Why Kerala Urgently Needs a Roadmap to Ecological Security

Nelliyampathy forest in Kerala. Photo: Unsplash

The goal of sustainable development emerged out of the recognition that unchecked economic growth can negate the conditions of life for humans. The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), an initiative of the UN, defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The motivation here is the attainment of intergenerational justice.

In terms of natural resources, striving for sustainability in development requires us to leave behind for the succeeding generation a natural resource base at least as productive as the one we inherited. However, much as this may satisfy our thirst for virtue, it does not suffice as a guide to our actions in all situations. The natural environment could at times be so degraded that we cannot, in all conscience, leave it in that form for our successors to deal with.

Moreover, practically, ecological stress can be of such severity that not reversing it immediately could impinge on our well-being in our own lifetime, rather than merely lowering the quality of life of future generations. We believe that Kerala has now reached this stage in its history.

Recognising that human life depends on natural resources would lead directly to the idea of ecological security, which refers to the protection and maintenance of the health and integrity of the ecosystem for human survival and development. Once ecological security is diminished, a society needs to bring about behavioural change to ensure that the lives of its members are not adversely impacted for all time to come. There is a substantial role in this transition for government, as regulation and coordination are central to it.

As professionals in our respective disciplines, we identify actions directed at the land and water sources of the state that threaten its ecological security in the state. As citizens we hope the incoming government will address them.

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Besides  climate change, local action leading to deforestation and altered land use have adversely affected the environment in Kerala. The land here is lateritic and the topography undulating. The hills, having attained slope stability after a prolonged weathering process, are now grossly altered. In pursuit of construction material, hard rock is quarried and hard laterite cut out as building blocks. Lateritic hills are also excavated to fill lowlands, including paddy fields, for housing and commercial complexes. These processes have accelerated during the last two decades with the shift to high-rise construction in urban areas. Removal of material from the earth alters the topography. This can trigger a host of ecological changes, some immediate and other that are longer term in their impacts – but all of them detrimental to our welfare.

In Kerala, the soil has been rendered vulnerable already due to the high intensity rainfall that has accompanied climate change. In addition, land use, in particular gross human interventions on the hill slopes, has further accelerated soil loss and triggered landslides during the monsoon. The Western Ghats, identified as the ‘water tower’ of Peninsular India for its influence on rainfall and being a source of perennial rivers, and a biodiversity hotspot of global acclaim, is under severe stress due to deforestation, uncontrolled settlement and unregulated mining. Diminishing natural vegetation, soil erosion affecting more than 45% of net sown area and change in land use and cropping pattern have adversely impacted the productivity of land, with a consequent increase in the use of fertilisers. High fertiliser use results in soil and water pollution.

A view of Kavalappara, in Pothukal panchayat. More than 50 persons were buried alive here after a mountain of the Western Ghats experienced a landslide. Search operations were underway when The Wire visited on August 17, 2019.

Over time there has occurred a shift in land use from food to non-food crops, some of which are water-intensive, like rubber. This places pressure on water availability. The natural forest cover is now limited to 20% of the geographical area of Kerala, having been around 45% at the beginning of the last century. Replacement of natural vegetation and traditional agriculture by plantations leads to loss of valuable ecosystem services, with a range of economic implications.

Kerala is located in one of the higher rainfall zones of India but yet experiences water shortage, with even the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram experiencing water-stress during summer. We ask if this hardship is necessary, and why better water management practices cannot be adopted. Rainfall is the principal source of fresh water in Kerala. It flows through rivers, is stored in traditional water structures and reservoirs, and infiltrates the soil to recharge groundwater aquifers.

While incoming rainfall is more or less constant, the availability of fresh water is decreasing due to shrinkage or malfunctioning of traditional water-containment structures. Encroachment on river banks and wetlands, flood plain occupancy, river bed mining, destruction of riparian vegetation, deterioration of ponds, tanks and lakes all together reduce water retention capacity. Around 44% of wetlands in Kerala have been diverted, including for construction purposes. This not only affects fresh water availability but also endangers life.

The Central Water Commission has reported that if the Vembanad kayal (‘lake’) had had its original capacity of 2.4 billion cubic metres (bcm), it could have accommodated the bulk of the additional water generated by the rivers that flow into it during the devastating flood of 2018. Its present capacity is only 0.6 bcm.

A satellite view of Vembanad lake, the longest lake and the second-largest Ramsar wetland, after the Sundarbas, in India. Image: Google Earth

Even if supply of water were to remain the same, deterioration of its quality can reduce effective availability, necessitating expenditure on its treatment. Discharge of domestic waste and industrial effluents into water bodies and excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture all lower water quality. According to the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and the Environment, around 260 million litres of trade effluents reach the Periyar from the Kochi industrial belt every day.

It has been estimated by the state’s Suchitwa Mission that while around 4 million tons of solid waste are generated annually, only part of this is disposed off scientifically. The undisposed organic waste generates around 710 million litres of leachate per annum. This finds its way to the nearby water bodies. Groundwater too gets contaminated due to poor sanitation, bio-polluting industries and water-logging. Particularly troubling is faecal contamination as more than 60% of households in Kerala depend on untreated well water. In 2019, 80% of water samples collected from various parts of Kozhikode city indicated the presence of coliform bacteria.

Contaminated water and toxins released by the burning of plastic, due to the absence of waste management facilities, lowers our health security. Over-walling of domestic property and paving over the earth exacerbates flooding after heavy rain. There is livelihood loss when natural capital is depleted. As the lakes and rivers become polluted, fish no longer breed in them, and inland fishery dies. As urban water supply gets scarce a range of services, from eateries to garages, cannot function. However, it is in Kerala’s agriculture that the imprint of ecological decline, from reduced soil quality and uncertain water supply, is most evident. The area under cultivation has been shrinking for a quarter century by now. It would not be necessary to emphasise the implications of this for food security.

The consequences of the environmental damage we have outlined do not figure in the standard discourse on development in Kerala. However, the assault on its natural resource base poses a threat to the life and livelihood chances of its people. Kerala urgently requires a roadmap to ecological security.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is an economist. Srikumar Chattopadhyay is a geographer.

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