|Climate change in Kerala. God's Own Country, they call it
||[Jul. 22nd, 2009|12:31 am]
|A vivid slick slash of jewel-coloured tropical forests, slow grey backwaters and glimmering white beaches, Kerala is one of the first states in India to receive the South-West Monsoon as it comes sweeping in from the Arabian Sea. Like most South Indian states, agriculture is almost entirely rain-fed: sweeping flats of rice paddy, waving coconut trees, banana, tea, coffee, spices and plantations of rubber trees standing like sentinels, blue bibs in place to catch their oozing latex. The coconut trees are not only used for their fruit: the juice of the tree is tapped and sold as toddy, a mildly alcoholic milk consumed by Keralan men in simple toddy shops to the crackle of local radio. Kerala is also one of the major sources of the world’s coir: fibre torn from coconut husks is soaked in water for up to ten months, pounded with a wooden mallet and spun into yarn to be woven into mats. Interesting fact of the day: the doormat lying by your front door was very likely made in Kerala, fashioned from coconut husk.
Now, some members of the Rainspotting team have been curving an arc over the Northern Indian states and viewing some pretty harrowing sights: victims of Cyclone Alia crowded into refugee camps swarming with malarious mosquitoes in the east; lake beds so dry the earth has cracked open in the drought-hit west. Stories such as these I’ll post as they come in. I, on the other hand, have spent the last couple of weeks cruising round Kerala on the back of a motorbike and boy, is that state good-looking. God’s Own Country, they call it.
It’s often said that the states of India are of such markedly different personalities that they may as well be separate countries, and the certainly the culture of Kerala is unique. Currently governed by a democratically-elected communist party, the state enjoys high literacy rates (almost 100%), low infant mortality and long life expectancy statistics more synonymous with a developed rather than developing country. The boom of Bangalore, they boast, is thanks to Keralan brain power, and it can’t be denied that Keralites have a tendency to emigrate: much of the country’s educated youth leave for employment in the Gulf countries, and the economy of the state is heavily dependent on the remittances these emigrants send home to their families.
Statistics such as these make it an interesting place to interview rural people about what changes are taking place in their environment: while most are educated enough to be aware of the ‘global warming’ phenomenon and recognise its effects in the state, they are also highly media-savvy and keen to provide you with the material they think you need. One scientist I spoke to in the state pointed to Kerala’s political history: society here is highly sensitive and reactive, he said, and a consequence of this is that people may be inclined to forsake their deductive abilities in favour of amplification, particularly when dealing with as emotional an issue as the environment. For example, people may have heard that sea levels are rising, and this was certainly attested to by all the coastal communities I spoke to. The actual effect felt, though, is also dependent on other factors such as the local geological movements of the land and will not be uniform. For example, the town of Kochi, a historical port town in the middle of Kerala, is currently undergoing geological subsidence: coupled with rising sea levels it will sink notably more than a land region that is rising, and for which the effects may be negligible.
That said, there are still many people even in Kerala who are not educated enough to know of the climate threat, or to be able to explain the changes happening to their environment.
“Some of the older folk think it is the beginning of end of the world,” laughed Mabel Johnkutty, a community worker I spoke with. I’m not sure it’s really that funny. In an effort to explain the phenomenon to local people, V.J. Jose, the Periyar Riverkeeper, uses a frog in a demonstration charming in its simplicity, albeit slightly dubious in terms of animal rights. Placing the amphibian in a glass bowl, he demonstrates that the creature will jump if boiling water is suddenly poured onto it. If the frog is placed in cold water and slowly heated, however, the change is gradual and the animal won’t notice the heat until it is too late.
There are of course many environmental problems the Keralites are facing that tangle in with and exacerbate those of climate change. In Wayanad, a cool highland region perched on the last of the Western Ghats before they begin their rundown to the low coast, deforestation to grow cash crops such as pepper and rubber is drying out the formerly moist land. It was explained to me thus: in natural forest, different varieties of plant life reach to different heights, and their roots to different depths. The entire system then acts as a kind of ladder, pulling water up from the depths and passing it to other plants that penetrate the earth less deeply. Thick vegetation on the ground also decomposes to produce soil rich in biomass, and so the earth retains water like a sponge. When the forest is cleared to grow more lucrative mono-crops such as pepper, this effect is lost. One organic farmer I met in Wayanad said that 50 years ago, rainwater falling in the district would take six months to work its way across Kerala to the Arabian Sea. Now, so porous and parched is the earth there, he estimates it to run through in a mere 48 hours.
But it is the coast, the gleaming stretch of meandering white-gold, that is arguably what characterises Kerala. The state has only 10% of India’s coastline, but is home to 25% of the country’s fishing population, and a correlating proportion of its fish production. The fishing communities are concentrated here because the seas are notably rich, a wealth attributed to a unique phenomenon called Chaakara: during the monsoon season, the rains flush out clay particles from the banks of the 41 rivers leading down to the coast. Rich in nutrients, the clay particles create a breeding ground for fish and prawns, resulting in unusually high sea yields. Needless to say, if the monsoon is poor, this stock will be among those critically affected.
A high concentration of fishermen means a crowded coastline, and the rising seas have already started their slow chomp on the homesteads. Two years ago in Veli, a village just outside the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, the tide destroyed a stretch of houses that had stood untouched for thirty years. More than sixty families were rendered homeless in a matter of three days. In an effort to lessen their vulnerability, the government has commissioned the building of a sea wall along large stretches of the coast, a strategy opposed by residents who struggle to lift their boats over the construction. It’s also a highly expensive business, they say, and strewn with corruption. Each year the rough monsoon seas knock down parts of the wall, and they have to be rebuilt.
The problems of climate change may not yet be impoverishing the people of Kerala as much as in other states in India, but that does not mean that they are not being felt, nor that the future is any less foreboding. Like the frog in the bowl, people are adapting their lifestyles to the rising temperatures, erratic rains and encroaching seas, too preoccupied with their day-to-day struggles to worry about the idea of a looming global phenomenon.
“There’s a saying in Malayalam [the language of Kerala], that you hear people say about the changing climate,” Mabel Johnkutty tells me.
“Roughly translated, it says that if the whole world is falling down, a fate accomplished, then what is the point in trying to hold it up with a pole? This is the feeling towards mitigation.
“Their world is changing, and what can they do?”
Top left: A fisherman casts his net, Alapuzzha, Kerala
Top right: A rubber plantation, Wayanad, Kerala. Lucrative mono-crops such as this are drying out the formerly lush land
Middle left: Paddy workers in Kuttanad, the 'rice bowl of Kerala'. Reclaimed land and below sea level, the area is certain to be swallowed by rising seas
Bottom right: Mutai, a farmer in the Wayanad District of Kerala for over 50 years, tells us about changes in the climate while his grandchildren listen
Bottom left: Boys strain to rebuild the sea wall, erected in an effort to keep the rising seas from destroying homesteads. Kovalum Beach, Kerala