Kerala floods: Extent of crisis leaves people in Kuttanad bewildered, district administration seeks navy's help

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.​

Philipose was the last person in his ten-member family at Changankary near Edathua in Upper Kuttanad to have moved out of his house when water from the canal in front of his house entered the premises.

Philipose had earlier refused to leave the house, not because he was worried about water washing away the household items or damaging the rice mill he runs, but due to a strong belief that water will not enter his house.

“I have seen many floods in Kuttanad in my life of 70 years. Our house was one of the few in which water did not enter even once. The present flood is beyond my comprehension and imagination,” Philipose, who was evacuated after the water rose neck deep in the house, told Firstpost.

The flood that ravaged Kuttanad has dismayed many people like Philiphose. Most people in the area, which witnesses floods almost every year, believed that their annual ordeal was over when the flood in the first spell of the monsoon ended in the middle of July, without causing much human displacement.

Many appeared bewildered when floods returned with an increased ferocity on Wednesday. Interestingly, the current flood was not caused by rain or even high tide from the sea, as is usually the case. The region lies below the sea level.

The flood was triggered by a sudden rise in the water level in the Pampa River following the opening of the shutters of the Kakki, Anathodu and Kochu Pampa reservoirs, which are part of the Sabarigiri hydroelectric project in Pathanamthitta district.

Boats are the only means to rescue many people in Kuttanad. Image sourced by TK Devasia

Boats are the only means to rescue many people in Kuttanad. Image sourced by TK Devasia

The water that gushed from the river filled the Vembanad Lake and flooded most of the areas in the region. Thousands of houses have been submerged and roads inundated in the unexpected flash floods.

Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, who is coordinating the rescue operations in Alappuzha district, himself is surprised by the extent of areas crippled by the flood. He said that all the people in the region, which consists of major parts of Alappuzha and certain parts of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts, will have to be evacuated.

He said that the biggest problem faced by the district administration is the refusal of a large number of people to move to relief camps. Like Philipose, many believe that the flood will not affect them. However, they were forced to change their mind when the flood water rose beyond what they expected.

By then, things had gone out of the control of the district administration, which found the resources under their command insufficient to move out thousands of people who were marooned in the flood in many places. Boats were the only means by which it could rescue the people.

Fortunately, the district had large number of house boats with tourism firms. While many voluntarily lent the boats, others were forced to give them after the district administration threatened to arrest the boat owners and seize their boats. About 1 lakh people have been evacuated so far with the help of over 200 boats, according to local MP Kodikkunnil Suresh.

However, thousands living on the banks living on narrow strips of land surrounded by the backwaters remain stranded as the large boats could not reach them. Even small boats that are available in plenty in the district were unable to reach several places.

News channel Manorama said there were over 2 lakh people trapped in various areas of Kuttanad waiting to be rescued. The report said that the water level in the Vembanad Lake that flows through Kuttanad was rising fast and it could even inundate the Alappuzha town.

The district administration has already started shifting thousands of people sheltered in relief camps in the town to nearby towns like Changanacherry, Cherthala and Harippad. Suresh, who represents the Mavelikkara Lok Sabha constituency, said that the situation was very alarming.

He has demanded immediate deployment of the army to deal with the situation. He told Firstpost that a large number of stranded people had no water to drink, or food to eat. Many of them are sick and elderly people, who need medical care.

A woman in the Kuttanad region being evacuated. The region lies below the sea level. Image sourced by TK Devasia

An elderly woman in the Kuttanad region being evacuated. The region lies below the sea level. Image sourced by TK Devasia

The district administration has sought the assistance of the navy to rescue those it cannot reach with boats. One company of the navy has already arrived at Kuttanad. However, the MP has doubts on whether the Navy alone can manage the situation. He said that the majority of the stranded people can be rescued only by air.

“The navy has only limited helicopters. The helicopters available with the army teams already involved in the rescue operation are not sufficient to meet the demand. The state government should seek more helicopters from the central government or hire private helicopters, as any delay in rescuing the stranded people could prove fatal,” Suresh said.

However, the finance minister claimed that 90 percent of people in the affected areas of Kuttanad have already been evacuated, and the navy will be able to rescue the others with the help of helicopters available with them.

This is for the first time that people in Kuttanad, which is the rice bowl of Kerala, are escaping from flood-hit areas to upland. The water level has reached above all expectations. Many boat jetties, hospitals, churches, schools and colleges are under water.

The Pulinkunnu taluk hospital is now operating from the Alappuzha Carmel School. The government machinery and disaster management teams are working hand-in-hand to evacuate people from marooned areas.

A large number of people were shifted to mainland Alappuzha in ferries, house boats and other vessels deployed by the public as well as disaster management forces. The State Water Transport Department (SWTD) is also operating special services to rescue people.

However, the rising water level is creating panic among people. Thousands of people, who are waiting in the elevated areas, are making frantic calls to helplines  and making appeals through social media for help.

Follow live updates on the Kerala floods here.

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Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 23:17:35 IST

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