A piqued Mother Nature has shown her wrath at the environmental degradation perpetrated in Maharashtra on several occasions in the past, with ominous signs of more calamities slated for the future.
It was nine years ago – July 30, 2014 – when Malin village, standing on a hillock around 620 m above sea level in Pune district, overnight turned into a slushy graveyard for scores of people after torrential rain.
At least 151 villagers were buried alive at the dead of night and it was the driver of a bus plying in the neighbourhood who rubbed his eyes in sheer disbelief – the tiny village he viewed everyday on his journey had suddenly disappeared from the landscape…!
As disaster teams rushed to mount a massive rescue operation, one of the prime causes that emerged for the devastating hillslide was the enormous environmental damage wreaked in the vicinity, particularly the indiscriminate chopping of many trees.
Experts said that Malin was situated on the eastern slope of a hill running north-south with gradients ranging from 10-40 degrees and some farming activities conducted there.
“Forests can help stabilize such hill slopes by holding the soil together, enhancing infiltration, reducing run-off of water and rendering it safe but here it did not happen,” said environmentalist Stalin D., Director of the NGO Vanashakti.
The disaster was preceded by heavy rain that lashed the area for over 24 hours and without sufficient forest cover, the hill-slide buried scores in their sleep, shocking the nation the next morning — with many lessons for the long-term.
“The slope was made unstable by deforestation, poor agriculture methods used for the rice and in recent years, even wheat farming, for which levelling and terracing of the slopes was done, rainwater seeped to a critical depth where the topsoil layer shifted due to gravity and the slope gave away with fatal consequences,” explained Stalin.
Another recent affront were the massive unprecedented floods that submerged large areas for days in the regions of western Maharashtra like Sangli, Kolhapur and Satara, first in August 2019 and a repeat in September 2021, in the sprawling Krishna River basin, with its ramifications felt even in Karnataka.
A Maharashtra government’s 10-member experts panel identified the main culprits — cyclones, cloudburst and persistent downpour — and pointed fingers at other topological factors like inadequate drainage from the regions, saturated subsoil and unbridled development activities on the flood plains, blocking the natural drainage channels, river damming and diversions and destruction of natural flood barriers.
“All these resulted in unseen havoc in the three districts and some surrounding areas in western Maharashtra. There have been abnormal rains like in Mumbai which caused the record Great Floods (July 2005), followed by Sangli, Kolhapur and Satara floods (August 2019 and July 2021), and the severe droughts of 2002-2003 and 2011-2012 in parts of the state,” said expert Dr Rahul Todmal of Vidya Pratisthan’s ASC College in Baramati (Pune).
A water resources expert and Advisor to the Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh governments, Barrister Vinod Tiwari said that unless the brutalisation of the environment is ended, the consequences will be of unimaginable proportions to peoples’ lives and properties, whether in the mountains of the Himalayas, coastal areas like Mumbai or the hinterlands like western Maharashtra.
“The plans to link the major rivers in India and a similar move to connect the rivers in Maharashtra are still floundering They have the potential to control floods, empty excess water to the scarcity regions and enable all-round development,” said Tiwari.
A former key member of the Maharashtra State Water Resources Regulatory Authority and Maharashtra State Groundwater Authority, Tiwari is currently advising the governments of J&K, Punjab and UP to set up similar statutory panels there.
Dr Todmal warns that the increased frequency of natural disasters pose a threat to the very existence of the most intelligent species called ‘Human’, whose activities in the past two centuries have irritated nature to such an extent that it has now launched ‘a mission to wipe us out’.
Even the Maharashtra government has become a soothsayer of sorts and made dark predictions about what is in store in the foreseeable future.
Among these are an increase in the mean temperature from 1.2C to 1.6C in the next decade (2030s), increased rainfall which will go up from 2030-2050-2070 though it will be highly variable spatially.
The government said that annual rainfall showing the highest increasing trends in Mumbai, Sindhudurg, Kolhapur and Solapur and the maximum decreasing trend in Latur and Bhandara will be witnessed in the 2030s.
The entire state will see extreme rainfall events with longer dry spells, plus the number of dry days would increase from 3-9 days in the next decade.
Coupled with these, the Arabian Sea level could go up by 24 cms-66 cms in the coastal areas in sync with the projections for global sea level increase, greater heights of waves, windspeeds, more storms and surges.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)