- Researchers have mapped Kerala districts according to vulnerability to climate change by bringing both environmental and socio-economic factors into the picture.
- Vast swathes of coastal wetlands and lagoons and larger clusters of mangrove forests make the state environmentally vulnerable.
- Low human development index, a large population of socially deprived groups, which are dependent on the primary sector, and high population density render the state vulnerable from a socio-economic point of view.
Home to ‘Venice of the East’, the coastal district of Alappuzha in the south Indian state of Kerala, and forested hills in tourist-magnets Idukki and Wayanad, are “very highly vulnerable” to climate change, says a recently released vulnerability index of the flood-battered state.
Bringing both environmental and socio-economic factors into the picture, researchers led by the University of Kerala, assessed the local dimensions of vulnerability in the tropical state of Kerala, using a specifically designed composite vulnerability index.
Kerala has a very long coastline of 570 km, out of which close to 60 percent is prone to severe sea erosion, points out the Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change.
“The coastal wetlands, lagoons and mangroves, which are unique fragile coastal ecosystems in Kerala, are under the combined threat of projected sea level rise and saltwater intrusion,” S. Sarun, the lead author of the study, told Mongabay-India.
“Hence, those districts that have (their) maximum geographical area under these ecosystems have the highest vulnerability,” said Sarun, of the department of geography, University College, University of Kerala.
Also at play is the interaction of various socio-economic elements.
“Generally vulnerability is higher for those deprived sections of a society who could have been victims of some phenomena or events including the impact of climate change. We have tried to give prominence to people who are dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as fisheries, forestry and agriculture,” said Sarun.
Farmers, fishermen and tribes are most vulnerable
Farmers, fishermen and tribes are most vulnerable groups in the state because their dependence on fishery, forest and farming opens them up to the ravages of climate change while at the same time they are not adapted to cope with the uncertainties.
“These all are considered for determining socio-economic vulnerability. This study may help to plan appropriate measures to address events such as flood, drought, landslide, coastal erosion, storm surge which all are climate-induced one in the state,” Sarun said.
The tourist-friendly state was thrust into the limelight this year when torrential rains (second spell of southwest monsoon) hammered the state from August 8 to 19 this year, displacing millions and killing over 500 people in rain-related events.
Government officials estimate losses due to the floods and landslides at more than the state’s annual plan outlay (Rs. 26,500 crore or Rs 265 billion for 2017-2018 fiscal). A coordinated post disaster needs assessment study by United Nations organisations stated that the state would need Rs 31,000 crores (Rs 310 billion) for rebuilding.
Countries in South Asia are among the most vulnerable globally to the impacts of climate change according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 released at the ongoing annual climate summit in Poland (COP24).
India has been ranked the 14th most vulnerable nation in the index which said massive rainfall triggered floods across Nepal, Bangladesh and India, affecting more than 40 million people.
Anshu Sharma co-founder and director of SEEDS India, a non-profit organisation working in disaster risk reduction and recovery in Asia, said vulnerability indices are “very useful” as “they contextualise a risk or disaster impact.”
“The same rainfall/flood in Florida would have a different impact. Vulnerability indexing tells you about the impact or potential impact of a given hazard for a specific geography or community. How reliable is this is something that depends on how robust the method followed was,” Sharma said.
The good, the bad and the ugly
So how does Kerala fare?
The researchers explained that factors such as a high population of people crammed into a narrow coastal strip inset with wetlands and lagoons–that are exposed to anticipated climate change risks such as sea level rise–have propelled Alappuzha to the top (very highly vulnerable) in the index.
Features such as backwater banks and filtration ponds/paddy fields are other sections of the coastal zone which are highly susceptible to sea level rise (SAPCC).
Of the 14 Kerala districts, Alappuzha is the most densely populated one in the state, with a sizeable percentage of people depending on sectors like paddy cultivation and fishery which are sensitive to climate change, the study notes.
Idukki, Wayanad, and Palakkad that also hold sway in the top are endangered due to the high population of primary and socially deprived sectors inhabiting a landscape hallmarked by extensive patches of tropical montane forests amid rolling grasslands (locally called Shola forests) as also carpets of dense forests.
A large distribution of Shola forest and dense forest cover leads to higher exposure to climate change risk, the researchers assert.
Palakkad has a high social vulnerability because of the percentage of the population relying on agriculture-related activities and the comparatively low performance on the human development index.
It also has a high concentration of socially deprived groups (it has the highest number of Scheduled Caste population in the state). Similarly, state capital Thiruvananthapuram is pegged as ‘highly vulnerable’ due to the comparatively large extent of sand beach.
Thrissur and Kozhikode are in the middle (regions of medium vulnerability), their places attributed to population density, extent of beach and dense forests.
At the bottom of the rung with less vulnerability are Pathanamthitta, Malappuram, and Kasargod due to the absence of Shola forests and mangrove forest and also due to less extent of coastal wetlands and lagoons.
The index rankings, therefore, reflect the identification of districts that more threatened under the impacts of climate change.
Sarun Savith is hopeful that the index will be incorporated in the updated version of the state action plan.
“The state action plan also has graded the districts according to composite vulnerability and they also list the same vulnerable hotspots but the present study is more scientific and has a strong component on the meteorological component. So that is why we hope the index will be incorporated,” Savith said.
Index shows the way for adaptation
Pinpointing exposure and sensitivities through the index can also inform adaptive measures in a regional specific context for coastal areas, forested areas, and high densely populated areas and socially deprived hilly regions.
The study suggests that for the protection of forests, it is essential to limit anthropogenic disturbances, monitor changes and allow for the regeneration of keystone species, as well as maintenance and creation of connecting corridors over the landscape.
For the protection of mangroves, authors recommend coastal planning that facilitates the inland migration of mangroves due to sea level rise.
To shield beaches and lagoons, beach nourishment, construction of sea walls and sea dykes, storm surge barriers, flood-proofing measures, flood hazard mapping, flood warning, and forecasting systems can be adopted.
MC Deo from IIT Bombay, who was not associated with the study, said there is a gamut of hard and soft options to protect vulnerable coastal areas.
“While the former includes building structures, the latter involves eco-friendly interventions with minimum damage to the coast. The hard measures pertain to building sea walls, groynes and similar structures while the soft one are in the form of geo- or sand tubes, artificial beach nourishments, growing vegetations around sand dunes, creating a buffer zone of mangroves,” Deo said.
Deo advocated “scrupulous” adherence to coastal zone regulations framed by the Indian government as they target eco-friendly measures.
“Only in case of unavoidable coastal works, like defence works, a combination of soft and hard measures need to be adopted,” he said.
This apart, Savith and co-researchers said prohibition of reclamation of wetlands, discharge of wastewater into wetlands, treatment of wastes at source itself and soil erosion control measures in the catchment area of tributaries to wetlands, measures to reduce siltation of wetlands are important.
Sarun, S., Ghermandi, A., Sheela, A. M., Justus, J., & Vineetha, P. (2018). Climate change vulnerability in a tropical region based on environmental and socio-economic factors. Environmental monitoring and assessment, 190(12), 727.
Banner image: The Kerala coast is vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.