key solutions to natural disasters that are linked to water management, most of them are not implemented or followed to the letter.
  • A lack of holistic and coordinated measures within planning departments has resulted in further problems. Also missing are key pieces of legislation for housing and land use in fragile zones which allow buildability but with sensitive development.
Master Plan Focus:
  • Worldwide there are cities and regions that deal most successfully with heavier precipitation in much less favourable topography than that of Kerala.
  • The dire need is for watershed-based master planning and development legislated guidelines for each major river basin, especially those that impact densely populated settlements.
  • Primarily, such master plans should focus on the following areas.
1. Proper Demarcation:
  • There must be a demarcation of ecologically sensitive zones using existing village survey maps and public participation.
  • There must be clear land use plan for these zones specifying flood plains, protected forest areas, agricultural and plantation zones, with details of the types of crops, building usages permitted and the density of buildings permitted.
2. Proper Compensation:
  • To compensate owners in non-buildable areas, there must be strategies such as Transfer of Development Rights to buildable zones in cities.
3. Ecologically sensitive Building Strategies:
  • The master plan should focus on permitting only ecologically sensitive building strategies for these areas by proposing new construction techniques.
  • Controlled development can be proposed using building height rules, floor area ratio control, and restrictions on cutting and filling natural land.
4. Strict Scrutiny:
  • Strategies to make sure that all infrastructure projects are carried out in a scientific manner with strict scrutiny must be specified.
  • This should include roads built on difficult terrain and all public infrastructure projects in wetlands and the High Ranges.
5. Skill Development:
  • An intensive and sensitive hydrology-driven master plan requires very specialised expertise and experience which may not be readily available in our homegrown available pool of resources.
  • The State should not shy away from acquiring the most appropriate skills to implement this urgently given the massive damage to life and property it now faces both in the short and long term.
  • A complete overhaul of processes to hire technical expertise which allows access to necessary skills, and with a long-term vision of capacity building of local agencies.
Need of the hour – Updation of laws and Implementation:
  • The need of the hour is for a review and revision of building bye-laws for urban and rural areas in accordance with bettering environmental sustainability.
  • In 2017, a judgment of the High Court of Kerala mandating the inclusion of a clause in building rules which stated that the natural drains and streams shall not be obstructed by this development/building permit has yet to come into effect.
  • The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008 which has immense potential to preserve such land as natural watershed buffers — has suffered too many dilutions even as rampant reclamation of paddy lands continues.
  • The absence of a databank on paddy lands and wetlands as mandated by the law, has only exacerbated the issue.
Major Initiatives in order to deal with floods:
  • Policy Statement 1954
  • High-Level Committee on Floods – 1957
  • Policy Statement of 1958
  • National Flood Commission (Rashtriya Barh Ayog) 1980
  • Expert Committee to Review the Implementation of the Recommendations of National Flood Commission – 2003 (R Rangachari Committee)
  • National Water Policy (1987/2002/2012)
Way Ahead:
  • Copenhagen in Denmark, which faces a similar problem of repeated flooding, has come up with active cloudburst responsive planning as a process to develop the city in line with climate change needs.
  • After the floods in Kerala in 2018, the Chief Minister’s team visited the Netherlands to learn how cities with high levels of a water footprint are dealing with climate change issues.
  • Though we cannot just transfer or have carbon copy solutions from Europe, we must learn from each experience in order to collectively formulate strategies that address our needs.
  • Furthermore, post-disaster management of land and geography needs imaginative actions by the authorities and people in order to reverse the damage already done.
  • The floods in 2018 brought high levels of silt from the highlands, reducing river depths and narrowing river mouths. A year later, this silt has not been cleared, reducing the carrying capacity of rivers.
  • Serious strategies are required by the government and the people to reclaim groundwater percolation and flood plains.
  • Kerala needs to adopt watershed-based master planning and review building laws.
  • Legal processes and bye-laws need revisions. The water footprint needs to be reinstated, and the relationship with water resources rebuilt.
  • This may be the only way we can face a future of changing weather patterns.
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