Kuttanad’s climate refugees

For the people of Kuttanad, recurring floods, torrential downpours, and intrusion of saline water are at the forefront of their minds nowadays, as they face the dire impacts of climate change 

Published - April 30, 2022 07:40 pm IST - ALAPPUZHA/KOTTAYAM

A house destroyed in the 2018 mega floods at Kuttamangalam in Kainakary, Alappuzha

A house destroyed in the 2018 mega floods at Kuttamangalam in Kainakary, Alappuzha | Photo Credit: Suresh Alleppy

The watermarks on the shabby, cracked wall of the house of Radhamani, 75, at Meenappally in Alappuzha’s Kainakary grama panchayat bear testimony to the ravages of recurring floods and bund breaches.

The partially flooded house, infested by water hyacinth, is situated on the muddy edge of the waterlogged Meenappally paddy polder. A country boat is always on standby in the front yard to ferry the family members and visitors between the house and the towpath of a canal in the front. Most importantly, it helps the family shift to safer places during flood emergencies.  

“We have not seen our house premises remain dry for a single day in the past four years. The place is experiencing flooding even during the summer months,” laments Jijimon, son of Radhamani, referring to the heavy downpour that led to the inundation of the region a couple of weeks ago.

“My family has spent almost half the time in relief camps or in relatives’ homes since the 2018 deluge. Heavy downpours coupled with bund breaches have caused flooding in our home multiple times in the last four years. We want to move out, but do not have the means to relocate to a better place,” says Mr. Jijimon, who takes up odd painting jobs to earn the daily bread for his family. 

A partially flooded house at Meenappally in Kainakary, Alappuzha.

A partially flooded house at Meenappally in Kainakary, Alappuzha. | Photo Credit: Suresh Alleppy

The Kuttanad wetland system, which is part of the Vembanad wetland system, is known for the cultivation of paddy at one metre to two metre below sea level on land created by draining delta swamps in brackish waters. The place is adulated for its idyllic backwaters, lagoons, canals, and the indomitable spirit of its people in overcoming adversities.

However, for the people of Kuttanad who live across 62 grama panchayats in Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, recurring floods, torrential downpours, and intrusion of saline water from the sea are at the forefront of their minds nowadays, as they face the dire impacts of climate change. 

A report titled Flood in Kuttanad: A Development Manifesto for Panchayats prepared by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB) paints a disquieting picture for the region.

The study, authored by Prof. N.C. Narayanan and Rohit Joseph, attributes the recurring floods in the region to modifications to the natural water cycle in the delta region, coupled with the expansion of the second crop and also points to the countless tribulations and broad-based disruptions that the encroaching climate crisis, which is primarily manifested in the form of floods, has brought to Kuttanad.

“What is not good for Kuttanad was completely ignored in the so-called development revolution in the region over the past two decades. These developments, in which streams were encroached upon for roads, brought about major changes in the complex water flow system of Kuttanad. Unscientific culverts and bridges have become bottlenecks between streams,” it notes. 

At Kuttamangalam in Kainakary, a number of tilted, roofless, and damaged houses are lying abandoned. One of the worst flood-hit places in the entire Kuttanad, several families have left their hearths and homes at Kuttamangalam and nearby places for safer locations in the last couple of years.

Sijimon K.A., his wife, two children and his septuagenarian mother were about to move to their new home being constructed on stilts. But on the night of August 9, 2020, all their dreams crumbled when the outer bund of the Aarupanku paddy polder breached. Gushing waters destroyed the structure which was under construction.

“We began constructing the new home spending ₹15 lakh after the 2018 deluge made our house uninhabitable. About 80% of the construction was completed when the floodwaters destroyed everything. For us, that was the last straw,” says Mr. Sijimon, a shikhara boat operator. 

The family soon joined an ever-growing list of climate refugees to move out of the “climate hotspot”. They bought seven cents in Muhamma grama panchayat in Alappuzha and constructed a house there in 2021 with the help of friends and relatives.

“After 2018, floods and bund breaches have become a recurring phenomenon. We took the decision to relocate from Kainakary with great pain, but it was the best decision considering the vagaries of climate,” says Mr. Sijimon, who is yet to get the compensation promised by the government for his destroyed home. 

Santhosh A., and his family from Kainakary shifted to Thuruthankavala in Muhamma more than a year ago. “The deluge has upended our lives. It was heart-breaking to leave the place of my birth. But the life there after 2018 was pathetic. We lived in a damaged house with constant fear of flooding and no clean drinking water. At least, I no longer need to spend money for repairing the house after each flood,” Mr. Santhosh says. 

Kainakary presents a slice of what is happening to the entire Kuttanad. Though people from other places in the region such as Pulinkunnu and Ramankary have relocated to Cherthala, Muhamma, Alappuzha, Changanassery and so on, no official data are available on climate refugees from Kuttanad. 

About 30 km inland from the Arabian Sea, Changanassery is the gateway to the midlands from Kuttanad. The historic town, which long served as a major market in central Travancore, has been the focus of a massive real-estate boom fuelled by people from Kuttanad. While there is nothing new in people from the region crossing over to Changanassery and adjacent locations in search of better facilities, catastrophic weather events since 2018 seem to have expedited this wave of out-migration. 

Farmers suffered huge losses in the ongoing ‘puncha’ crop season after unseasonal downpours destroyed harvest-ready paddy in large tracts in Kuttanad in recent weeks

Farmers suffered huge losses in the ongoing ‘puncha’ crop season after unseasonal downpours destroyed harvest-ready paddy in large tracts in Kuttanad in recent weeks | Photo Credit: Suresh Alleppy

No one knows exactly how many are forced to move from Kuttanad each year by these extreme weather events since 2018, but over 15% of its residents have already left, says K.G. Padmakumar, Director, International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea Level Farming, Kuttanad.

“The harmonious relationship between Kuttanad and humans is being lost to climate change. Life is increasingly untenable in larger parts of the region and there is no surprise that the people are leaving. If you go to the interior, deep into the core of Kuttanad, you will see several vacant homes,” he says.  

The latest study by the institute, which analysed the water level in Kuttanad on mean tide days, has predicted that the region is set to witness a 40 cm rise in water level over the next decade. “The dual crises of land subsidence and rising sea level are forcing people to flee their homes and destroying their lands,” he adds. 

Though the entire Kuttanad is flood-prone, people living in kayal land and lower Kuttanad in Alappuzha district are taking the brunt of rivers such as the Pampa, Achankovil, Manimala and Meenachil debouching into Vembanad Lake and Kuttanad.

Being a predominantly agrarian belt, change in rainfall patterns is having a profound impact on agriculture, especially paddy cultivation. In 1960s, rice cultivation was undertaken in more than 60,000 ha in Kuttanad. It has declined to around 26,500 ha in the ongoing puncha season. The recent downpours have destroyed paddy crops in around 9,000 ha in the region. The drinking water problem is also getting worse due to water pollution and high salinity. 

Janamma, 79, lives on an islet inside the Kanakassery paddy polder. The elderly woman has been forced to rebuild her life from scratch after she lost everything to the floods induced by the torrential downpours and the bund breaches which inundated her house several times.

“I have lived all my life in Kuttanad. Flooding during the monsoon has been an integral part of our lives. Paddy farming is dependent on sediments deposited by floodwaters. But what we are experiencing now is unprecedented. Floods have become a round-the-year phenomenon. Between 2018 and 2022, the outer bund of the paddy polder had breached five times following rise in water level in the lake. Apart from the increasing number of flood events, floodwaters are draining at a slow pace furthering our tribulations,” she says. 

While those who left Kuttanad feel relieved, people staying put say they face an uncertain future. “It’s not that we are eager to stay here. The fact is that we are now forced to live in Kuttanad more than ever before. Post-2018 floods, it is almost impossible to find a buyer for our land, which faces waterlogging every now and then. Besides, we make a living by cultivating rice. Relocating outside Kuttanad will make us jobless. Here in my house, we have a bag always ready with clothes and other essentials to shift to a relative’s home or to a relief camp in case of a bund breach or heavy flooding,” says Vijayamma, a resident of Ramankary.

Meanwhile, those who can afford are building houses on stilts which help families to stay safe in their own dwellings during floods. 

The effects of climate change are very much noticeable in Kuttanad but the serious ecological degradation the place has suffered in recent decades has exacerbated the problems in the below sea-level region. The previous Left Democratic Front government had announced a ₹2,400-crore special package for post-flood Kuttanad with eco-restoration of the Vembanad wetland ecosystem, farming, development, and flood mitigation high on the agenda.

Two years later, the residents say the package is yet to make any positive impact in the region with many of the proposals remaining on paper. 

To help build resilience, people such as Mr. Padmakumar are pressing for an accommodative approach to farming and land-use patterns for the region.

According to them, the conventional norm for every discussion on Kuttanad starting with managing the Thottappally spillway and ending with the Thannermukkom barrage, two major points of checking saline water intrusion and flood control, may not be adequate to solve the issues. The focus should be on implementing a new crop calendar and raising the land by harvesting the large sediment deposits in the waterbodies here, they argue. 

Experts are on the same page when they demand the need for building new models of adaptation and resilience for the `managed lands’ here. “For years, the residents have avoided confronting these changes in their own backyards. But as the hopelessness of the climate pattern now becomes clear, relocation no longer seems like such a distant prospect. The need of the hour is to evolve a holistic approach that takes care of both the fragile ecology of Kuttanad as well as its people,” says Jibin Thomas, coordinator of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (Kuttanad centre). 

While the expansion of cultivation has been indisputably favourable to the spread of settlements across Kuttanad, its socio-economic geography appears to be organised in line with the specificity of the land available.

To back the point, the IITB report also points to a survey in Kainakary panchayat, which found that most of those living in the flood-prone swamps belong to the BPL category and are from the backward classes. 

Add climate change to this historic inequality and the next few decades may see further marginalisation of these groups in the form of job loss to loss of education for two months of the year, among several other things. 

Pointing to the carrying capacity of Vembanad Lake and the tidal range of the sea as the two crucial aspects determining the water level of Kuttanad, the report from IITB also calls for measures to increase the carrying capacity of the backwaters and flow of water to the sea to manage the floods. 

Instead of keeping wards as the lowest governance units, the report suggests making paddy polders the unit of planning and intervention. “The convergence of grama panchayat and padashekara samiti are essential for effective flood management,” reads the report, adding that detailed polder-wise participatory situation assessment is essential to arrive at contextual solutions and priorities of interventions. 

While the facts are clear and increasingly foreboding, there are so many intangibles that are conspiring to keep the people here from leaving Kuttanad. Nobody wants to migrate away from home, even when an imminent danger appears to be inching ever closer. They do it when there is no longer any other choice.

“There is no place like home. But what we are going through is unbearable, which is forcing us to look for alternatives even if there is none,” a dejected-looking Jijimon says. 

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.