CAG report shows Kerala disaster could've been prevented: Poorly-managed dams, ineffective forecast system part of mismanagement
Each Kerala death is just part of a far larger story — one that, the United Nations estimates, costs India more than $7.5 billion and kills at least 1,500 people every year.
Editor's note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.
New Delhi: Tropical depression BoB5 was brewing in Bay of Bengal as India celebrated its 72nd Independence Day. BoB5's great towers of clouds, stretching up to 10,000 metres, swirled at around 45 kilometres an hour, dumping rain all the way from the southern tip of Myanmar to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.
From 35,000 kilometres above the earth, weather satellites showed BoB5's energy sapping as it hit the coast — and meteorologists heaved a sigh of relief. Sagar, birthed in May from a similar depression off Socotra Island, had killed 79, while Mekunu left at least 29 dead in Oman and Yemen.
But the winds around BoB5's edge were sucking moisture off the Arabian Sea, and slamming into Kerala’s hills. The dying tropical depression thus set off worst single monsoon disaster in 100 years.
The disaster, though, had little to do with nature, and everything to do with failures of both state and central governments. Each Kerala death is just part of a far larger story — one that, the United Nations estimates, costs India more than $7.5 billion and kills at least 1,500 people every year.
In early April, the Central Water Commission (CWC) issued a 55-page operations procedure to anticipate floods this monsoon season. From its headquarters in New Delhi’s Ramakrishna Puram, the CWC was monitoring real-time information from a network of 275 flood-forecasting stations across the country. Their predictions would be passed on from state capitals to districts, allowing for early warnings.
Kerala, for reasons that are unknown, wasn’t on the list of states covered by the monitoring and forecasting system — it may not have helped even if it was.
Like states across India, Kerala, too, hopes each monsoon that the 35 dams will store enough water to last through the winter and summer. BoB4, which hit the southern state in July, filled reservoirs to the brim. When unexpected rain from BoB5 came in August, the dams had to suddenly release water, flooding everything downstream.
Idukki, Asia’s largest arch dam, opened its sluices for the first time in more than 25 years, as water levels inched up to its capacity of 772 metres.
Had an effective rain-forecasting system been in place, the state would have released water from its dams ahead of BoB5's landing, but it had no way of knowing what impact the weather system was likely to have.
Last year, an audit of flood-preparedness by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) revealed that this sequence of events played out in state after state.
In August 2011, both the CWC and the India Meteorological Department had forecast heavy rain upstream of the Hirakud dam, on the Mahanadi in Odisha. In spite of the warnings, the CAG report records, “dam authorities maintained the water level” above the safe limit, choosing not to release water — and risk summer shortages.
Even though more than 20 people were killed and damages were worth over Rs 200 billion, the same thing happened at Hirakud in 2014. Gujarat was flooded due to emergency releases from Rajasthan in 2017 while northern Bihar bore the brunt of releases from dams in Nepal almost every year.
Poorly-managed dams are just a part of a maze of apathy and mismanagement. In 2012, 4,862 large dams across India were ordered to prepare detailed disaster management plans. Of the 349 dams CAG surveyed, only 40, or 7 percent of the dams, had such a plan in place. Only one had rehearsed the mandatory emergency drill.
Few states appeared to have identified the areas that would be affected in the event of a dam disaster or an emergency release. Only two of the 17 states responded when CAG asked if they had basic inundation maps, showing the areas that would be affected. Himachal Pradesh said it had maps for two of its 17 dams. Kerala had none. Plans like these, CAG notes, could have significantly mitigated the 2016 floods in Chennai, since city authorities would have understood the impact of releasing water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir.
Only Bihar and Odisha had prepared Frequency Based Flood Inundation Maps, which allow planners to anticipate flooding events, CAG found. The CWC, it turned out, had been entrusted with developing the mathematical models needed to make these maps but, as of March 2016, had not delivered.
Manipur, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, the CAG report records, are the only states to check construction in flood-prone areas.
For its part, the CWC has fallen behind on its commitment to install 219 telemetry stations, 310 base stations and 100 flood forecasting stations. “Most of the telemetry stations installed” from 2007-2012, CAG found, “were non-functional”. In Kashmir, the stations lacked modern equipment, in Bihar, the equipment was stolen. Aimed at modernising flood forecast, these systems collect real-time data from remote locations and share it with a monitoring centre.
Projects intended to bolster flood defences, CAG notes, are chronically delayed. In the states it surveyed, only 294 of 517 projects approved for construction between 2007 and 2017 had been completed. The state and central authorities blamed each other for delays that range from a few months to 13 years.
In one case in Punjab, a flood-protection canal was approved in 2006 and the work began two years later. The project, however, had to be suspended in June 2009, when the army said it could compromise its defensive earthworks. That problem was resolved and the work began again in 2010 but only to grind to a halt because the finance department delayed funds. Some states, it turns out, built projects without preparing detailed project reports.
This lack of seriousness has lethal consequences. India already leads the world in flood losses, data estimates by the World Resources Institutes (WRI) shows. While China has succeeded in reining-in fatalities and damage, India is getting worse by the year.
By 2030, the WRI estimates, up to $154 billion of the country’s gross domestic product could be exposed to flood risks each year, as climate change fosters more extreme weather events.
Everything that happened to Kerala, CAG’s findings show, was entirely predictable and, more important, preventable, if the right tools had been available. The time to act was before the rain began to fall — and before it does again.
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