The worst global warming scenario envisages the Arabian Sea rising and gobbling up part of Kerala's 550-kilometre-long coastal belt where a large chunk of the population lives. That may be only a distant possibility but climate change appears to have cast a shadow on the state already.
Over the last few days, nearly 20 persons have reportedly suffered burns in different parts of the state. While sunburn cases have been reported from half of the 14 districts, the worst affected is Palakkad, where the maximum temperature was above 42 degrees Celsius last week.
On Saturday the media reported a sunstroke death from Thrissur. Television channels and newspapers said the victim was a man who was found dead in a field with burns on the body. Officials, however, said the man had died of a hear attack.
About 1,000 people reportedly die of sunstroke in India each year. Kerala has been free from the menace, thanks to the moderate climate. The average maximum summer temperature is 32 degrees Celsius in the state's coastal areas and 37 degrees Celsius in the interior. The sunburn cases, therefore, caused a minor alarm.
Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan asked the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) at Thiruvananthapuram to send a team of scientists to Palakkad to study the phenomenon. Revenue Minister KP Rajendran dispatched a disaster management team to the area.
The CESS team, comprising Dr EJ Zachariah, Dr PVSSK Vinayak and Dr S Muralidas, who have specialised in microwaves, meteorology and oceanography and atmospheric sciences respectively, visited Palakkad and met the affected people on Friday. Its preliminary finding is that the burns were the result of direct exposure of the body to the sun.
The team is expected to submit to the state government a detailed report which will take into account data relating to solar activity. Lack of adequate information on ozone conditions may diminish the worth of the report.
More than 25,000 people are engaged in physical labour district under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Palakkad. The Collector has ordered that the work be regulated in such a way that there is no exposure to the sun between 11am and 3pm.
The Health department has issued guidelines outlining measures to combat the unusual heat. It has asked schools to dispense with assemblies and drills to avoid exposing the children to the sun. They have also been instructed to keep drinking water in every classroom.
The school leaving examinations, which about 500,000 students take, begin today (Monday). In view of the harsh weather conditions, the students are being allowed to carry water bottles into the examination hall. Education Minister MA Baby has said that in the light of the current year's experience the government will consider changing the examination time from next year.
The disaster management team, comprising Revenue and Health officials, which reached Palakkad on Saturday, said there was no need for panic. However, people are bound to worry since they know that the worst summer months of April and May are still ahead.
Already there are reports of rivers and water bodies drying up. Summer rain offers the only hope of respite. Weather officials are holding out the promise of some showers in the coming days.
The situation is not entirely unexpected. Five years ago, Dr CK Rajan, head of the department of atmospheric sciences at the Cochin University of Science and Technology, had pointed out that the evolving weather scenario, marked by sudden drenchers and long dry spells, was "indicative of the shadow of global warming creeping into our backyard."
Long before climate scientists warned of rising global temperatures environmentalists had drawn attention to the fast depletion of groundwater, which was directly attributable to denudation of forests.
With the slogan "tree is the answer to global warming" the state government has taken up a scheme under which hundreds of thousands of saplings are planted each year. The current developments suggest that response may be too little and too late.
Ecological sensitivity is low in Kerala, especially in the corridors of power. The Left Democratic Front government's attempt to push through the Athirappilli power project, which the Centre has blocked on environmental grounds, and the opposition United Democratic Front's support to the move bear this out.
In all likelihood the first summer showers will wash away the fears engendered by the sunburn cases and the state lapse back into the normal state of environmental unconcern.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 15,2010.