Kerala hasn’t witnessed a natural disaster like the 2018 Kerala floods on over 94 years. So, what caused this deluge? Of course, the first reason is rain, lots and lots of rain. These showers coupled with poor management of water resources and dams and laxity on the part of the state government – simply worsened it.
Here’s how our failure to respond to early warnings led “God’s own country” into tragedy:
Although Kerala had not witnessed major flooding incident in almost a century, the danger of floods was always hovering above the state. Firstly, approximately 1/4th of the state was always prone to floods. Secondly, experts say that deluges like these are likely to return every 50-100 years. In fact, the UN disaster response expert, Muralee Thummarukudy based on this theory predicted these floods back in 2013. He urged the state government that a 1924 like flood is highly likely to hit the state.
But, these early warning were brushed aside as during this period the state was busy developing infrastructure for the mushrooming tourism industry, which contributes 1/10th of the state’s GDP. In the eagerness to fast-track money-making projects, the government soon started overlooking the disaster rules and protocols. It started issuing permits for construction of resorts and restaurants in areas which were clearly termed as ‘ecologically-sensitive zones (ESZ)’ and of ‘very high hazard’ by the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA). For instance, a majority of the resorts in the tourist hotspot – Munnar – are actually built in ‘high hazard’ areas. An attempt was made by an IAS officer to demolish the resorts in these areas. But the state government shunted him out when his bulldozers moved towards the big fish. In fact, the areas that suffered a maximum damage were those which were classified as ESZ. Thus in the years to come, the state saw a spree of construction of power plants, coal mines, hotel resorts and new housing. Clearly, the state had chosen the path of development over the environment. While creating this tourist hub, natural flood protectors like forests and wetlands were illegally acquired by private parties for their projects. As per a study, the wetlands dwindled from 734.32 km in 1970s to 381.29 sq km.
This environmental concern was what formed the main crux of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by the scientist – Madhav Gadgil. A detailed report by Gadgil clearly suggested an immediate ban on new industrial and mining activities in Kerala. It outlined the extensive illegal quarrying and mining which had led to massive encroachment of riverfronts.
Today, top environmental experts are of the opinion that as the politicians were buckled under the pressure of illegal lobbies, they always either rejected the reports or ignored the warnings.
Kerala could have stopped the mishap just a month before the floods when the Niti Aayog told them that among all the southern states, they were the worst performing when it comes to effective water management. This coupled with IMD’s (Indian Meteorological Department) prediction of heavy rains was enough wake-up call for the Kerala government to up their dam management.
Dams mainly serve the purpose of irrigation, power generation and flood control. The last one is almost always underestimated and often ignored. In order to serve as an effective flood control device, the water levels in the reservoirs needs to be kept relatively low during the monsoons, so that there is enough space to store the rain water. Thus, the water should be released in a phased out manner before monsoons itself. But, that was not the case in Kerala. The dams were full up to the highest capacity when the monsoons set in – instead of being empty. The water level in the dams had reached a ‘danger level’ a level at which the dam structures can be damaged. Ideally, when the state witnessed showers in July, the water from the 35 dams should have been released gradually. This step could have reduced the damage by 20-40%.
But instead, they released all the water when the state witnessed heavy rainfall – 37% more than the usual. This wrongly coincided with the opening of all the 5 gates of Idukki dam (one of the largest arch dams in Asia), unleashing fresh hell on Kerala a.k.a 5 lakh liters of water per second into an already flooded state. According to climate experts, it’s a scientific reality that no gate of any dam with a full reservoir should be opened all of a sudden. It should be opened gradually within a long span of time to prevent flooding.
A stringent check on illegal construction over coastal regions, precise early warning systems, regular dam audits and establishing new building codes should be Kerala’s future disaster mitigation and prevention plan.
Unfortunately, 1 lakh houses were damaged and 10,000 km of roads were washed away during this flood. This should be seen as an opportunity to rebuilt infrastructure and assets that are disaster resilient. This urban planning principle is called the ‘Build Back Better’ – to newly repair and replace assets that are strong enough to withstand an even more intense disaster. As per reports, such an approach can reduce the well-being loss caused by the future disaster by 40%, which means the impact of the next floods will be reduced by almost half. No public infrastructure like school, hospital or airport should be built in flood-prone or sensitive areas. For instance, because the Kochi International Airport was built on the fields and wetlands of the Periyar river (the longest river in Kerala), it was bound to be flooded.
Urban planning is not the only criteria which need to be checked. Technical and geographic arena too needs to be updated. An emergency action plan, inundation maps and dam-break analysis – all act as early warning signs and mitigate the loss by floods. They identify the emergency conditions of a dam, specifies a pre-planned action while releasing volumes of water to minimise and risks. Well, none of this exists in Kerala. As per a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) none of the 61 dams in Kerala had an emergency action plan.
The Kerala disaster could be a preview of what could happen to the major states in India due to its combination of poorly managed dams, heavy rains and lack of urban planning. According to a report in The Times Of India, cities like Mumbai and Thane in Maharashtra, which is also home to a whopping 3,264 dams, are at a risk of Kerala like floods due to unchecked urbanisation and lack of flood control measures. Countries around the globe are moving from a disaster management approach to a disaster control one. Netherlands, China, Japan and Bangladesh to name a few. Our delay in including such an approach in our policies has caused flooding incidents claiming lives and causing damage year after year, as you can see in the video below.