Kerala floods: With 13 of 14 districts hit, state's disaster response apparatus finds itself stretched beyond capacity

The resurgent monsoon that wreaked extensive devastation in more than 90 percent areas of Kerala has tested the state administration’s capacity to deal with an unprecedented situation of this magnitude.

The disaster management machinery that got off a severely testing phase from 6 to 9 August, when water from 28 reservoirs flooded most of the central and northern districts of the state, appeared bewildered when rains acquired an unprecedented ferocity from 12 to 16 August ravaging 13 of the 14 districts.

Murali Thummarukudy, chief of Disaster Risk Reduction in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said that the disaster management authority had faltered in dealing with the situation due to lack of farsightedness.

 Kerala floods: With 13 of 14 districts hit, states disaster response apparatus finds itself stretched beyond capacity

Palakkad inundated. Image courtesy TK Devasia

“Sitting at Geneva, I had on 14 June cautioned that the reservoirs will be filled by July. I had made the prediction based on the experience in Thailand and Pakistan. Unfortunately, our engineers did not foresee this,” he said in an article in Malayala Manorama daily.

He said that the shutters of the Idamalayar dam in Ernakulam and Banasara Sagar dam in Wayanad were opened without prior preparation and notice. The opening of the shutters of these two dams led to the displacement of a large number of people in the low-lying areas of Ernakulam and Wayanad district.

Most people had to leave their homes abandoning their valuables in the flooded homes as they were not given sufficient time to remove the things to safe places. On the other hand, the people displaced by the shutters of the Idukki dam did not cause such a loss as it was done after sufficient warning to the people.

Murali has viewed the efficient management of the heavy inflow of water in the catchment areas of the Idukki reservoir as a sign of professionalism being gained by the disaster management personnel in the state.

“The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) is less than 10 years old. Still, it has managed the worst flood situation well with the help of all concerned departments and other agencies in the lower level, including the local bodies. This is a correct model of disaster management,” he said.

Murali said it was normal for authorities to open shutters of dams without informing residents. However, the UN official felt that the damage caused by the opening of the dams could have been minimised if there was unity between the civil engineers who look after the safety of the dams and reservoir managers who plan water utilisation.

“Safety engineers may like to release water when levels begin to rise, but those managing the reservoirs would like to hold maximum water in the reservoir. This is not a right way. Those who manage the dams should find out the water level increase in a reservoir by factoring in the rain pattern and water usage every year,” he said adding that there was no need to keep the dam full in the middle of a rainy season.

Kerala Dam Safety Authority chairman and former high court judge CN Ramachandran Nair has denied Murali’s allegation regarding the opening of the shutters of the dams without prior notice. He claimed that the officials had taken all the precautions before opening the dam shutters though this is the first time that water has been released from so many dams in a single day.

Weather experts are not ready to blame the government and the disaster management for the present situation. Vinson Kurian, who made presentations on disaster management at various international forums, including UNESCAP, Bangkok, said that none even weathermen had expected the monsoon to change its course in this manner.

“The monsoon 2018 has had a conventional onset and progress over the country during the first two months (June and July) through typically roller-coaster in nature. Nothing big or drastically different was being anticipated for August. There was no hint of anything drastic happening as per the observations made by most major global weather models," Vinson told Firstpost.

He said that the situation had suddenly changed towards the end of the first week of August, with rains acquiring an unexplained ferocity that grew by the day. He said that the authorities were found wanting when nature struck a second time, around 12 to 15 August.

Vinson said that weathermen are still at a loss to figure out what changed the course of the monsoon leading to a gruelling 10-day devastation. None has come up with any cogent explanation, except saying that another rain-generating low-pressure area may form in the Bay of Bengal by Saturday resulting in another bout of heavy rains.

“The current rain phase has been orchestrated by a predecessor depression. What is causing the Bay to churn up these systems one after the other? And why Kerala the focus? One plausible explanation could be the evolving positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) in the Indian Ocean. This is the equivalent of the ENSO (El Nino-La Nina) phase in the far-off Pacific that is being replicated next door to us (in the Indian Ocean),” he added.

However, he said that the positive IOD is only one cause. The other is the location of the rain-driving depression. It had popped up along the Odisha coast, which is the ideal spot to drag the monsoon moisture over Kerala. As they blast into the heights of the Western Ghats, the moisture-laden flows from the Arabian Sea blow up in heavy rain along the ghats, into the valleys, rivers, rivulets and dams.

“The 'neutral' phase in the Pacific itself may have been favourable to the monsoon, as it has proved in the past, and the positive IOD and the ideally located rain systems in the Bay may have piled on another to drive the monsoon into a frenzy this time,” said Vinson.

A KSDMA official said that the situation they faced was very complex as it was for the first time that shutters of such large number of dams were opened together. He said that they had faced a very unprecedented situation.

“Yet we have managed to tackle it without causing much damage. This is the result of the perfect combination of science and experience,” said the official, who did not want to be identified.

The official told Firstpost that lack of modern equipment to rescue people trapped in the floods in residential areas had hampered the rescue operations to a great extent. This was solved by involving the defence forces, Coast Guard and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the official claimed.

He said that it was a tough situation with all 13 of the 14 districts reeling under heavy rain, landslides and flooding. Roads and infrastructure have been so badly damaged that it sent some parts of the state back to the stone age.

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Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 23:51:09 IST