India is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and the densely populated state of Kerala is among the most susceptible to natural disasters.
As the first state in India to face the monsoon winds that roll in from the Arabian Sea, Kerala receives one of the highest levels of rainfall in the country. However, its undulating terrain drains most of this rainwater into the sea, leaving it prone to summer droughts, followed by months of intense monsoon rainfall.
“Till very recently, Wayanad, like most parts of Kerala had six different types of rain, each with its own sound, pace, color and even smell.” Cheruvayil Raman, a farmer from Wayanad.
Climate change is now increasing the intensity and frequency of both floods and droughts in the state. And the rapidly warming Arabian Sea has rendered it more susceptible to cyclones, which were once rare off the Kerala coast.
The 2018 floods —the worst in a century — proved to be a wake-up call. Heavy monsoon rains caused landslides in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats and swollen rivers swept rapidly down the hillsides, taking barely a few hours to flood the densely populated plains below. The impacts were exacerbated by growing human settlements on land where the water would have otherwise run through. The state was also unprepared to cope with the huge scale of disaster.
One sixth of Kerala’s population — about 5.4 million — was affected, with widespread loss of life, property and habitats, especially in the Pamba river basin, the rice bowl of the state. Over 10,000 kilometers of roads were torn up and thousands of homes destroyed, leading to financial losses of $3.74 billion (INR 267.20 billion).
The devastation led the state to rethink its development paradigm and accelerate long-pending policy and institutional reforms to build a resilient Nava Keralam (New Kerala).
“Kerala is known for its social development model, its health model, and its 100 percent literacy model. Now we need to be known for our ecological awareness model.” Viju B., Environmental Journalist, Times of India, Kochi.