K.P.M. Basheer

KOCHI: Is the Periyar, Kerala's largest river which meets most of the State's power needs and waters the lives of millions of people, safe enough for boating?

Environmentalists point out that unlike other rivers in the State, the Periyar is a tricky river. Dozens of accidents take place in the river every year. Most sections of the river are unfit for boating, and many stretches are even unsafe for swimming. This is mainly because of the fast pace of the flow, depth, treacherous undercurrents and narrow river margins, they said.

The speed and force of the flow are high because the river is steep as it originates from a highly elevated source. The Periyar takes birth at 7,600 feet from mean sea level (MSL). From 7,600 MSL, the river reaches 0 MSL (when it meets the sea), over a relatively short distance of about 250 km. The volume of water is large and the breadth of the river is comparatively small. This adds to the depth and force of the river. The river is full of whirlpools and rock slabs. At the infamous Paaniyeli Poaru near Perumbavoor, the underwater rocks take many lives every year. Tourists and visitors, lured by the charm of the river, are cornered by strong undercurrents and get trapped among the rocks and whirlpools.

John Peruvanthanam, convener of the Paristhithi Ekopana Samithi, said boat accidents were commonplace in the Periyar though they do not take such a big toll as in Tuesday's Thattekkad boat tragedy.

He recalls that some 15 years ago, a dozen schoolchildren had been killed when a ferry capsized a few km from Thattekkad. He said it was because of the rough nature of the river that there was no boat race or water-related celebrations on the Periyar. Swimmers cannot sustain long as the water is cold and its density is high when compared to other rivers, he said.

However, by the time river reaches Aluva, it becomes sluggish and its pace becomes very slow.