Nature’s Fury Unleashed in “God’s Own Country”

Published : Aug 23, 2018 09:37 am | By: M D Sridharan

The South West monsoon has created mayhem in the “God’s Own Country”. A combination of torrential rains, overflowing rivers and a series of landslides has created havoc in “God’s Own Country” resulting in deadly deluge across the state, the worst in a cen

Known for its splendid network of rivers, beaches and tranquil backwaters, famed majestic hills surrounded by its tea plantations, Kerala is indeed a bundle of nature’s gift.  Suitably called, “God’s own country” the southern state is known for its scenic beauty.  It is normal for Kerala to get some of the country's highest rainfall during monsoon season, but this year the rain “gods” have not shown any mercy  on ”God’s Own Country” .

The Southern state has witnessed an unprecedented rainfall of over 40 percent excess across the state and more than 80 percent in some district such as Idukki in the north which is one of the worst affected districts. The monsoon catastrophe that started on August 8 went unabated for almost a fortnight resulting in the state witnessing a deadliest deluge in close to a century. The torrential rains wretched havoc in all the 14 districts of the state and unleashed absolute  mayhem forcing  close to eight lakh residents  out of their homes and  take refuge into nearly 3,500 relief camps.

Kerala experienced what is said to be the "worst flood in a century" and people relate the monsoon mayhem to the similar catastrophe that hit the state in 1924. The current turmoil brought back collective memories of June 1924, where the heavy flooding had left Periyar river in a state of despair for three weeks. The 1924 incident is commonly referred to as the “Great Flood of 99”, as it occurred in the year 1099 according to the Malayalam Calendar. The torrential downpour caused the hill, once known as Karinthiri, to erode completely, and left the town of Munnar submerged in water. This time also the picturesque Munnar was completely devastated.

With the state government opening the shutters of 35 dams (out of a total of 39 dams) in an attempt to prevent the dams from breaking away, several cities and town are inundated with water. The overflowing rivers that have engulfed the bridges and eroded the roads, has triggering a series of landslides across the state. The deadliest deluge in close to a century has dealt a severe blow to the overall infrastructure of the state.

Biggest rescue operations

The situation was absolutely grim with no electricity and food for more than a week, even hospitals faced the worst crisis with shortage of oxygen and patients being shifted to safer places. With roads damaged, railway tracks under water and   airports closed, the situation was utter chaotic. Many areas faced fuel shortage after roads were cut off as the floods disrupted supplies. A shortage of medicines has also added to Kerala’s mounting woes.  It is estimated that over one lakh people have been rescued from the houses and stranded on the terrace of the buildings with batted breadth for days.

Ably supported by the armed forces, NDRF teams and hundreds of volunteers, Kerala witnessed mammoth rescue operation, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)  launched its  biggest-ever operation in flood-hit Kerala by deputing 58 teams  to work in flood hit areas.  Also, Army, Navy and Airforce have been pressed in to rescue operations. Nearly three lakh people have been moved to relief camps in Kerala. The IAF has deployed 23 helicopters and 11 transport aircraft. The Indian Navy has deployed 51 boats along with diving teams and 1,000 life jackets and 1,300 gumboots are being rushed to Kerala today. It has flown 16 sorties in last two days in rescue operations and it will airdrop 1,600 food packets today. The Coast Guard has deployed 30 boats along with rescue teams, 300 life jackets, seven life rafts and 144 life buoys. The Army has pressed into service 10 columns, 10 Engineering Task Forces (ETFs), 60 boats and 100 life jackets.

Officials estimated about 6,000 miles (10,000km) of roads had been submerged or buried by landslides. With communications networks faltering and commuting across the state has become highly difficult, carrying out rescue efforts have indeed become harder to coordinate and execute. As mobile phone networks are down, the social media is filled with SOS from people of Kerala. 

Further in Kerala’s case, with reservoirs threatening to burst out and rising water levels in rivers, the nature of its notoriously tough terrain compounded to the problems of carrying out the rescue operations. Literally rough terrains, waterlogged narrow ways and eroded roads hampered the rescue operations. Though hampered by a lack of proper coordination, rescue workers and members of India’s armed forces deployed across the state with fleets of ships and aircraft have saved thousands of people.

Why is the situation so bad?

The 44 rivers, their 30 tributaries, 55 dams and 1,500 km of backwater canals can potentially flood the state. Environmental, especially the failure to protect ecologically fragile mountain ranges in the area, local media report. But an extraordinary southwest monsoon in Kerala unleashed floods and landslides in the state, the magnitude of which has rarely been observed in recent memory. The situation, described as unprecedented by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, “We are witnessing something that has never happened before in the history of Kerala. A total of 8,46,680 people were accommodated in 3,734 camps”.

A combination of heavy, persistent rainfall, over a fortnight and the release of thousands of cumec of water into rivers like the Periyar and Chalakudy River from dams and reservoirs are responsible for the flooding of low-lying areas. Before the dam shutters were opened, adequate warnings were relayed by the district administrations to those residing along the river banks to move to higher areas. Authorities had no other option but to release the water at regular intervals from dams as the catchment areas were reporting water levels rising to the highest storage value.

Rampant Deforestation

It is also a known fact that at times, the nature’s fury can be merciless. It can defy everything proportions and the magnitude of such devastations can be huge and beyond human comprehensions. Though everyone accepts that the spate of angry rivers caused the deadly deluge across the state, deforestation, heavy blasting coupled with alarming encroachments on river beds and banks of streams on hill slides are indeed the factors that have contributed to the calamity of this magnitude.  

Experts point out that the impact should have been limited if the Gadgil committee report, for the protection of the Western Ghats, had been implemented. The Ministry of Environment and Forests of India set up an environmental research commission called “The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel” (WGEEP), under the chairmanship of  Madhav Gadgil.   The expert panel approached the project through a set of tasks, such as compilation of readily available information about Western Ghats, development of geo-spatial database based on environmental sensitivity, and consultation with government bodies and civil society groups. The report recommended protecting the natural resources with the approval of local self-governing bodies. The commission submitted its report to the Government of India on August 31, 2011. But, it was criticised for being excessively environment-friendly and not in tune with the ground realities.

Despite warning from the authorities concerned, encroachers went on to modify the hill slopes and level the water bodies. Everyone who could wield power and money simply ignored the environment and contributed to the nature’s fury. On the other hand the government continued its recalcitrant attitude over yielding ground to over several thousands of hectares of Ecologically Fragile Land. Now, the disaster has devastated not only their wealth and the properties but also caused irreparable damage to the ecology of the state.

Experts point out that the main cause of such devastating deluge is the rapid deforestation and unorganised construction activities on the ecologically sensitive areas. Resorts are built on hilltops indiscriminately and several skyscrapers have come up on the banks of rivers and lakes.  Especially, at places where massive landslides took place, there are clear indications that all ecological rules have been flouted. Further, the rapid urbanisation in the cities where houses have been built on farmlands, have lead to the blockage of water ways. Most of the buildings which are inundated with flood waters were built on farmlands.

Clearly, mindless deforestation, rampant encroachments and excessive quarrying have indeed altered the ecological balance.  The use of explosives to blast rock in quarries causes rapid landscape changes leading to landsides. Government has allowed building skyscrapers on wetlands and huge resorts on ecologically fragile lands. As result the entire state suffered its worst in a century.

Though, the entire world is facing the impact of climate change and also it could be one of the factors for Kerala witnessing such bountiful rains in this monsoon. But looking at the sheer magnitude of the overall damage it caused, there is no denying that there exists a substantial share in human incursions that hurt the nature.  Such calamities are a sort of the nature’s   backlash. It is time to think about the lowering the intensity of such impacts by preserving Mother Nature. On the whole the government must understand the importance of the ecology and implement ways and means to sustain the ecosystems and create a balanced environment.

Rebuilding the state

With thousands of people losing their belongings and starring at the future, the state has plunged into a deep misery. The true scale of the catastrophe would be known only when the last tract of submerged land emerges and people limp back to life. It is going to be a herculean task for the state to handle the rehabilitation process and see to that the “God’s Own Country” is back to its beauty.

With   the centre declaring the devastating Kerala floods as a “calamity of severe nature”,   one can understand the intensity of the damage the state has witnessed.

As the state braces for the gigantic task of reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and rehabilitation of lakhs of people rendered homeless,  Chief Minister Pinaryi Vijayan has declared, “rehabilitation is the our next target”.  Having witnessed the worst floods since 1924, Vijayan has urged NGOs and organisations to come forward to handle the rehabilitation work.

As per preliminary estimates, the state has so far suffered a loss of nearly Rs. 20,000 crore. The Union government has so far rendered all help to the state and sent Rs. 600 crores as an interim relief. Kerala received Rs. 210 crore towards the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund. With the neighbouring states, extending all possible support to the people of Kerala both in cash and kind, the centre also waived off customs duty and GST on relief materials.  Buts still, the

Indicating that reconstructing Kerala would be a Herculean task, the chief minister said the cost of constructing and reviving activities would come to state's one year plan outlay.  "This year's plan outlay is Rs 37248 crore. Of this the construction capital would come to Rs 10330 crore. It should give an idea about the mammoth task lies ahead. We will require an amount equivalent to one year's plan outlay for rebuilding the state. Or we will have to forgo the entire developmental activities for a year. The state's economy has suffered the biggest blow," Pinarayi said adding that the construction-revival activities can be compared to running a five-year plan.

Rebuilding Kerala is going to take time and needs support not only the central and the state government but from across the country as whole.

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