Kerala Floods: An Avoidable Catastrophe?

The enormity of the unfolding human tragedy in Kerala, consequent on widespread heavy rains and dam-induced heavy flooding in twelve of the 14 districts, will be known only after the flood waters recede and the hundreds of thousands of people in relief shelters go back to their homes, or in many cases, what remains of their homes. But one thing is certain. This will go down in history as the biggest ever catastrophe that befell Kerala, killing several hundred, destroying hundreds of homes and inundating cities, towns and villages alike that are far removed from dams and their reservoirs.

What caused the floods on such a devastating , mind-numbing scale? Obviously not the rains alone. The India Meteorological Department had warned sufficiently early that on account of a depression off the Odisha coast there would be heavy to very heavy rainfall, in some cases extremely heavy fall, in most of the districts in Kerala for some days.

Kerala has always a pattern of the rainfall and the problems that it engendered. In hilly areas where the rainfall is heavy or very heavy, there are periodic landslides on the slopes, major ones of which are locally called ‘urulpottal’, which lay waste large areas in their mad downward rush, uprooting trees and huge boulders, destroying houses and damaging roads, bridges and agricultural crops. In the plains there may be flooding of low lying areas but usually within a couple of days the flood waters would recede. There are many places vulnerable to monsoon flooding in most of the districts, especially in the perennially water-logged Kuttanad in Alappuzha district.

But the present flood situation has a different character altogether. It is unlike any that was seen in the recent or distant past. One could definitely say that it was caused partly by the intense, widespread rains and mostly by the opening of the flood gates of all the dams in the state almost all at once. And the quantity of water released from the more than four score dams in the state would be mind boggling. It was with much fanfare that the shutters of the Idukki dam were opened one after the other in quick succession, releasing ‘2,000 cumecs of water.’ This would mean two million litres of water gushing out of the dam per second. In one hour this would work out to 7,200 million litres and in one day 172,800 million litres.

In almost similar fashion almost all the other dams in various districts, like the Malampuzha Dam, the Bhoothathan Kettu, the Pampa- Kakki – Anathode dams, the Banasura, the Mullapperiyar, Edamalayar , Thenmala and Parappar dams, were all opened . One could just imagine the vast quantity of turbulent waters that gush out of the dams not only to fill the downstream rivers but to go overboard to all areas in a wanton, disruptive and destructive rush. No wonder the rivers, like the Periyar or Pampa could not withstand the pressure. When the rivers could not contain the immense flow of the waters, there was naturally new courses opened for the flow, quickly inundating highways and village roads, farms and homesteads, all in a jiffy. Many towns and villages overnight turned vast rivers and many houses, even two storied ones, remained fully submerged.

Most of the dams in Kerala are under the control of the Kerala State Electricity Board and the rest under the management of the Irrigation Department. The heavy rains in the catchment areas ensured that the dams were nearing their total capacity and the managers of the dams, concerned only with dam safety, cannot be faulted for their decision to open the shutters.

But the state government which permitted them to do so should have considered not only the obvious impact of that decision but also the measures to be taken to alleviate the suffering of vast sections of people.

It is evident that neither the government, nor the officials, nor the engineers had any idea of the hell that would be let loose on the people in almost all areas in most districts. There was only the usual warning to people on the sides of the downstream rivers, followed later by announcement of orange alert, red alert etc. Initially even the TV channels only treated the release of waters from the Idukki dam as a spectacle. It took only six hours for the gushing waters, that destroyed everything on its way, to reach the Periyar river, bringing Alwaye and other places under a sheet of water.

It may be argued that the government had no option but to open the flood gates of the dams as ‘overtopping’ might lead to dam bursts. In such an event the catastrophe would have been graver.

But the government and the bureaucracy and the engineers obviously failed in one respect. They had all the time in the world to prepare for this eventuality. As an expert in disaster management had suggested, they should have studied the pattern of the monsoon rains, the clear message from the IMD about the possibility of heavy, very heavy and extremely heavy rainfall to arrive at a working model to follow in such cases. Even after the clear forecast from the IMD, the government delayed gradually opening the shutters of the major dams.

In the case of the Cheruthoni dam of the Idukki project, the delay in decision making was as long as five days. There was initially talk of a trial run of one of the five shutters, but even this was postponed by the Electricity Minister till the last minute when all the five shutters of the dam were opened one after the other. Almost simultaneously the shutters of other dams were also opened.

The government obviously had not been made fully aware by the managers of the dams and the officials about the enormity of the outflow in the event of opening of all the shutters. If it had known perhaps it would have taken concerted action to evacuate the people from the towns and villages that would be possibly affected by the heavy floods. Nothing of the sort was done. What the government did was too little, too late. It was only after the calamity was full blown that the government opened relief shelters and stepped up rescue operations, bringing in the army and the navy and the helicopters. Even here the shortcomings were glaring as thousands are still stranded in their flooded homes waiting for aid.

It cannot be said the government had not been forewarned. The Chief of Disaster Management of the United Nations Environment Programme, Mr Muralee Thummarukudy, had, while addressing members of the Kerala Assembly a year ago, said that there was the possibility of a bigger flood, much bigger than the ‘flood of 99’( 1099 ME- 1924 AD) that old timers speak of, in Kerala and that instead of waiting for it to happen the government should take all preparations to face it when it comes.

He had also said the government and the managers of the reservoirs should study the pattern of the monsoon rainfall in Kerala. They should realize that it was normally in the second month of the monsoon season, July, that the state received copious rains filling its hydel reservoirs to the brim. Then it becomes a matter of dam safety and there would be release of waters from the dams. The managers of the dams are not concerned about the aftermath of their action, but the government should be as it is their responsibility.

It is here that he highlighted the need to evolve a proper model to work on, taking into account the monsoon pattern, the almost correct forecasts from the IMD and other parameters. Instead of waiting till the reservoirs were full and then releasing waters abruptly, it would be more prudent and safe to gradually release waters in June itself to bring down the reservoir level so that when the heavy inflow comes there would be no need for any panic reaction.

He had made the suggestion in early June, and followed it up in late June and early July. But no one who mattered took note. It goes without saying that if the government had taken steps to gradually release waters from the reservoirs from June itself, readying them to accept any quantity of water during the extreme rainfall period, the present calamity would not have been as severe as it came.

It would be several months now for normalcy to be restored for the people in the affected areas as houses had been destroyed, washed away or otherwise made inhospitable by the flood waters. The damage to infrastructure is very heavy with roads and bridges gone or seriously damaged.

Life in Kerala is unlikely to be the same again. For the hundreds of thousands of the people affected, it will be hard to wear off the trauma left by these treacherous flood waters.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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