Post Flood Kerala In The Age of Climate Change And Peak Oil

kerala floods 1

A month has passed since the mammoth Kerala floods. I’ve travelled through many flood affected areas and talked to many affected people. The loss is huge many of them are irreparable. Even after one month many people haven’t come out of the psychological trauma caused by the floods. Many say they feel a heaviness in their heart. They feel weak in their limbs. Many shop owners haven’t reopened their shops that were damaged in the flood since they don’t have the will power to rebuild their lives.

Since the epic Kerala floods hurricane Florence hit the United States, Typhoon Mangkhut hit Philippines. The loss and psychological trauma of the affected people in those storms could be similar to what Keralites feel. Climate Change is not just breaking properties, but also the human desire to carry on with their lives. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)  should study this aspect of climate change also.

Coming back to Kerala, how realistic is Kerala’s chances of survival by the end of this century? According to IPCC  estimates the sea level could rise by 65 centimeters by the end of the century. IPCC reports are conservative due to political reasons. A recent  paper published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Science (Will Steffen et al.) found that the Earth was heading for a tipping point, known as a “hothouse” climate, which could lead to average temperatures up to 5 oC higher than pre-industrial temperatures and rises in sea level of between 10 and 60 meters.

What’s the prospect of Kerala in such a scenario?

Kerala is a land mass of 38,863 Sq.Km criss crossed with 44 rivers originating from the Western Ghats. It also has a series of back water or lagoons spread across Kerala. They are actually wetlands.  The largest of which the Vembanad has an area of 1521.5 Sq. Km. It is fed by 10 rivers flowing into it, adding up to a total drainage area of 15,770 sq km. There are other smaller wetlands also lying across the state. Legend is that Kerala emerged from the Arabian sea. In many parts of Kerala if we dig a few meters, several kilometers inland we find sea shells. That proves that the legend may be true and Kerala is a gift of the Arabian sea. There are several densely populated areas which have only recently been formed and their origin historically recorded.

At the time of independence in 1947 Kerala’s population stood at 15 million. At that time Kerala was mainly an agricultural economy using traditional tools. People were barely able to make ends meet. Many people were in semi-starvation state especially after the devastating second world war famine. During that period a lot of people migrated to the Western Ghats in search of food and livelihood. The government even promoted the migration.  The advent of fossil fuel based economy rapidly developed Kerala  and the population now stands at 35 million. Kerala is one of the most densely populated areas in India.

The Gulf boom of 1980s and the globalization of the 1990s changed Kerala forever. The small state became a realtor’s dream land. Property prices sky rocketed. Lots of wetlands were reclaimed. Paddy fields were filled.  Lush green agricultural lands and paddy fields gave way to palatial houses. Needless to say, the rapacious development destroyed the fragile ecology of Kerala.   Many of the houses were built on the flood zones of the rivers. The building of 43 dams upstream of these rivers on the one hand destroyed the ecology of the area on the other hand allowed people to build these houses downstream. Many of the dams are past decommissioning, especially the 120 plus year old Mullaperiyar dam. The opening of 35 dams during the floods aggravated the situation. So, the flood was natural as well as manmade. In the scenario of breakage of any one of these dams, hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost.

IPCC reports state that extreme weather events could repeat in 5-10 year period. We are witnessing this reality from around the world. In the face of another monumental flood which is bound to repeat in the next ten year period, Kerala will see even more calamities. The sad fact is that the Communist led Left Front government of Kerala has not learnt any lesson from the flood and went ahead to give consultancy contract to the global consultancy giant KPMG to rebuild Kerala. The writing on the wall is clear. The same capitalist developmental model will continue, destroying even more of Kerala’s fragile ecology.  Calls to create a people centric developmental model have fallen on deaf years.

Climate Change create just not floods. Drought is another threatening proposition for Kerala. If a drought hits Kerala, most of Kerala will face even more mammoth challenge than the present floods. Most of the water sheds have been destroyed by the rapacious ‘development’.  Most of the cities and towns of Kerala draw drinking water from rivers. If there is slow down of inflow of water, saline water from the sea will rush upstream and people will be left without any drinking water. A drought can trigger wild fires in the Western Ghats and its  pristine evergreen forests could be damaged. Already the Western Ghats area is facing multiple problems due to unscientific agricultural practices of the farmers, quarrying etc. In fact, most of the top soil of the agricultural lands are gone and is slowly turning them into deserts.

What if the kind of sea level rise predicted by the ‘hothouse earth’ study happens? Most of Keralites will have to run to the Western Ghats as climate refugees, destroying more of the forest cover left now, completely destroying its ecosystem. Needless to say, millions will die in the process.

Let’s now come to a related topic.

iea peak oil

World Energy Outlook report released by International Energy agency admitted that ‘conventional oil’(easy to extract oil) peaked in 2005. As predicted by the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ study, the end of oil age (Peak Oil) is near. Will it be happy news on the global warming front? Not really, the world has started to use more dirty fuel from fracking, tar sands etc. The game will continue to the very END. What it means for Kerala is this, millions of expatriates who send billions of dollars worth money home, especially from the Arabian Gulf will have to return home. The trend has already started happening. A cash dry Kerala is another tragedy waiting to happen.

A monumental flood has shaken the psyche of Kerala and driven many into emotional trauma. This traumatic flood is just the beginning. Where to run? Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide!

Only chance left for Kerala is to join the climate justice movement and ask for immediate carbon reduction strategies from the developed world and the developing world, including India. Otherwise, Kerala will head into its logical end, that is under the Arabian sea, and the Western Ghats a waste land.

Binu Mathew is the Editor of He can be reached at [email protected]

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