Climate change in Kerala: Hot air and cold facts

In this post, Professor Kesavan Rajasekharan Nayar discusses the importance of recognizing climate change as an important factor in the recent flood disaster in the state of Kerala in India especially given the clear signals from the after-effects of the disaster.

Many considered talk of climate change and its impacts a few years ago as mere fashionable gobbledygook at parties. However, the disastrous floods which even prompted comments from the U.N Secretary General, have shaken the false sense of confidence that such an issue is only a distant weakening storm. It hit the state like a thunder. The massive death, destruction, deluge and the resulting suffering of the people which did not discriminate social classes show a bleak scenario for the future. Apart from damage to different sectors including physical infrastructure, it has also led to massive outbreak of diseases such as Leptospirosis and Dengue. It is reported that the floods claimed 491 lives with some people still missing. Around 800,000 people were displaced and many of them were to be accommodated in relief camps. According to State Health Services, around 160 cases of Leptospirosis were reported out of which 40 confirmed and suspected cases died within two weeks after the floods. There were also 104 Dengue and 50 Malaria cases. The total amount needed to rebuild Kerala after the floods is estimated to be around 3 billion dollars. The state expects to receive this amount mainly from the central government and other international agencies like the World Bank. The team from the World Bank and other international organizations has already visited the state to assess the damage.


The politicians of Kerala who normally squabble over even small issues were too shaken to fight! They showed apparent unity in battling the after effects. The Sate Civil Services with the district administration and their leadership in most of the flood-affected districts put in their best in the rescue and rehabilitation missions. The Kerala health services also put in extra efforts in providing curative and preventive services at thousands of relief camps located in schools and public buildings. However, much more than the official responses which were extremely weakened by lack of experience in a disaster of this intensity, the purely voluntary rescue actions need to be highlighted. Especially, the services rendered by the fisherfolks of Kerala earned the admiration of everyone. They brought their fibre-boats, both small and big ones used in deep-sea fishing to the most interior places in Kerala and rescued thousands of people. This happened in a society which cherish opportunist associations and finger-tip cell phone relationships. It is to be recognized that when people suffer and become helpless, selfless and committed voluntarism can be a great saviour. The Kerala disaster is a clear recognition of such a ‘humanitarian voluntarism’.


The debates on what caused the disaster – whether it was the torrential rains or the opening of the shutters of more than fifty dams – will continue. But the dichotomy between an ecological approach versus an engineering approach to nature is an issue in Kerala which has 44 rivers-most of controlled by dams, 27 backwaters apart from lagoons and wells including the 200 Vembanad lake which hosts backwater tourism in Kerala. Apart from such water resources, Kerala is also rich in bio-diversity in the form of dense evergreen forests and hilly terrains which were gradually being encroached upon. All these water bodies, forests and hilly terrains were affected during this episode. Some people were killed when massive landslides occurred along these hilly tracts. Evidently, there was tremendous lack of knowledge base on the impacts of climate change on the rich bio-diversity of Kerala.


The IPCC reports of 2007 and 2013 mainly stress actions to reduce the impact on climate sensitive health determinants such as heat and cold, floods and droughts, storms, food security and water scarcity, sea-level rise and forced migration, and the effects on heat stress and strokes, respiratory illnesses, vector- water- and food-borne diseases, injuries and drowning, malnutrition and mental stress, which will primarily affect the health and livelihoods (1, 2). The National Mission on Strategic Knowledge on climate change especially points out the knowledge gaps in several areas with respect to impact of climate change including health and fragmented nature of available knowledge in terms of people, institution and capabilities (3).


Review of literature on climate change and vector borne diseases suggests that inter-annual and inter-decadal climate variability have a direct influence on the epidemiology of vector-borne diseases. By 2100, it is estimated that average global temperatures will have risen by 1.0–3.5 degree C, increasing the likelihood of many vector-borne diseases in new areas (4). A study conducted by NIMR, Delhi about the projection of malaria scenario in India by 2030 reports that  some parts of Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh are likely to open transmission windows in new districts with increase in 4–6 months category of transmission. In the north-eastern states, intensity of transmission is projected to increase from 7–9 months to 10–12 months. The Western Ghats is projected to be affected to a minimum, whereas in the east coastal districts, reduction in transmission months is likely due to increased temperature (5). Heat waves are a direct contributor to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. High temperatures also raise the levels of ozone and other air pollutants that exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory disease and pollen and other aeroallergens that trigger asthma. There are a few studies conducted in India about air pollution and health effects but the linkages between temperature, climate change, natural resources like water bodies, pollution levels and health remains to be explored.


It is during such disasters that fresh water including drinking water becomes a scarce commodity. Lack of fresh water compromises hygiene, thus increasing rates of diarrhoeal disease. Too much water, in the form of floods, causes contamination of freshwater supplies. Freshwater availability in India is also a concern; available water is expected to decrease from 1,820 m3 per capita to < 1,000 m3 by 2025 in response to the combined effects of population growth and climate change (6).


The Kerala episode certainly appears to be a dress rehearsal and a clear warning to take urgent steps to close the knowledge gaps as many of the issues such as mass migration although transient in nature, drowning, destruction of physical infrastructure, infectious diseases etc. predicted by many international reports were observed here. People of Kerala are now feeling insecure and the optimism that ‘it won’t affect us’ has disappeared. Even those who build palatial houses by spending all their hard-earned money found their houses and their valuables including legal documents totally ravaged by the surging waters. Some of them needed psychological counselling to get back to their normal life. The recent episodes point out the need for original, contextual, integrated and inter-sectoral plan as well as studies which can generate evidences, and strategies based on those evidences to replace the present bureaucratic and rigid approach to knowledge generation by self-styled experts and half-baked plagiarists.


Professor Kesavan Rajasekharan Nayar MA, MCH, Ph.D
Global Institute of Public Health and Santhigiri Research Foundation
Trivandrum, Kerala, India

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