Kerala floods: Recovering through resilience in a disaster

Written by Mohanasundar Radhakrishnan, Chris Zevenbergen & Sajid Pareeth, on 3 September 2018

Kerala, the south western state of India, known for its beautiful landscape and touristic attractions, has been devastated by flooding. Kerala is one of the best governed states in India, yet an event of such great magnitude and spread was not anticipate and averted, why? IHE Delft flood resilience experts try to answer this question.

The beauty of Kerala, its undulating terrain and number of rivers, seem to have shown its dark side, leading to the loss of more than 350 people, displacing 800,000 people, not to mention the damage to private property and public infrastructure. The economic damage due to flooding is yet to be ascertained. In spite of disruptions to rail, road and air traffic movement, the people of Kerala, neighbouring states, the local government department and the central government agencies came together and coordinated relief measures, which have prevented the events snowballing into a major public health catastrophe.

Flood risk is a combination of the likelihood of the occurrence of flooding and the impact due to flooding. The occurrence of swelling rivers and overflowing banks can be due to the combined effect of rains and haphazard reservoir management. However, the increase in impact in majority of cases seems due to human factors. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), the rainfall recorded in August 2018 so far has been exceptionally high and was reported to be 164% above normal. 758 mm of actual rainfall was recorded between 1st and 19th of August compared with the normal rainfall of 288 mm in the same period in past years. The flooding in rivers is attributed to the excessive monsoon rainfall, as well as the excessive flow from the majority of the 56 big dams that were open during the extreme rainfall.  Each of these dams has a storage capacity of more than 60 million cubic metres.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of flooding to excessive rainfall or the opening of these dams, what is baffling is (i) the level of water beyond these dams, almost at the crest level in the first week of August; (ii) the release of water during the time of extreme rainfall; (iii) lack of knowledge among the nodal agencies and public about those areas most likely to be flooded; (iv) encroachment of flood plains; (v) lack of awareness about evacuation routes and safe areas.  Also Kerala is one of the most urbanised states in India. However, urbanisation is uncontrolled: basic urban planning rules are often disregard due to the narrow focus on short term economic gain and real estate development. This is evident from the flooding of upmarket built up areas such as gated communities that have sprung up in the flood plains of Periyar.

Kerala is one of the best governed states in India, yet an event of such great magnitude and spread was not anticipate and averted, why? Why these reservoirs were not emptied in anticipation of rains in the upcoming two weeks; were these forecast windows not sufficient to empty the reservoirs; were these forecasts not reliable; when rainfall events can be forecast, why were the impacts not forecast and anticipatory actions rolled out; why were standard operating procedures not in place to trigger anticipatory actions?  These are some of the “Whys” which have to be considered seriously in the near future so that the negative impacts of future events can be minimised or eliminated.

Although it is tempting to label the flooding as “unprecedented”, it is not the first occurrence of such a situation in India. There was a so called unprecedented event in December 2015 not far from Kerala. The December 2015 Chennai floods are attributed to rain, poor reservoir management and uncontrolled urban growth.  The factors contributing to August 2018 Kerala floods are strikingly similar to 2015 Chennai floods. All the “Whys” were raised after the Chennai floods but they did not translate into actions.  A quick post-event analysis of the Kerala floods has been carried out, leading to a set of actions and protocols. Commendable are the joint effort and coordination during the relief operations. However, the first requirement is to put in place at relatively low cost an appropriate rainfall forecast and flood early warning system, so that the occurrence of flooding and its impact can be predicted, that can lead to actions within a sufficient lead time. This will also enable the identification of flood prone areas where developments have to be regulated or reserved for natural or flood related land use.   

Kerala, Chennai or developing countries are not the only ones that are lagging behind in the management of flood risk. The scars of devastation due to recent flooding in Japan and flooding events in USA still persist. A multi-pronged yet a coordinated approach based on protection from floods, preventing flood damage and preparing for the disaster, as in The Netherlands, can be adopted for the Kerala context. It should also be understood and widely disseminated that floods cannot be avoided and we have to embrace the concept of “living with water” like in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. A comprehensive flood risk management plan and its implementation is imperative. In a state like Kerala which has a strong local governance network and wide public outreach such a Kudumbashree, it should be possible to implement an agile flood risk management protocol, which is both top-down as well as bottom-up.

Relevant links on Flood Resilience

IHE Delft Flood Resilience chair group


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