What caused the Kerala floods? Could we have done anything to prevent it?

There are evidently many lessons for authorities to take away from the disaster.


Lots of rain.

That's all it took for the state of Kerala to flood in neck-deep water, for massive landslides to lay waste to roads and homes and for hundreds to lose their lives.

An aeriel view of floods in Kerala. Image: PTI

An aerial view of floods in Kerala. Image: PTI

The floods didn’t discriminate between people and property.

At last count, 357 people lost their lives, and the floods destroyed roughly 906,400 hectares worth of crops. The cost to the state and its people stands at a staggering Rs 19,512 crore.

For the state's oldest living generation, this was take two.

The last rival to a flood of this scale and severity in Kerala was in 1924, where monsoons pelted the hapless state with 3,368 mm of rain. At the time, over 1,000 people are said to have lost their lives, not to mention an enormous toll on livestock.

The 2,086 mm of rainfall this year is nowhere near as bad, but still 30 percent above the annual average. And the monsoon is far from over.

Going beyond the weather

Leading experts suggest a heavy, artificial hand in this latest deluge.

The state was forced to throw open the gates of 35 of its 39 dams, knowing full-well what was to come. Residents were forced to flee, on important roads that happened to be engulfed in floodwater and landslides.

Kochi: People being rescued from a flood-affected region following heavy monsoon rainfall, in Kochi on Thursday, Aug 16, 2018. PTI

Kochi: People being rescued from a flood-affected region following heavy monsoon rainfall, in Kochi on Thursday, Aug 16, 2018. PTI

And things only got worse from there.

The intensity of the rains meant that two dozen more dams in states nearby were forced to follow suit. The dam gates were opened and a torrent of hell was unleashed on God's own country.

Reading the signs

Kerala was one of four other districts in the country with rains more severe than predicted in 2018. The rains saw a steady increase  since 2015, culminating in the 'large excess' seen this year.

Records from the India Meteorological Department from the start of the torrential rains in Kerala – between 9 August and 15 August – show a 255 percent departure from the norm in the state's hotspots.Source: Hydromet Delhi/IMD

“Heavy rainfall used to occur in Kerala, but not with such continuity,” Dr D S Pai, Climate Change scientist and analyst at Indian Meteorological Department said to Livemint. “This time, there has been widespread rain continually for a long time, which has not been seen in recent years.”

Did we see this coming?

Back in 2011, the Gadgil Committee put together a bunch of recommendations to the central government about ecologically-fragile regions in the Western Ghats. They found the highest number of vulnerable zones in Kerala and cited several reasons for them being classified as such.

Some reasons for its vulnerability were geographical, a challenge posed by its position amidst the Ghats. Many other causes – quarrying, mining, illegal repurposing of forests, and high-rise building constructions – were man-made, controllable factors that the state chose to brush aside.

“The flooding has definitely brought to light the existence of illegal stone quarries or a large number of unauthorised constructions on river beds,” Professor Madhav Gadgil said to PTI. "In this sense, it is definitely a man-made calamity where intense rainfall and human intervention have made it a serious disaster."

The quarrying Prof Gadgil refers to, along with deforestation in the region, has intensified the horrific landslides the state is witnessing.

Were there early signs?

One of the most severely affected areas is Ernakulum in Kochi, along the Periyar river, into which excess water from the Idamalayar dam was drained.

Dam-safety expert N Sasidharan claimed that authorities waited till the water level in the Idamalayar reservoir reached its capacity of 169 feet, and had it been opened sooner, would likely have spared the massive evacuation efforts in the vicinity.

MC Joseph of Kuttikkatt village near Eloor said that the authorities made a mistake by opening all four gates of the dam at once, flooding the underlying regions at a much faster rate than expected.

“This is the result of poor planning by the disaster management authority,” Sasidharan added.


The death toll in flood-hit Kerala has reached 357 as of 19 August, as 33 more deaths were reported on Saturday. PTI

"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," Murali Thummarukudy, Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said to Malayala Manorama, a Kerala daily.

“Unfortunately, our engineers did not foresee this,” he added.

Can't weather predictions warn us?

Time and again, data and statistics on weather events have been used to fuel many arguments linking freak weather events, like the floods in Kerala, and climate change.

Leading experts are wary about drawing the same conclusions; they state that weather data is complex, and particularly so in a tropical country like India.

A climate study spanning 1950-2015 looks at extreme rain events in central India, which the researchers say happens three time as frequently in recent times as it did in 1950.

The paper explains that these have also intensified, because westerly winds that move over an increasingly-warmer Arabian Sea carry surges in moisture with them as they move into the subcontinent during monsoons.

Researchers add that predicting such events can be done two-to-three weeks ahead, at best.


“As a layperson, you can call it ‘unreliability’, or ‘ambiguity’. Whereas, to a scientist, the best term is really ‘uncertainty’,” says Dr Raghu Murtugudde, a prominent climate scientist at the University of Maryland.

“You end up with ‘certain uncertainty’,” Murtugudde continues. “With a (weather) instability coming up, if it doesn’t build.. sometimes instead of building over Maharashtra, it builds a couple of hundred kilometres south, or a couple of hundred kilometres north.”

Tropical countries like India evolve differently than countries in the West, which have larger land area and time periods over which to observe and predict a given weather event, Murtugudde explains.

In a recent report by the World Bank Group, average temperatures throughout Southeast Asia were seen rising , and rainfall growing more erratic, particularly in India. The report predicts that these weather changes will continue to shadow us over coming decades.

South Asian Monsoon Patterns rendered using Google Earth Engine. Courtesy: M D Madhusudan/Nature Conservation Foundation

South Asian Monsoon Patterns rendered using Google Earth Engine. Image Courtesy: M D Madhusudan/Nature Conservation Foundation

Cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Dhaka and Karachi – home to nearly 50 million – are at a substantial risk of flood-related damage in the century to follow, the World Bank report warns.

What now?

Floods during monsoons are as common in the centre of our country as much as they are in coastal states. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are prone to bad monsoons and saw the worst of it in the catastrophic floods last year that affected an estimated 40 million people, according to a UN report.

“The main reasons for floods have been assessed high-intensity rainfall in short duration, poor or inadequate drainage capacity, unplanned reservoir regulation and failure of flood control structures,” a report filed in March this year by the Ministry of Water Resources to the Rajya Sabha.

The tools used by met officials to assess climate change are long term, area-wise monsoon predictions – which are, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology concedes – far from easy to make.

In the meanwhile, water levels in Kerala have slowly begun to recede. Unfortunately, the end of monsoon is still weeks away.

Once the floods and fury recede, there are evidently many lessons for authorities to take away from this disaster.

The next time such a disaster occurs, we have no excuse for not being better prepared.

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