Leaving no one behind: Lessons from the Kerala disasters

Originally published


Executive Summary

Kerala, the Indian state in the southern peninsula, sandwiched between the Lakshadweep Sea and the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, is renowned globally for its natural beauty. Larger than Bhutan in land area and with double the population of the Netherlands, Kerala ranks first among the Indian states in the SDG indices with exceptional achievements in human development comparable to developed economies. Ecologically strategic, the state harbours three Ramsar sites, wetlands of international importance. The Western Ghats are one of the major ecological hotspots in the world, rich in its biodiversity and highly under threat. Given its proximity to the sea with a coastline of about 600 km, presence of numerous rivers, lakes, backwaters and estuaries and 14 per cent of its total area susceptible to landslides, Kerala is highly vulnerable to natural disasters.

Between June 1, 2018 and August 19, 2018, the state received heavy rainfall, more than three-fourths of the average annual rainfall, and 42 per cent above normal expected during this period. The heavy downpour soaked almost the entire state and the government was forced to release water from 35 dams while the intense rains continued. Simultaneously, more than 5,000 landslides of varying nature and intensity occurred all over the state. The result was catastrophic, affecting almost one in every six people in the state. The disasters impacted three-fourths of the Kerala villages and temporarily displaced almost 1.5 million people. Nearly five hundred people lost their lives and the total damage and losses were estimated to be worth USD 3.8 billion. While Kerala was recovering from the shock of the devastating disasters of 2018, another spell of incessant rains resulted in heavy floods and landslides in August 2019. More than 60 per cent of the villages in Kerala were impacted. Northern Kerala districts, particularly Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode were severely affected.

The Mathrubhumi Group commissioned a study to the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development to understand the impact of the natural disasters on various vulnerable groups within the society. A pioneering attempt even internationally, the study, through qualitative research, explored the status of inclusion of the indigenous populations, older persons, persons with disabilities, women, boys and girls as well as migrant labourers from other states, from disaster preparedness to recovery.

A panel of experts under the guidance of Dr. Muralee Thummarukudy, chief, Disaster Risk Reduction and operations manager, UN Environment, visited disaster-affected areas across 12 districts and conducted over 400 Key Informant Interviews, including interviews with members from the vulnerable populations. The data collection took place between January 19, 2019 and March 20, 2019. The study unravels the ecological vulnerabilities of the state and provides insights into the way human interventions have accentuated these vulnerabilities. The discussions and findings underline that the state needs to be better equipped for a changing climate. The need for integrated water resources management, better land use planning and risk-informed building codes is also highlighted.

The lessons learned from the disasters and the response reveal that irrespective of the group, all the vulnerable populations substantially lag behind and do not enjoy the human development that the state celebrates. In addition to that, these populations were severely impacted by the floods and landslides and their historical marginalisation has been further augmented and complicated. It was found that within each vulnerable group there were sub-populations with differential and layered vulnerabilities.

The findings reveal that ad hoc measures to address the impact of the disasters on the vulnerable populations serve only as a partial solution, and do not address their historical vulnerabilities. What is really needed is farsighted and focused policy interventions to address the root causes of the vulnerabilities to ensure that the human development that the state claims percolates to the vulnerable populations also. Instead of claiming an edge over the less advantaged geopolitical contexts within the country, it is time Kerala examined how the state has failed the vulnerable populations within it. Taking cognizance of their inherent and newer vulnerabilities, substantial investments are needed to nurture inclusive and resilient communities where no one is left behind.