Kodagu floods

Kodagu’s tragedy

Print edition : September 14, 2018

A house perched precariously after a landslip in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, on August 15. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Over 200 villages in Karnataka’s Kodagu district bear the brunt of unusually heavy rainfall and consequent landslides that have wiped out homes and plantations, besides roads and bridges.

Imagine this: You leave your home for what you think is a matter of hours, and when you try to return you are unsure how to get there because the roads you always take no longer exist. They have been washed away in the rain, flooded or just covered in tonnes of muddy sludge. Worse, you cannot be sure your house will still be there when you get back. For, your home might just have been reduced to rubble as swathes of a hill or even in many cases the entire hill just slid down and became a valley, destroying everything in its path. That is the nightmare for hundreds of people now left homeless as Kodagu, Karnataka’s most scenic district, tries to cope with the mayhem that hit it in the middle of August. In many areas, the incessant rain caused landslides which in turn forced streams and rivulets to change course, causing immense damage to the hilly landscape, flattening and wiping villages off the face of the land. At the “Stay Coorg” homestay, which is perched precariously on the hillside overlooking the Madikeri-Mangaluru National Highway 275, a boulder rolled down the hill and shot right out through the living room.

The statistics, though they hardly give an idea of what really transpired, are chilling. Preliminary estimates indicate that 34 out of Kodagu’s 104 gram panchayats have been severely affected—that is over 200 villages and a population of around 200,000 (out of Kodagu’s population of 590,000). Sixteen people have lost their lives and 39 are listed as missing. More than 1,200 houses have collapsed; 6,990 people have been moved to 51 relief camps across the district; and 4,450 people have been rescued. Acres of young and mature coffee plants have been washed away; paddy fields have turned into muddy swamps; bridges and roads, including key national highways, have vanished, leaving behind gaping voids. With agricultural activities at a standstill, coffee yields have reduced drastically. Tourists have been banned in the district until August 30.

Officials connected with the rescue and relief efforts estimate that 98 per cent of the Kodagu population has been directly or indirectly affected by the rains. Kodagu district received its highest-ever rainfall for August, breaking an 87-year-old record. Hitherto the highest saturation for August was in 1931 when the district received 1,559 millimetre (mm) of rainfall. During the first three weeks of August this year, Kodagu received 1,675 mm of rainfall. Data gathered from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Bengaluru, show that 45 per cent (or 768 mm) of the rain in August fell on just three consecutive days—August 15 (206 mm), August 16 (262 mm) and August 17 (300 mm). With the IMD classifying any rainfall in excess of 200 mm as “extremely heavy rainfall”, those three days were enough to cripple and change the face of the district forever. The worst-affected villages are in the Somwarpet and Madikeri taluks—Tantipala, Mukkodlu, Hatti, Megahthala, Muvathoklu, Yemmethala (all situated in the backwaters of the Harangi dam), Aivathoklu, Haleri, Suralabbi, Hebbattageri, Hammiyala, Kaloor, Monnangeri and Jodupala. Homes and roads located in the district capital, Madikeri, have also suffered extensive damage.

If the death toll is relatively low, it is because most people heeded the district administration’s warnings and the urgings of neighbours to move to safer places even as the rain got worse and, in the words of one survivor, the earth “started to move under her feet”. Around 11 on the night of August 16, Vani, 66, awoke to rumblings and blasts that sounded like they were coming from almost beneath her bungalow. Living alone on her 10-acre robusta coffee estate in Kandenakoli village, 14 km from Madikeri, after the demise of her husband a few months ago, she was reluctant to leave her homestead. Still, she left, along with a couple of plantation workers, and they trekked arduously for over seven hours through shrub and forest before landing at a government relief centre. Her entire estate is today covered in brown sludge, and the 40-year-old coffee plants are just a memory. Her home is razed to the ground, and rosewood trees on the estate, some with girths of five to six feet, lie uprooted. Accessibility is nil even a week after the deluge.

For Savita, who is expecting her second child in December, the night she escaped the floods was a nightmare she will never forget. Hailing from Haleri, she worked as a plantation worker. There was no power for over 10 days in the village, and with mobile networks down she was unaware of what was happening. On August 15, a few local boys told her that the Harangi dam and many tanks had filled up and a couple of houses had collapsed, so it would be better to move. They carried her in a chaape (cot), and with the only bridge leading out of the village having already collapsed, they had to wade through waist-deep water. After a long trek they stopped for the night at a school in Kandenakoli on August 16. But the school was unsafe as it was located at the foot of a hill. So they set off again and ascended the hill, waving flags in the hope that choppers would notice them. Savita had no choice but to walk with the others in torrential rain through the night. They reached a road the next morning, but it was blocked and they had to find an alternative route through the forests. Finally, they accessed a road and reached the Suntikoppa relief centre.

Lost livelihoods

Harini, a gram panchayat member from Kathakal, where over 50 houses were flattened by a hill that came sliding down, said: “The facilities at the relief centre are okay. We are being given decent food and other amenities. But what about our livelihoods? Most people at the relief centre work in the plantations, earning Rs.300 a day, and also have some livestock. They have taken loans and built houses. Now with no work, how will we pay our loans? And the houses we bought with loan money have been destroyed.”

Unofficial surveys indicated that around 200 families whose major source of income was from coffee cultivation lost a portion of or their entire estates. Pavan Nanjappa, owner of Venkids Valley Estate, was unable to access his bungalow and estate even a week after the disaster. “I’ve lost around eight acres [one acre = 0.4 hectare; an acre has roughly 500 to 600 coffee plants] of my estate. But I’m now worried about the bungalow, which is located 160 feet above the area that was devastated. I need to really think hard whether to replant coffee or go in for jungle trees and pepper. Coffee takes a long time, seven to eight years before you can get an optimum crop. Right now the area that I have lost is just mud, there’s no grass.”

Pramod Kurien lost 30 acres of his 75-acre fully planted robusta coffee estate at Kallur. Along with the coffee plants, three labour lines and a small staff quarters perished. Planters like Kurien are keenly looking at what the government will offer by way of compensation. He said: “The land value is gone. The top soil is gone. Hills have become valleys… will they facilitate the growth of coffee? We do not know if we can cultivate coffee in the land that has been turned into silt. The best thing will be for the government to compensate us financially. Providing planting material may not be the best solution.”

Estimated losses

A week after the August 17 deluge, the Karnataka government’s District in-Charge Secretary, V. Anbu Kumar, told Frontline that Kodagu had suffered an estimated loss of Rs.1,146 crore. He was quick to add that the figure could go up as 1,019 personnel from the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and National and State Disaster Response Force and the civil administration waded sludge and debris to reach villages cut off by landslides. “Landslides have caused the most damage. It is too early to say whether this is due to the extremely heavy rainfall or if it is a man-made disaster. We are still assessing the situation. Our initial assessment shows that the affected people are of the following categories: people who have lost their houses completely, those whose houses have been damaged partially, those whose houses are intact but who are afraid to go back for fear of landslides, plantation workers who have lost their livelihood, and planters.”

He said identifying land to be given to people who had lost homes would be a gigantic task and added that people would be rehabilitated in the gram panchayat areas they belonged to. “Shifting them out will cause further distress since they will be far away from their kith and kin. It is not administrative convenience but the displaced person’s wishes that will be taken into account when we allot land. We will accommodate the displaced where they want to be accommodated. Every family that registered at the 51 relief centres has already been paid the prescribed Rs.3,800 relief amount for sustenance.”

The people who have taken refuge at the relief centres are satisfied with the arrangements there, but they are worried about the long-term ramifications of the disaster on their livelihoods. Many estates, including small holdings, have been completely wiped out. Migrant labourers from distant States such as Assam are faced with the added problem of not only looking for work but also being targeted by local people for stealing their jobs.

Haphazard and illegal constructions that flouted environmental norms have caused buildings to literally drop off hillsides. But environmentalists like Captain (retd) Raja Rao pin the reason for the calamity on the excess precipitation. “The rainfall was extremely heavy and beyond expectations, and since it was continuously so for a number of days the exposed surface was not able to absorb the rainfall and be ready for the next downpour. But new settlements have also dug up the natural slopes, preventing the earth from retaining its natural position. Unfortunately, the advice given by environmentalists is not taken cognisance of, rather it is just neglected by governments. Short-term political gains override everything else,” he said.

He agreed that poor water management could have aggravated the situation, but he did not accept the suggestion that the Harangi dam caused flooding. “Harangi is a small reservoir holding hardly seven thousand million cubic feet [tmc ft] of water,” he explained. “But, yes, the first priority of irrigation engineers manning dams of all the States is to start storing water the moment the monsoon rains commence. Karnataka started to store water in June itself, so by July the dams were full. Harangi is no exception. Subsequently, when the heavy rain of August came, the reservoirs were not able to hold any more water and the water had to be released. With saturation also being very high, there was flooding.”

I.K. Anil, a coffee planter who is also the executive editor of the local tabloid Coffeeland News, strongly disagreed. “A number of villages like Tantipala, Mukkodlu, Megahthala and Yemmethala, which are situated near the backwaters of the Harangi dam, have suffered extensive damage. The blocking of the natural flow of water and springs has caused flooding. Also, water from Harangi dam was not released at the right time.”

Raja Rao said the IMD should be questioned on the accuracy of its forecasts. “In 2017, the IMD had said it would be a normal rainfall year, but in reality the rainfall was below normal in areas like Wayanad [in Kerala] from where Karnataka’s Kabini reservoir gets most of its water and that, too, only during the south-west monsoon. Kabini is very important since it is from here that Karnataka seeks to meet most [around 18 to 19 tmc ft] of its water-sharing obligations to Tamil Nadu as part of the vexed Cauvery water-sharing accord. If the reservoir is not filled up, Karnataka is forced to release water from its other reservoirs in the Cauvery basin like Harangi, Hemavathy or even Krishnarajasagar. Therefore, the storage at Kabini is crucial. But being relatively small—15 tmc ft—it gets filled up with hardly two to three days of good rainfall. So the IMD has to come up with a more accurate rainfall prediction pattern. Just saying the monsoon in south-west interior Karnataka is normal is not enough. This year, the IMD had predicted a normal monsoon. In actuality, it has been in excess.”

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