Pullukayar, a river that burst its banks to wreak havoc in the settler villages of Koottickal and Kokkayar just four months ago, might sound the most unlikely place to look for an impending drought situation.
A walk along the riverbanks here , however, suggests otherwise. Without a hint of rains, the river has been reduced into a trickle around its midstream boulders with the water starting to form pools.
The river, which originates from the Vagamon hills, has been hit by a double whammy of impacts with the floods, closely followed by an extreme spell of drought. The phenomenon has created a cascade of impacts on life in the villages around it, which together reported 22 deaths during a landslide-induced flash flood that struck the river here on October 16, 2021.
“A weekend of light rainfall may keep this trickle of flow for two more days though it will do nothing to ease the problems that we face’‘, says Josna Jose, while drawing water from one of the pools on the riverbed. She lives in a small house on the riverbanks near Elamkadu Top here and uses dirty water from the stream even for cooking purposes.
Her daughter, Lillet, was just a few months old when the river burst its banks. By the time the floods swept away a portion of her home, Josna had escaped to a safer location along with other members of her family including 100-year old grandmother.
“That, however, is a long old story now as our present concern is about surviving this summer. Never ever in my life I have seen this river running so dry’‘, said 67-year old Jose Olikkal, Josna’s father.
Three villages worst hit
The drought situation has been particularly worse in the villages Elamkadu Top, Koottickal and Enthayar, where water level in wells even along the riverbanks is going down drastically.
A walk across the treacherous riverbed brings to light even worse scenes of a disaster. As many as as 17 of the 27 houses in the Vettickanam Attoram colony in Kokkayar, which were shattered by the flash floods, lie like damaged toys in the debris. Down the stream, an array of houses in Mukalil Tazham remain buried under sand and boulders that were propelled down the hills.
“All my property including 40 cents of farmlands comprising plantains and tapioca , were washed away. With the river bursting its banks and changing its course, our land along with that of the neighbours are now located right on the middle of this dried up river ‘‘, said Sujatha Chandran.
While it was the flood waters that chased them out of their homes one fine morning last monsoon, the cumulative impact of the floods, loss of homes and traditional livelihoods combined with this recent spell of drought are not allowing these villagers to return.
Cimatologist Gopakumar Cholayil regards the sharp fall in water table as a pointer to the region moving to a hydrological drought situation. `”This trend of extreme showers followed by drought spells has been observed even before though there are no scientific conclusions available to confirm the trend. In the absence of summer showers, the remaining surface water too may dry up further, leading to an agricultural drought and wilting of crops’‘, he warned.
Meanwhile, many of the affected families have begun receiving the first installment of assistance as promised by the State government even as complaints persists on the anomalies in damage assessment. The receipt of this assistance, however, has added to their woes as the beneficiaries are now required to leave their shelters provided by the government and find a new space.
“We have no place to go but just a few cents of land for which an advance payment has been made using the government assistance’‘, Aswathy, who lives in a community shelter at Wembley, ward 11 of the Kokkayar panchayat. She had lost her house during a flash flood in Wembely canal, a tributary of the Pullakayar.
The surge in demand for rental homes, in turn, has led to a rental rip-off by the unscrupulous landlords. In Enthayar and Kottickal, several families could be seen living in rented houses with little or no space. The average rent for a house having just two rooms including a kitchen generally hovers around ₹3,000 to Rs. ₹3.500 and pushed into the brink of penury, most of the families are finding it hard to take up any additional financial obligations.
Priya Mohanan , president of the Kokkayar Panchayat, has also noticed the landslip-nduced floods bringing about a discernible change in the settlement pattern across the region. “Life on the hillsides is increasingly turning vulnerable and families, who have been settled in these hills since decades, have gradually begun moving out to places like Mundakkayam or Pala’‘, she said.
According to her, the delay in restoring the damaged infrastructure including the roads and bridges will force more people to move out. Temporary footbridges have replaced the damaged bridges while the delay in re-laying of damaged roads has cut off access to several settlements on the hilltops.
After the bridge that connects Kokkayar (in Idukky) and Koottickal (in Kottayam) across the Pullukayar was washed away by the floods, people are now taking a circuitous route to travel between the two districts. The dried up riverbed , however, has allowed the smaller vehicles a passage through the route for the time being.
Without rains, the disaster unleashed by the floods last year appears to have quietened to a conversational background. The scenes of the dried up riverbed strewn with huge boulders, however, have now given rise to fresh concerns of yet another bout of floods.
As per estimates by the Major irrigation department, the silt and boulders that came crashing down the hills has raised the riverbed by at least five feet. “Restoring the flood plains combined with construction of new check dams and their regular upkeep appears to be the only option. In the absence of desiltation, this river is sure to spew more troubles in the coming monsoon’‘, warned a top official.
Taking a serious note of the situation, the authorities of both Kootickal and Kokkayar panchayats have now approached the state government seeking immediate action to restore the river.
“The water resources minister Roshy Augustine has promised us to clean up the riverbed ahead of the next monsoon but the works are yet to begin. The government is also yet to act on its earlier assurance of shifting those on the riverbanks to the land offered by a few estate owners at reasonable prices ‘‘, Ms. Mohanan said.