Fortune & Misfortune On Kerala’s Backwaters

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Partially submerged houses in Kerala, India last August. REUTERS / SIVARAM V

Any picture of a houseboat reminds me of our good fortune to live among the people of Kerala’s backwaters from 2010-2017. The photo below is no exception and I thank Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, for bringing to my attention the scale of misfortune facing our old neighbors from the most recent flooding. I knew about the disaster, but had not read in any detail until now what this implies for the future. Maybe this fortune could be applied to address those challenges:

In India, Nature’s Power Overwhelms Engineered Wetlands

The picturesque Kerala backwaters in southern India, increasingly popular with tourists, form a network of engineered canals, lagoons, lakes, and rice paddies. But a fatal monsoon deluge has highlighted the global problem of how developed wetlands often lose their capacity to absorb major floods.

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Floodwaters inundated much of Kerala’s low-lying coastal plain, including the village of Pandanad, pictured here. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In India, they call the state of Kerala in the country’s far south “God’s own country.” That wasn’t how it felt last August, when monsoon floods devastated its densely populated low-lying coastal plain. Around 500 people drowned, in an area best known to outsiders for its placid backwatersa network of brackish lakes, lagoons, and canals where growing numbers of Western tourists cruise the picturesque waterways aboard luxury houseboats.

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A luxury houseboat moored along Lake Vembanad near the tourist town of Kumarakom in Kerala. FRED PEARCE / YALE E360

Now that the floodwaters have abated, questions are being raised about whether the disaster was made worse by water engineering projects in the backwaters designed to feed the state’s population and attract tourists. Increasingly, Kerala residents are wondering if “God’s own country” is damned as well as dammed.

The floods came out of the Western Ghats. This chain of mountains down the west side of India is one of the country’s wettest places, drenched from June to September in monsoon. In early August, the rains there were exceptionally intense and unremitting. The rivers flowing from the mountains west toward the Arabian Sea dumped their water into the backwaters on a coastal plain that is largely below sea level.

Sixty-mile-long Lake Vembanad, at the heart of the backwaters, rose up and flooded surrounding wetlands and rice paddies, cities, and farming villages. A quarter-million people took refuge in 1,500 relief camps; 6,200 miles of roads and 115 square miles of farmland were damaged. Cochin International Airport was awash.

Four months on, when I visited, the cleanup had been largely completed in many places. Often all that was left was the high-water mark on buildings. But in many of the hardest-hit poor rural communities, recovery had barely begun.

At Kannady, a small village in the Kuttanad wetland south of Lake Vembanad, the Red Cross had only arrived in early December to offer tents to people whose houses had been destroyed. I found people still living in broken tin shacks, and a brick house had been razed by the floodwaters. Close by, villagers were laboriously digging a drain across their rice fields to cleanse it of polluted water so they could plant a new crop.

Some villagers blamed the floods on the backwaters. After all, as Kannady village councillor Ambila Gose pointed out, the floodwaters had come up from the lake and across wetlands into their community. Maybe more drainage canals would keep the water away.

But the truth, say hydrologists, is the opposite. The problem is that many of the backwaters have been drained in the past century to create rice fields and make way for development. These land reclamation projects, in Kuttanad and elsewhere, took away the capacity of the backwaters to absorb floods. What the villagers need is more wetlands, not fewer.

“The flood is man-made,” said B Sreekumar of the Kottayam Nature Society, which is based near Kannady. The wetlands “used to hold flood water, but they have all been reclaimed. To reduce the flood risks, we should remove all the encroachments, by blocking the drains and reflooding the land.”

What has happened in Kerala has played out worldwide in the past century as wetlands have been drained, diked, and dammed for agricultural development and flood control. But from the Mississippi delta to the Sundarbans mangrove swamps of Bangladesh, from the Rhine to the Yangtze, the combination has brought more hydrological mayhem than control of nature…

Read the whole story here.

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