Test of Nature: Kerala battling the overwhelming natural disaster
It was the floodprone, lowlying Kuttanad in central Kerala that was the first to bear the brunt it became inundated in early July Landslides had already begun to scar the hilly areas, especially in Kozhikode and Idukki
It was the flood-prone, low-lying Kuttanad in central Kerala that was the first to bear the brunt — it became inundated in early July. Landslides had already begun to scar the hilly areas, especially in Kozhikode and Idukki. The Idukki and the Idamalayar dams were barely at 50% of their storage capacities in mid-July. But within a fortnight, they were filled to the brim, triggering a debate on whether the KSEB was waiting to monetise the monsoon bounty.
The rumour was that the KSEB was reluctant to release water as more power generation would lead to more expenses. But as the shutters of the dams were opened one after the other and increased outflow, the situation soon turned grim, leading to a red alert across the State.
“Early methodical action by the administration, with the support of the Services and the disaster relief force, had largely contained the first two spells of monsoon fury. The Centre and the State worked together, but whatever you do may not be enough to put up a defence against a spell of this magnitude,” says N.B. Narasimha Prasad, former executive director of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Kozhikode. “What we are seeing now is unprecedented.”
In Wayanad, people whined about the KSEB not issuing an alert before spilling water from the Banasura Sagar dam. Displeasure over inadequate evacuation time was palpable downstream from the Mullaperiyar dam too, where people felt they had not got much notice before Tamil Nadu opened the spill gates in the early hours of August 15.
Spill from the Idukki reservoir was raised to accommodate the inflow from Mullaperiyar. On the night the spill gates of the Mullaperiyar were raised, revenue and disaster management officials had a sleepless night. Control rooms and rescue teams operated constantly. Social media groups and volunteers chipped in to help people marooned in the floodwaters, most of them in Pathanamthitta and Ernakulam.
Meanwhile, in view of an even more ominous weather prediction, reinforcements were called in to augment rescue and relief operations, according to P.H. Kurien, Additional Chief Secretary. The overall losses due to the disaster, at last count, were estimated at ₹8,700 crore, and are still increasing.
Tourism has been badly affected. In Munnar, the blooming of the Neelakurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which occurs every 12 years, was expected to draw in the crowds. The town remains cut off now, with the spill from the Mattupetty dam destroying livelihoods. “Already reeling from the Nipah scare in June, the tourism industry has been hit again —this time by the floods. Kerala will take a long time to recover from this,” says an official, on condition of anonymity.
“Agreed that it is unprecedented, but that only indicates the dire need for a long-term comprehensive plan. The worst may never occur, but we nevertheless have to be prepared for it. A disaster management plan for dam failure should be in place. The Western Ghats, an eco-sensitive mountain range, is prone to degradation. Further, landslide-prone zones, mostly those receiving over 20 cm rainfall and at a 30-degree gradient, can be easily identified and people relocated,” argues A.V. George, disaster management expert.
In the wake of the tragedy, there are calls to implement the Madhav Gadgil Committee report on the Western Ghats. The 2011 report had recommended the zoning of the ecologically fragile areas, with no developmental activity allowed in areas classified as falling under zone 1. But it was vigorously opposed in Kerala, with detractors saying that it was impractical to do so in a immensely populated State.
Back in the Periyar basin, Purushan Eloor, research coordinator for the committee against river pollution, asserts that the unfolding disaster has been waiting to happen, thanks to naked encroachments even on the floodplains of the river. He blames the local bodies for allowing private encroachments, that too when a public property, a restaurant owned by the District Tourism Promotion Council, was razed on the orders of the Supreme Court four years ago.
“For quite some time we have been demanding the removal of toxic waste stockpiled in the industrial units, which were allowed to be set up along the Periyar’s banks in violation of environmental norms. Unless we correct these anomalies on a priority basis, we are in for greater disasters, given the increase in the frequency of abnormal spells of rain,” he warns.
K.G. Tara, former head, Disaster Management Centre at the Institute of Land and Disaster Management, Thiruvananthapuram, says the time has come to carry out floodplain zoning on a war-footing. She had proposed a comprehensive insurance policy — at zero premium or for a nominal fee — for poor families living in vulnerable areas. Had the proposal been implemented, it would have eased the burden on victims during this flooding.
“The recent amendment to the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act that has eased the norms for the conversion of wetland for other land uses, would also prove disastrous, as paddy fields, even when left barren, would cushion the impact of flooding. Equally important is a policy to preserve the remaining hills and wetlands, as they serve as water storing systems,” she points out.
Short interludes apart, the rain is still thundering down. Lowland and highland, cityscapes and villages, upmarket dwellings and migrant labour camps have all been hit and relief and rescue pouring in from all over. The rain has become a leveller.