I had come home to Kerala looking forward to celebrate a quite Onam with my family. We enjoyed the monsoons which started off in a sing-song manner. Unfortunately within few days the rains quickly gave way to monstrous floods the state has ever faced for over a century since the great flood of 1924.
The rude shock of floods quickly turned into rescue operations which saw many firsts like being the largest disaster relief exercise by the Air force which also included mobile hospitals for the first time. The Army ,media, online groups, web platforms worked tirelessly to help those trapped in their homes. Several schools, halls and institutions became rescue camps and the more fortunate ones worked day and night as volunteers in these camps.
Following the rescue operations comes the next task of getting back to normal life. 60,000 volunteers descended in Kuttanad for first-of-its-kind clean up with ministers joining in followed by cleaning and repair operations throughout the state. Now the question is what happens after the political blame games, anticipations, pilot study reports, and several new revelations ranging from dangers of dams to major risks of climate change.
The new notion in air is to rebuild Kerala which should be reframed as “rebuild Kerala in better way”. Here is our stellar opportunity for a second chance in developing sensibly. The basic questions to be thought of are what is wrong with the current system of planning in Kerala and how to be resilient to risks in the future, thanks to climate change.
The focus should be on five major areas of development. The first and foremost is taking necessary steps to curtain water borne diseases like Dengue, Malaria etc that spread easily. Vaccinations, preventive medicines, provision for drinking water and awareness among people can go a long way.
Creating databases recording the loss of life and property and then creating livelihood opportunities for those who have lost everything in floods should be the next area of focus. Even unique and culturally significant small scale production units like those in the Weaver’s village of Chendamangalam and hand-made mirror industry of Aranmula have suffered severly. Creating a scientific unified system for rebuilding Kerala through which livelihood opportunities can be provided through beneficiary led constructions, employment in data collections, surveys and roles in rebuilding the lost infrastructure of their own villages by providing them with steady wages and helping them with incentives could be focus of the state. Such reconstructions should be easier and needs to be under a common umbrella along with the concerned departments and not to be lost in tangles of government proceedings.
When it comes to reconstruction we need to look into the future in terms of the choice of materials for construction and also new concepts of construction adopted worldwide which is to be integrated into the vernacular settings. An example would be “amphibious” houses that float to escape flooding. It rests on the ground under normal conditions and rises up in its dock and floats, buoyed by the flood water. These are found to be slightly expensive , however when other solutions like floating houses on drums , houses on stilts etc when integrated with the concept can bring solutions that are affordable to the common people living close to the rivers and backwaters of Kerala. Multi -sustainable construction materials like ferrocement can also be used which is a lightweight combination of wire mesh and cement mortar.
The fourth area of focus should be strategic sustainable planning for the future. Kuttanad and Aleppey the most affected areas of flood, are often called as the “Holland of the East” mainly because of its geographic conditions in which the region lies below sea level and it’s highly fertile agricultural lands. Holland suffered heavy flooding in the years 1170 and 1953 but now the Dutch now takes pride in the internationally acclaimed and intricate scientific system of flood relief evolved as part of their lifestyle. The wind mills of Netherlands pumps out excess water from the floods and clear space for agriculture and settlement. The highly fertile lands created from flooding are a boon which makes the country the second largest exporter of agricultural goods. Rijkswaterstaat is higher body responsible for the design, construction, management and maintenance of the main infrastructure facilities in the Netherlands which includes roadways, waterways and water systems. However it is shocking to find that in Kerala dams found in one particular river is handled by multiple departments which makes it difficult to manage at times of crisis. In 1995 when the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Waal flooded beyond proportions, a new concept called as “room for river “ came about which would be the best option to choose from the Dutch flood control systems in the current scenario. Instead of fighting the floods co-existing with it by creating emergency spaces like ponds, fallow lands, parks and other open recreational spaces for the water to flow into. The excess water is diverted to other areas. A fool proof emergency plan to handle situations like floods and cyclones needs to be prepared as climate change can bring in more similar surprises into our lives.
The highlands like Idukki and Wayanad hold unprecedented growth and thereby equal amount of destruction. Micro Vulnerability Risk analysis and Hazard mapping needs to be conducted to identify areas that needs to be reserved as No Development zones considering slope, erosion, landslide risks, vegetative cover, settlement density, ecology pattern, soil type etc.
Creating Green Kerala is the fifth area which should be the overall theme for any developmental works undertaken by the Government and private parties. Being a sustainable organic state can be a better way to attract tourists and to be in the market for Responsible tourism than relying merely on the kindness bestowed by nature.
The rivers have vomited back the plastic wastes thrown in carelessly as a second chance to reuse and recycle for uses in construction, road making and other infrastructure development. C3 C4 category plants, plants of Nycataginacea’ Graminae, Pocacia family , mangroves etc can rectify heavy metal contamination and erosion sustainably.
The recent amendment to the The Kerala Conservation of Paddy and Wetland act – 2008 dilutes the original intention of conserving wetlands through ambiguous definition of public use which may lead to misuse of paddy lands by real estate mafia and land grabbers. The new amendment in which government usurps the local and district committee powers with regard to wetland and paddy fields without an Environmental Impact Assesment (EIA) needs to be looked into. The wetland and paddy land data banks needs to be updated along with clear understanding of assigned land uses. Master plans need to be developed with disaster emergency plans. CRZ violation is also another loosely held issue in Kerala which needs to be dealt with strictly creating an understanding that the future sufferers are the ones who break the law.
What drives the challenge should be a vision for climate resilient future with all of the state’s resources restored and the needs of the people to be addressed with zero taxing on the nature. The world now awaits stories of a courageous come back for Kerala.