Trial by water: how Kerala is coping with an extraordinary natural disaster

With the monsoon fury showing little sign of abating, S. Anandan and M.P. Praveen report on how Kerala is coping with an extraordinary natural disaster made worse by a fragile flood management system

Updated - August 18, 2018 07:21 pm IST

Published - August 18, 2018 01:32 am IST

FOR GROUND ZERO  - Kochi, Kerala, 17/08/2018: FOR GROUND ZERO : The northern part of Kochi looks like a huge wetland, with the flooded Vembanad lake submerging most human habitations. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat.

FOR GROUND ZERO - Kochi, Kerala, 17/08/2018: FOR GROUND ZERO : The northern part of Kochi looks like a huge wetland, with the flooded Vembanad lake submerging most human habitations. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat.

The last thing Varghese Thalikaparambil, 72, probably saw on that Thursday night of apocalyptic rain was water cascading into his house at Manikandanchal, on the banks of the Pooyamkutty river —a tributary of the mighty Periyar in Kuttampuzha panchayat along the eastern border of Kerala’s Ernakulam district. It was August 9.

The fast swelling river denied him an early burial. Shortly after he was moved from his flooded house to the relative safety of a nearby church, the waters came for him. His body had to be put on stacks of tables and beds before a few brave men took it across the ferocious currents on a makeshift raft the next morning.

By then, just over an hour’s drive from there, water from the Idamalayar reservoir had already cut loose, through four spillways, into the Bhoothathankettu barrage downstream to gnaw at the densely-populated suburban regions of Aluva, Paravur and Kodungalloor.

‘River reclaimed its lost self’

Before long, the main strand of the Periyar was also rushing down the spillways of the Cheruthoni dam, part of the mammoth Idukki reservoir system. It merged a few kilometres downstream with the Perinjankutty river and the tail water of the Neriamangalam powerhouse. It then charged the floodgates of the Bhoothathankettu and heaped misery all around, on its way to the Vembanad lake and the Arabian Sea.

“The river has reclaimed its lost self,” says Konthalam, 79, pointing to the swirling waters forcing their way through the fields, houses and chapaths (low-level bridges) a few kilometres down the Cheruthoni dam at Thadiyampad. As a young man, he had travelled from his native Chelliampara to Cheruthoni to work at the dam site. He married a girl from the locality, purchased an old thatched house on the barren banks of the now-dammed river, and settled here in 1978, two years after the dam was commissioned, doing odds jobs as a lorry cleaner and head load worker at the bus stand.

“Before the Periyar river was dammed, during summer, we would cross her benign waters on bamboo rafts. But the monsoons, in the last quarter of the year, would make her dangerous. It is very unusual for her to turn ferocious during the southwest monsoon, at this time of the year,” he says. In the 1980s, when wasteland dwellers were given patta (title deed) for the patches of land they lived on, he got ownership of 20 cents of land and possession of much more.

“All these houses down the slope were built on land sold by me,” he says, pointing to the submerged structures. “The land was rocky earlier and we had to level the terrain to build.” With the Periyar dwindling to a trickle at some distance, its banks receded, and more houses were built on the slopes. Crops such as rice, tapioca, coconut, black pepper and areca nut flourished in the lowland abutting the stream. Over the years, panchayat roads were built below the electrified houses while chapaths connected the villages on either side.

“Never before have we seen the Cheruthoni dam — a part of the Idukki reservoir comprising the Cheruthoni, Idukki arch dam, and Kulamavu dam — fill up in just two months, least of all during the southwest monsoon. But this year, it has been raining excessively since July, and there was talk about the shutter gates of the dam being raised to release water. When people were served notices to evacuate, no one did,” he says. “The dam had released its waters in 1981 and 1992 as well. It is typically done when the water level is near full reservoir capacity, in order to ease the pressure on the structure, and there had been no damage on those occasions. This time around, after the second and the third gates were opened in quick succession, the surging waters forced people to flee their homes, leaving everything behind, and take shelter in their kin’s houses in the upper reaches. On the earlier occasions, too, they had opened all the shutters, but had done so only for a short duration. The level to which the gates are opened depends on the quantum of water to be let out. This time the quantum was more than ever before. The rains have been incessant. The shutters have remained open for over a week now and the river has washed away the bridges and roads, gobbled up crops, and destroyed houses and livelihoods,” says Konthalam, as he hurries up to his unplastered house, built under a housing scheme from the panchayat.

Water was lashing the retaining wall of the house, below which lay buried the sole investment and possession of Asha and Santhosh, who are in their 40s – their house on five cents of patta land. The couple, along with their children, had sought shelter at Santhosh’s parental home a few levels up the sodden and grassy slope. “We have nothing more to lose and so don’t care about what awaits us tomorrow,” says Asha. Her husband is a head load worker in the market.

Yusuf, nursing a fractured leg, was the only one to have left his home before the floods came. A little distance away was Beena’s house. She had built it using the compensation she had received following the death of her teenage daughters in a landslip one morning in 2013. Most landslips in the region have happened in the early hours. “I still remember that it was the 27th night of your Ramzan,” she says, glancing towards Konthalam. “It was a rainy day. Our house was at a level below the road and a landslip slammed a roadside building and a portion of the retaining wall into the room where my daughters were asleep. They were 18 and 15 years old. Thrown onto the chapath , both died on the spot,” she says, flashing a torch on the photographs of her daughters and husband, Jose, who succumbed to cancer five months ago. Her son, Joby, stopped studying after Class 12 and is looking for a job.

Crops and livestock lost

At Vellakayam, across the river from Thadiyampad, people felt marooned. Their access to Cheruthoni town, hardly a kilometre and a half away, was cut off following the collapse of the chapaths . They would now have to take a longer route to get there. “How do we send children to school now?” asks Lincy, a resident of Maryapuram panchayat.

For hundreds like Lincy, an immediate concern has been the loss of crops and livestock. “Most of us have small land holdings in the hills, but wild animals would raid the crops. It’s easier to grow crops and vegetable and rear cattle close to the river. Upland people depend on these cultivators for their green grocery,” she says, as personnel from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) struggle to negotiate the river. They are trying to feed a family’s livestock trapped on a landmass surrounded by water.

 Residents near Kampanipady in Kalamassery, north of Ernakulam, being rescued by fishermen using traditional fishing boats from Chellanam.

Residents near Kampanipady in Kalamassery, north of Ernakulam, being rescued by fishermen using traditional fishing boats from Chellanam.


The Periyar in spate is even more frightening at Aluva, where it splits into two, as hundreds of people like Lakshmi, a resident of Eloor municipality, realised. On August 9, she opened the doors of her house to have water rushing in. In no time, it soon engulfed her house up to the roof, giving her barely enough time to make it to a relief camp with her ration and Aadhaar cards. “We built our lives little by little, and now we have to start from scratch,” she says.

At first, it wasn’t the dam-induced floods but landslips and flash floods that wreaked havoc across the State, especially in Idukki, Wayanad and Kozhikode. At a relief camp at St. Mary’s Church Parish Hall in Keerithodu, Idukki, most of the 450 people sheltered are landslip victims. “From a place locally known as ‘Cutting’, up to the Periyar Valley in Idukki-Kanjikuzhy panchayat, the land has been gouged out by rain. Two people, who shifted to safety ahead of the opening of the dam, died in a landslip. Elsewhere, people ran out of their homes on hearing a loud noise, thinking the dam had collapsed, as we had informed them about the plan to release water. Now they can’t go back to their homes. The houses are either partially damaged or filled with rubble, and the approach roads have been destroyed. More terrifyingly, wherever the land slid, water gushed forth from the soil all around. Everyone is scared to return,” says Tincy Thomas, member of the Anjukudy ward of the Idukki-Kanjikuzhy panchayat. Idukki-Kanjikuzhy, along with Vazhathoppu, Maryapuram, Konnathady and Adimali panchayats, has been hit the hardest by the monsoon fury.

“It was early morning when a huge heap of debris hit my house. I ran for cover, and only later I realised that it had killed my neighbours, Agasthy and Eliamma,” remembers Maniamma Chandran, shuddering at the recollection.

“If it continues to rain like this, there won’t be any soil around the boulders in Idukki,” says Shijo Thadathil, member of the Vazhathoppu panchayat. “There have been over 30 landslips in our panchayat alone. Shops at the Cheruthoni market have been washed away in the water from the dam. There aren’t many bridges left and those still standing are rickety. This is a crisis and we don’t know what’s happening, as there’s a power outage,” he says.

Highest ever inflow

The Southwest monsoon, which has pounded Kerala with 29.5% excess showers as of August 15, came in spurts, and the dams, which were thought to be adequate as flood hazard management instruments, stored the water. “But there was something unusual about the showers this time. We recorded an all-time high inflow of water into the reservoir lake and also the highest daily rainfall in its catchment area. The phenomenon is cyclical and reminiscent of the great flood of Malayalam Era 1099 (1924),” according to an official of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), which operates the reservoir. Back then, the showers had lasted over three weeks and while official figures are unavailable, over 1,000 people are said to have perished.

James Wilson, Kerala’s special officer for Interstate Water, contends that the situation now is a repeat of the 1961 floods, the second biggest to hit the State in a century. Had it not been for the ongoing devastating spell of rains that have forced the opening of 36 dams (13 of them on the Periyar) and the evacuation of over 1.5 lakh people as of August 15, it would have been manageable.

A dam safety official, on condition of anonymity, says that the dams did play a role in managing the floods, but the continued downpour that exceeded all predictions has turned the situation awry.


It was the flood-prone, low-lying Kuttanad in central Kerala that was the first to bear the brunt — it became inundated in early July. Landslips had already begun to scar the hilly areas, especially in Kozhikode and Idukki. The Idukki and the Idamalayar dams were barely at 50% of their storage capacities in mid-July. But within a fortnight, they were filled to the brim, triggering a debate on whether the KSEB was waiting to monetise the monsoon bounty. The rumour was that the KSEB was reluctant to release water as more power generation meant more money. But as the shutters of the dams were opened one after the other and increased outflow, the situation soon turned grim, leading to a red alert across the State.

“Early methodical action by the administration, with the support of the Services and the disaster relief force, had largely contained the first two spells of monsoon fury. The Centre and the State worked together, but whatever you do may not be enough to put up a defence against a spell of this magnitude,” says N.B. Narasimha Prasad, former executive director of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Kozhikode. “What we are seeing now is unprecedented.”

In Wayanad, people complained about the KSEB not issuing an alert before spilling water from the Banasurasagar dam. Anger over inadequate evacuation time was palpable downstream from the Mullaperiyar dam as well, where people felt they had not got much notice before Tamil Nadu opened the spill gates in the early hours of August 15.

Spill from the Idukki reservoir was increased to accommodate the inflow from Mullaiperiyar. On the night the spill gates of the Mullaiperiyar were raised, revenue and disaster management officials had a sleepless night. Control rooms and rescue teams operated round the clock. Social media groups and volunteers chipped in to assist people marooned in the floodwaters, most of them in Pathanamthitta and Ernakulam. Meanwhile, in view of an even more ominous weather prediction, reinforcements were called in to augment rescue and relief operations, according to P.H. Kurien, Additional Chief Secretary.

The overall losses due to the disaster, at last count, were estimated at ₹8,700 crore, and are still mounting.

Need for a long-term plan

Tourism has been badly affected. In Munnar, the blooming of the Neelakurinji flower ( Strobilanthes kunthianus ), which occurs every 12 years, was expected to draw in the crowds. The town remains cut off now, with the spill from the Madupetty dam destroying livelihoods. “Already reeling from the Nipah scare in June, the tourism industry has been hit again —this time by the floods. Kerala will take a long time to recover from this,” says an official, on condition of anonymity.

“Agreed that it is unprecedented, but that only indicates the dire need for a long-term comprehensive plan. The worst may never occur, but we nevertheless have to be prepared for it. A disaster management plan for dam failure should be in place. The Western Ghats, an eco-sensitive mountain range, is prone to degradation. Further, landslip-prone zones, mostly those receiving over 20 cm rainfall and at a 30-degree gradient, can be easily identified and people relocated,” argues A.V. George, disaster management expert.

In the wake of the tragedy, there are calls to implement the Madhav Gadgil Committee report on the Western Ghats. The 2011 report had recommended the zoning off of ecologically fragile areas, with no developmental activity allowed in areas classified as falling under zone 1. But it was vigorously opposed in Kerala, with detractors saying that it was impractical to do so in a densely populated State.

Back in the Periyar basin, Purushan Eloor, research coordinator for the committee against river pollution, asserts that the unfolding disaster has been waiting to happen, thanks to naked encroachments even on the floodplains of the river. He blames the local bodies for allowing private encroachments, that too when a public property, a restaurant owned by the District Tourism Promotion Council, was razed on the orders of the Supreme Court four years ago.

“For quite some time we have been demanding the removal of toxic waste stockpiled in the industrial units, which were allowed to be set up along the Periyar’s banks in violation of environmental norms. Unless we correct these anomalies on a priority basis, we are in for greater disasters, given the increase in the frequency of abnormal spells of rain,” he warns.

K.G. Tara, former head, Disaster Management Centre at the Institute of Land and Disaster Management, Thiruvananthapuram, says the time has come to carry out floodplain zoning on a war-footing. She had proposed a comprehensive insurance policy — at zero premium or for a nominal fee — for poor families living in vulnerable areas. Had the proposal been implemented, it would have eased the burden on victims during this flooding.

“The recent amendment to the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act that has eased the norms for the conversion of wetland for other land uses, would also prove disastrous, as paddy fields, even when left barren, would cushion the impact of flooding. Equally important is a policy to preserve the remaining hills and wetlands, as they serve as water storing systems,” she points out.

Short interludes apart, the rain is still thundering down. Lowland and highland, cityscapes and villages, upmarket dwellings and migrant labour camps have all been hit and relief and rescue pouring in from all over.

The rain has become a leveller.


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