Battling a deluge

In a resolute display of resilience, Kerala’s government and civil society come together to face the challenge posed by the devastation caused by the “flood of the century”, but as the floodwaters recede, issues such as land reclamation, rapid urbanisation and hill degradation come to the fore.

Published : Aug 29, 2018 14:30 IST

An aerial view of the flood-hit areas of Kerala on August 11.

An aerial view of the flood-hit areas of Kerala on August 11.

WITH terrifying force and spread that Kerala had not seen in nearly a century, the skies opened up in August, unleashing torrential rain and causing floods that left no part of the State untouched. The highlands, midlands and coastal plains, the three geographic regions of the State, were all devastated.

Heavy bouts of rain battered all 14 districts from the beginning of the monsoon in June, and grew in intensity after July, triggering catastrophic floods, a series of landslides and heart-wrenching scenes on the hills of the Western Ghats range, which runs along the entire length of the State.

Most stretches of the ghat roads and resorts, hotels, houses and other buildings and bridges on the slopes disappeared in the wink of an eye as tonnes of mud and rock and water slid down the denuded hillsides of Wayanad, Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts. Rescue efforts were hampered by the heavy rains, which rendered roads in many areas inaccessible.

Villages at the foothills, a number of them located near granite quarries, also bore the brunt of the rain. The rivers broke free, changing course in all directions under the darkness of those cursed nights, pulling down hillsides and ransacking entire communities.

In the heavily populated midlands and coastal plains, rivers in spate caused catastrophic flash floods and altered the geography at places, refusing to disappear, as if reclaiming their riverbeds and floodplains. On roads and bridges and inside homes and neighbourhoods, the rivers deposited tonnes of plastic waste and other garbage and thick silt and mud.

Much of Kerala went under water and thousands were forced to flee their homes. Water rose to the second floor of many households in cities and towns and the residents could only be rescued using boats.

Kerala is no stranger to floods but this was a disaster that had engulfed the entire State. The floods ravaged 774 of a total of 1,564 villages, directly affecting 54 lakh people out of the total estimated population of 3.5 crore.

The State government described it as “the most intense floods to hit the region in the last hundred years”. Almost all the 41 rivers that flow down to the Arabian Sea were in spate. Rivers changed course, dams overflowed and bridges collapsed. As road and rail systems were disrupted, transport came to a standstill. Conducting rescue operations through waterways became impossible because of the fast river currents. Bad weather prevented smooth functioning of helicopters; places were helicopters could land were all flooded.

For the first time in history, and barely two months into the monsoon, the reservoirs of all 58 dams of the State became full between August 8 and August 10 and water had to be released from them one after the other within short intervals. An extraordinary excess of rain descended on almost all 14 districts in the four days from August 14 to August 17. “It was a kind of rain that led to a huge amount of [dam] storage within a very short period of time,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who led a massive rescue and relief operation from the front, said. Almost the entire additional inflow from the catchment areas of 58 dams, therefore, had to be released quickly to downstream areas.

According to the Chief Minister, there are three reasons why the disaster caused more problems in Kerala than it would have in other States. “One is the high population density: while the national average is 382, in Kerala it is 860. Second, over 10 per cent of the area in Kerala lies below sea level; 41 rivers flow into the Arabian Sea. There are 80 dams and separate catchments for each one of them. We need to understand these special features of the State in order to coordinate the relief operations well.”

Ironically, the past two years had actually been a period of scanty rain in Kerala. Summers were extremely hot and storage was very low in many reservoirs. There was the looming threat of drinking water scarcity in many cities, including Thiruvananthapuram.

Exceptionally high rainfall

However, from the beginning of the monsoon this year, rainfall was exceptionally high: 42 per cent above normal from June 1 to August 19, according to the Meteorological Department. While the departure from normal was 15 per cent and 18 per cent in June and July, respectively, Kerala received a staggering 164 per cent above normal rain in the August 1-19 period.

The five major dams run by the State Electricity Board all recorded “non-stop, extreme rainfall” from August 14 to August 17: Idukki, one of the highest arch dams in Asia, received 811 millimetres of rain; Pamba 344 mm, Kakki 915 mm, Kuttiyadi 954 mm and Idamalayar 644 mm.

In June and July too, there were two consecutive “active spells” of rain with above-normal rainfall that peaked on June 14 and June 20. Another bout of intense rain was recorded around July 20. The State was already in trouble by the time the fourth active spell began by about August 8, with heavy rainfall events of above 7 centimetres being recorded in many places north of Alappuzha district. Some areas received very high downpours: for instance, Nilambur in Malappuram district got 40 cm of rain in a single day, on August 8.

By the end of July, all the 35 hydroelectric and irrigation dams, which are classified as “major dams”, had reached their full reservoir level (FRL). There was no buffer storage in any of these dams to accommodate the heavy inflows from August 10. Soon, almost all the dams that received heavy rain in their catchment areas (170 per cent above normal in August up to the 16th) were opened one by one, releasing huge quantities of water into the rivers.

Much of Kerala was submerged, with large areas cut off completely from the rest of the world, without power, water, food or communication links, by the time the rain’s fury began to subside after August 17.

For lakhs of unsuspecting people who had never experienced such a phenomenon, the calamity began as a mind-numbing spectacle that was telecast live for hours, as all the five shutters of the Cheruthoni dam was opened after 26 years, letting out the waters of the huge Idukki reservoir into the downstream areas of the Periyar river, which is the longest in Kerala and has the highest discharge potential.

The shutters of the Idamalayar and Bhoothathankettu reservoirs downstream of Idukki had been opened a few days earlier. This had caused the Periyar to overflow all its course from Kothamangalam, Kalady, Perumbavoor, Aluva and Eloor.

Although all the 15 shutters of the Bhoothathankettu irrigation dam, just 15 kilometres from Kothamangalam, the gateway to Ernakulam, were open, water had already started brimming over that dam, as was the case at Peringalkuthu hydroelectric dam (in Thrissur district) upstream. Across the Chalakkudy river, the Idamalayar hydroelectric project dam, with its huge reservoir, was already full.

Deluge from dams

The release of water on a massive scale from the Cherithoni dam followed the release of water from the upstream dam, Mullaperiyar, by Tamil Nadu into the Idukki reservoir, after a controversial but crucial wait and appeals by Kerala to the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee. Tamil Nadu’s action came in the context of the long–drawn-out battle between the two States over the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam and the storage that ought to be permitted.

During this key interval, Kerala later claimed, while there was pouring rain in the catchment areas of both the dams, the heavy inflows into the Mullaperiyar dam were allowed to build up instead of being diverted quickly across the basin into the Vaigai dam in Tamil Nadu. The water level at the Mullaperiyar dam rose to its full permissible level of 142 feet and when it was released, it forced Kerala to open the shutters of the Idukki reservoir at Cheruthoni.

The muddy torrents let loose gobbled up the bridge at Cheruthoni and parts of the town itself and then swiftly began to rush to the plains, swelling the already flooded banks of the Periyar right down to the urban centres of Aluva and Eloor and the towns of Paravur and Kothamangalam.

With such a rush of floodwaters from the Cheruthoni dam to Ernakulam in a matter of a few hours, even the most well-managed and controlled water release from dams could do little to stop the damage of heavily populated areas in Ernakulam and Thrissur districts. Similar events played out in most districts.

The picturesque Kuttanad region, situated at the tail end of four major rivers, looked like a festering swamp after four days of torrential rain. It is a region known for its unique method of paddy cultivation on large tracts reclaimed from the Vembanad backwaters. Many such tracts are situated two to three metres below sea level and are prone to flooding and salt water intrusion.

Kuttanad is a 900 square km delta spread over three major districts of Alappuzha, Pattanamthitta and Kottayam. It is a confluence of landmasses fragmented by rivers, coastal backwater channels, marshes, ponds, reclaimed paddy fields and garden lands. Its villages are all thickly populated. The residents have, for generations, been resilient to floods, braving nature’s mood swings to grow crops on fertile stretches reclaimed from the lake and the river. But the hilly tracts, midland and coastal stretches, through which the rivers flowed, have all been heavily built up in recent times. As a result, the floodwaters did not drain out from the Kuttanad region even after several days.

Of the two lakh people in 13 panchayats in Kuttanad, a rescue operation that caught the attention of everyone for several days brought 1.25 lakh people to relief camps; about 50,000 preferred to shift to the houses of relatives; several others refused to leave their homes or cattle or pets.

The massive three-day operation involved hundreds of fishing boats, about 30 house boats, about 20 travel boats and several vallam s (traditional boats). About 25 buses and two dozen trucks were used to transport people from the boats to the camps. Later, the government began an operation to save cattle and other animals in huge barges brought from outside.

The low-lying areas of Alappuzha, including Kainakary, Chambakulam and Pulinkunnu panchayats all went under water and the Alappuzha-Changanassery road was submerged.

Similarly, the flooding of the Pamba and Achankoil rivers in Pattanamthitta district brought several towns under water. The opening of the two major reservoirs (Pamba and Kakki-Anathodu) linked to the Sabarigiri hydroelectric project on the Pamba, the State’s third-longest river, led to heavy flooding and landslips on the banks of the river. Communities downstream were caught unawares. As they woke up, many stepped hysterically into a brisk river flowing through their bedrooms.

Places such as Ranni, Vadasserikkara, Athikkayam, Perunadu and Ayiroor were completely flooded by early morning. Entire sections of Ranni town and the holy town of Pandalam, part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage, went under water. Buses lay submerged. There was up to five feet of water in shops that were getting ready for Onam festival sales. Scenes of the swift flow of the river through the streets of Ranni and Pandalam and rescuers using guiding ropes to help people wade through it went viral.

As rain intensified around the Sabarigiri hydroelectric project, Kakki, Anathodu and Pamba dams were opened and the waters converged at Triveni at Pamba, on the foothills of the Sabarimala temple, just as the temple was being opened for the season’s pilgrimage.

After a landslip at the Pamba hilltop on August 16, widespread destruction followed and the Sabarimala temple was totally isolated, with power and telecommunications links cut. The weigh bridge at Triveni was washed away. The Pamba Ganapathy temple, the first of the major shrines at the foothills of Sabarimala, the police station, hotels and number of other buildings familiar to pilgrims were submerged; the government hospital went under water and the bridge across the Pamba at Triveni, a landmark, was partially damaged.

The river itself took a different course at Pamba, as it did at many other places downstream. As the temple priests were stranded and it became difficult to transport even food and goods for essential temple rituals to them, for the first time in memory the Sabarimala shrine became inaccessible to pilgrims. The pilgrimage itself was suspended.

Meanwhile, in the hilly areas, several people remained stranded for several days after landslides and rain at Munnar in Idukki district and Nelliampathy in Palakkad district, both tourist attractions. Munnar, the famous hill station, lay submerged. Muthirapuzha, the river that runs through the town, witnessed “the biggest flood” in at least 50 years, local people said. The same refrain could be heard from other districts too about local rivers. The opening of the Mattuppetty dam made matters worse. Several bridges, some built during the British days, were washed away. With landslips blocking roads, Munnar, the victim of the great floods of 1924 (see separate story), was isolated. Tourists were asked to stay away. Palakkad, too, was cut off , as traffic was blocked on all roads.

A key road at Kuthiran, a stretch connecting Palakkad with Thrissur, was washed away. The Attappadi tribal area was isolated. At Pattambi, the Bharathapuzha, the second-longest river in Kerala, flowed over the bridge. In Palakkad, which received one of the highest rainfalls this season, all 11 dams were opened and many parts of the district went under water.

Rescue operations

For several days, rescue workers could not reach many flooded areas. Army, Navy and Air Force personnel aided by fishermen from many parts of the State and volunteers struggled for over several days to reach out to them. In many areas, food and water and medicines were delivered mostly by helicopters. There was a limit to the number of people who could be rescued in boats, especially in the initial days of the flood, when rescue teams were still getting a grip on the micro-level flood realities. On the roads and bylanes, the flood flow was rapid; eddies and cross-currents were complicating the rescue of people stranded on upper floors of buildings. Trees in the neighbourhood, power lines and roofing sheets and crosswinds made even the delivery of food and water by air difficult. Rescuers braved many such hurdles to finally rescue most of those stranded by the fourth day.

Maintaining sanitation and preventing disease in relief camps was declared a top priority, State Health Minister K.K. Shailaja said. Authorities were also seeking to restore regular supplies of clean drinking water and electricity. Even burying or cremating the bodies of the dead became an issue, with government hospitals running out of mobile mortuaries and burial and cremation grounds getting flooded. Media outlets and the authorities were overwhelmed by heart-breaking stories of people staying in flooded homes with their dead spouses or parents and of frantic calls and messages from people about missing relatives.

It was a huge challenge for the State government to handle such an emergency situation that involved loss of life and property on an enormous scale and required the evacuation of over 13 lakh people to over 3,527 relief camps spread out in affected areas. Making sense of the disaster in its entirety was an impossible task at the beginning. Stocktaking of the destruction and losses in various sectors will take a long time. The immediate challenge is to help rebuild homes, provide safe drinking water and prevent communicable diseases from spreading. Repairing roads and bringing electricity, water supply and telecommunication facilities back on track are urgently required tasks.

There is no clear idea of the losses suffered by individual families in this great flood, which affected all sections of society. The rich and the poor both had to abandon their homes and valuables and flee as fast as they could. According to preliminary figures provided by the government, over 7,000 houses have been completely damaged and nearly 50,000 have suffered partial damage. Many people have lost everything and face the prospect of rebuilding their lives from scratch after leaving the relief camps and temporary shelters. Even 10 days after the rains stopped, it was difficult to know the true extent of damage, especially in many inaccessible parts such as the numerous tribal settlements in Idukki, Wayanad and other districts.

The logistics of helping them all rebuild lives is going to overwhelm the government system.

Silver lining

The only silver lining in the grim scenario was the united effort in the State to overcome this humongous tragedy (see separate story). Kerala society rose as one to face it, and even as it fell into despair, there were innumerable uplifting tales of bravery, selflessness, compassion and humanism.

The rescue and relief efforts undertaken by the government under the Chief Minister’s leadership, aided by the Central government and the armed forces, and the unparalleled monetary and material support pouring in from all parts of the country and overseas, have helped the State see through the initial days after the flood. For instance, even the rising tensions over Mullaperiyar did not dampen the spirit of fellow feeling that saw relief materials pouring in from neighbouring Tamil Nadu into the flood-affected parts.

The calamity is likely have a lasting adverse impact on the State’s economy. Tourism, a major revenue earner for Kerala, has been badly hit as several destinations have been devastated. The destruction wrought by the rains has also been most severe in the agricultural districts of Idukki, Wayanad, Palakkad and Alappuzha. Crops on nearly 30,000 hectares have been completely destroyed, according to one estimate, and farmers face a bleak future.

The deluge came with its share of controversies, too. The first was over finding the resources for the huge task of rehabilitation and reconstruction that Kerala has to undertake now. The Central government offered an immediate assistance of Rs.600 crore, after the Prime Minister and the Home Minister visited the State and assessed the situation. But it is only a small fraction of the requirement.

A petition was filed in the Kerala High Court that the floods should be considered a “national disaster” so that compensation could be decided accordingly. But the Centre has maintained that there is no provision in the law to declare a disaster a national calamity (story on page 28) and that it can only be categorised as a Level 3 disaster (meaning the most severe, “a catastrophic situation or very large-scale disaster that overwhelms the State or district authorities”).

In the meanwhile, Pinarayi Vijayan announced that the United Arab Emirates government had offered to provide Rs.700 crore as assistance. This became controversial when the Centre decided not to accept assistance from foreign governments for flood relief.

Release of water from Mullaperiyar

Another controversy revolved around the cause of such an unprecedented floods: whether indeed it was a case of unprecedented rains or unscientific dam management or if it had been triggered by the sudden discharge of water from the Mullaperiyar dam by Tamil Nadu after it had reached the limit of 142 feet in spite of Kerala’s request for an early and slower release before the level crossed 139 feet.

At the time of writing this report, the issue of release of water from Mullaperiyar as a reason for the floods was being considered by the Supreme Court, with Tamil Nadu claiming that timely intimation was given to Kerala right from the point when the water level reached 136 feet. Kerala, in turn, has claimed that this was not so. It alleged that Tamil Nadu was trying to score a legal point that the dam was safe enough to hold water up to 142 feet, while Kerala was struggling to deal with an unprecedented floods situation downstream and trying to extend the release from Cheruthoni as much as possible in order to evacuate more people to safety.

While there is no doubt that the intense rainfall was the main contributory factor, the debates about the proper management of water release from the dams and about Mullaperiyar are likely to continue for a long time.

The debate around dams also brings to centre stage the serious issue of rapid urbanisation that has robbed all 41 rivers flowing to the Arabian Sea of their floodplains; of large-scale reclamation of wetlands and paddy fields; and of the fast degradation of Kerala’s hills.

Disastrous land use practices, together with rapid deforestation and the mushrooming of granite quarries, have resulted in an abundant quantum of rainwater flowing swiftly downstream without being retained by the forests or recharging the water table in the plains. Given the geography of the region and the possibility of freak rainfall events, the current state of affairs only sets the stage for destructive landslides and inundation of low-lying areas.

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