All is not quiet in the Western Ghats – but despite massive ecological disturbances governments carry on business as usual
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As the southwest monsoon reaches its fag end, it has left a trail of fury and destruction in many states of India for the third consecutive year. Beginning from the southern region of the country, a massive landslide occurred on August 6 in Rajamala in Idukki district, situated in Kerala’s Western Ghats region, claiming the lives of 70 people.
This tragedy was preceded by a massive landslide at Talacauvery temple at Brahmagiri hills in Kodagu district in Karnataka that killed five people, including the chief priest of the temple who got buried in the rubble. Godavari, the second longest river in the country that originates from the Western Ghats, got flooded on August 16, drowning many towns and villages in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Mumbai witnessed one of its worst floods after 2005, with many areas in south Mumbai getting submerged under water.
The six states that run along the western coastline of India – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat – are facing massive ecological disturbances like never before and the impacts are felt not only in the coastal cities and towns, but even in the hill ranges of Western Ghats. This year it began with the Nisarga cyclone that lashed across the Konkan coast, ravaging coastal regions in Raigad and Ratnagiri districts.
The symptoms have been manifesting over the past five years in coastal states like Kerala, where the southwest monsoon arrives with a splash in the first week of June every year. The landslide in Idukki is a classic example. Rajamala, where the landslide occurred, received 955 mm of rainfall in a week’s time between August 1-7. This is a clear indication that the uniform rainfall pattern in the Western Ghats region has disappeared.
A detailed study of rainfall data for 28 years in Wayanad by researchers Danish Kumar and Pavan Srinath found that the number of days receiving moderate amounts of rainfall was decreasing, but the number of days receiving low or very high rainfall was on the rise. But though Western Ghats region today is facing the brunt of climate change induced disasters no measures have been undertaken to mitigate the impact of these disasters. In Idukki, for instance, unscientific expansion of a hill road, on the gap road stretch of Kochi-Dhanushkodi national highway, was the main reason for landslides this year.
Similarly, post 2018 floods, the Karnataka government assigned the Geological Survey of India to find out the reasons for the 105 landslides that occurred in Coorg and the findings showed that majority of the landslides occurred due to unscientific human interventions in the natural landscape. In Goa alone, according to the Shah Commission report, Rs 35,000 crore worth of illegal mining occurred in the period between 2006-11, destroying thousands of hectares of forests.
Deforestation, mining, unscientific sloping of hills for construction of multi-storied buildings and mono-crop cultivation have aggravated the occurrence of landslides. An analysis by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s remote sensing centre showed that an appalling 35% of the original Western Ghats has been destroyed in a 93-year period between 1920-2013. The business as usual approach by the government may aggravate the ecological devastation in the Western Ghats region where water scarcity, droughts and loss of agricultural productivity are going to be the immediate fallouts of climate change and erratic southwest monsoon.
No longer can we see this crisis as a region specific problem as this is a question of survival for one-fourth of the population in India, which depends on drinking water supply from the 58 rivers that flows down from the Western Ghats. Unfortunately, all these rivers are today facing the brunt of pollution and water mismanagement, with rivers like Kaveri five times more polluted than Ganga. It is high time that an alternative and sustainable development model be envisaged for the entire Western Ghats region, especially as studies have shown that zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 and SARS are more likely to spread in areas where natural habitats have been destroyed.
Government should initiate landslide audits in the entire region, prepare micro maps in order to rehabilitate people from landslide prone areas, conduct river audits in all the rivers flowing from Western Ghats and mark the flood plains, undertake scientific reservoir management with the help of modern rainfall warning systems, stop mining in ecologically sensitive zones, provide incentives to farmers and tribal communities who undertake sustainable farming, and review proposed hydel projects which are set to get de facto clearances after the calamitous draft EIA Notification 2020 comes into effect.
Policy makers and state governments from all the six states along the Western Ghats region should join hands and take these urgent measures to protect one of the oldest ecosystems that is fast disappearing from the face of earth today.
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