Time to be­gin anew

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WHAT is sad about this dis­as­ter is the fact that this was so pre­dictable. I had, in fact, pre­dicted it. Af­ter the 2013 Ut­tarak­hand dis­as­ter, I had writ­ten: “[An] as­tound­ing quan­tity of wa­ter rushes through the rivers at once dur­ing floods. It could raise wa­ter lev­els to un­prece­dented heights, and in the case of rivers that do not usu­ally flood, this could im­pact places far away from them. But such floods are rare and hap­pen only once in 50 or 100 years. That, ex­actly, is the prob­lem too. With the pass­ing of gen­er­a­tions, peo­ple for­get how far the river will swell, but na­ture never for­gets. Even af­ter decades or cen­turies, the river re­claims its nat­u­ral bound­aries. By that time, hu­mans may have built a re­sort or a ho­tel there, and all of that will be de­stroyed. Re­mem­ber the ‘Great Flood’ of 99 (Malay­alam era 1099) in Ker­ala. There are records that have doc­u­mented how far the wa­ter lev­els of the rivers rose. It hap­pened in July 1924. Most parts of Thiru­vitham­code went un­der wa­ter and there were large-scale losses…but most peo­ple in Ker­ala to­day have for­got­ten it. Af­ter the dams were built in Idukki, peo­ple are vy­ing to build ‘beautiful’ houses on the banks of Peri­yar.

“It is in those parts that were sub­merged dur­ing the 1924 flood that we have built es­tab­lish­ments rang­ing from pes­ti­cide fac­to­ries to air­ports as part of our ‘devel­op­ment’ dur­ing the last 50 years. Sta­tis­ti­cally, it is a fact that such rains will oc­cur again, and these places, too, will be sub­merged again. So be­fore we build more flats or su­per­mar­kets, it would be wise to check whether such places were sub­merged in floods ear­lier.

“There is a gen­eral un­der­stand­ing that dams pre­vent floods, and it is true dur­ing most of the years. But dur­ing huge floods, dams are dou­ble-edged swords. Dur­ing the floods in Pak­istan in 2010, and in Thai­land in 2011, the dams ac­tu­ally wors­ened the sit­u­a­tion. When wa­ter lev­els rise beyond lim­its, and when the shut­ters of dams are raised only con­sid­er­ing the safety of dams, it mul­ti­plies the in­ten­sity of the tragedy that un­folds be­low. At the same time, if dams are not opened dur­ing floods, it could turn into a tragedy for peo­ple who live above the dams. In many places, dur­ing the time of floods, there are of­ten ar­gu­ments and fights be­tween peo­ple liv­ing be­low and above the dams.”

I made these pre­dic­tions en­tirely based on my ex­pe­ri­ence in deal­ing with many dis­as­ters in other parts of the world. I had also sug­gested that there are ecosys­tem-based ap­proaches to dis­as­ter risk re­duc­tion by which one could con­tinue to de­velop but still re­duce the risks from floods.

I wrote: “What needs to be done is to re­serve enough land for the river to ex­pand dur­ing flood times. That means, not to build houses near the river but re­serve them for agri­cul­tural pur­poses, and de­clare in ad­vance that farm­ers will be com­pen­sated for any loss due to flood, if at all it oc­curs. If there are cities near rivers, they have to be pro­tected by build­ing safety walls, but never let the den­sity of pop­u­la­tion rise beyond a point. That is what is hap­pen­ing in many parts of Europe now. In­sti­tu­tions like the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion are prop­a­gat­ing these ideas as a mea­sure to pre­vent en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters.

“The dis­as­ters due to floods are fur­ther wors­ened by land­slides and de­bris flow near the ori­gins of the river. Both are man-made dis­as­ters caused by peo­ple oc­cu­py­ing steep hill slopes, build­ing roads and un­der­tak­ing con­struc­tion there. These ac­tions in­vite dis­as­ters. In Ker­ala, in ad­di­tion to all these crimes, there is ex­ten­sive quar­ry­ing too.”

Ac­tu­ally, a “flood” is not a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter; it is a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. It is due to floods that many pos­i­tive things, such as the recharg­ing of ground­wa­ter and the in­crease in mi­cronu­tri­ents, and so on, hap­pen in the river val­leys. If we adopt land use plan­ning that recog­nises the nat­u­ral bound­aries of rivers, if we do not de­stroy forests in the catch­ment ar­eas, if we do not de­stroy the hills, any huge rain will find its way through land. On the con­trary, if we build houses, ho­tels, fac­to­ries and air­ports along river val­leys, we can­not com­plain about them as nat­u­ral tragedies when the river re­claims its right­ful space.

It is a com­mon fact across the world that com­mu­ni­ties for­get about dis­as­ters very quickly. How­ever great the dis­as­ter is, the so­ci­ety for­gets it in a few decades. Ja­pan has de­vel­oped an in­no­va­tive ap­proach to deal with this prob­lem. Every time there is a tsunami, they mark it on the ground with a stone tablet—called “tsunami stone”—so that the in­for­ma­tion is passed on to the next gen­er­a­tion. In Ker­ala, we should mark the bound­aries till which the river reached phys­i­cally in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions such as tem­ples and pan­chayat of­fices.

How­ever, now is not the time to pon­der about how we could have avoided this tragedy. In­stead, now is the time to look for­ward and plan a new Ker­ala. Nat­u­rally, the com­mu­nity wants to build back and that too, as soon as pos­si­ble. How­ever, if we re­build in the same lo­ca­tion, us­ing the same build­ing ma­te­ri­als, then we are nat­u­rally recre­at­ing dis­as­ter risk. In that case, in an­other hun­dred years, our great grand­chil­dren, who hope­fully will be richer, will suf­fer even greater losses. We will be fail­ing them as re­spon­si­ble fore­fa­thers if we let that hap­pen. What we need to do is to cre­ate a risk-sen­si­tive land use plan­ning across the state, in­tro­duce new build­ing tech­nolo­gies and train our peo­ple to re­spond to dis­as­ters bet­ter.

Dr Mu­ralee Thum­marukudy, Chief of Dis­as­ter Risk Re­duc­tion, United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme, is from Ker­ala. The opin­ions ex­pressed are those of the au­thor and may not be that of the U.N.

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