Changing Climate Rings Alarm Bells in Kerala, Yet Again

Taking cue from previous experiences, the state government had set up an expert committee to monitor flood levels and take a call on the opening of dams.

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Kottayam: It’s the fourth year straight that Kerala has been witnessing the devastation of torrential rains and flash floods with a considerable death toll. At least 27 people have already lost their lives when this report is filed, since October 16 (Saturday), with the high ranges of the eastern districts Idukki and Kottayam taking a heavy toll.

A series of landslides and subsequent flooding of adjacent rivers washed away three houses and a shop in Plappally, a village near Koottikkal of Kottayam district, and several houses collapsed in Kokkayar near Thodupuzha of Idukki district. Thirteen people, including five children, lost their lives in Plappally and eight were found dead at Kokkayar.

The local authorities fear that the death toll could climb further up as many have been reported missing since the flooding started. As of 4 pm on October 18, water level in ten of the 13 major dams in central Kerala have touched the danger mark and the government has already issued a red alert. Some of those including the Idukki dam, the biggest in the state, will be opened on October 19. Taking cue from previous experiences, the government had set up an expert committee to monitor flood level and take a call on the opening of dams.

“We are doing everything possible to evacuate people from the river banks and only after that process is over the shutters will be opened,” said Roshy Augustine, minister for water resources, who is also the MLA of Idukki.

According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the heaviest rainfall was recorded on October 16, with Peerumade of Idukki district getting a maximum of 292 millimetres (mm) in 24 hours, which is massive by any standards. Apart from Idukki, Kolam and Ernakulam districts too experienced high amounts of rainfall exceeding 200 mm. Over the last 24 hours till October 18 (Monday), more than 100 mm rains were recorded in districts like Thrissur and Pathanamthitta.

Kerala has already received more than double the normal rainfall of 184 mm this time of the year. A maximum of more than 500 mm rains has been recorded at Idukki, Kozhikode and Pathanamthitta since the beginning of this month. According to Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director general of the IMD, the unprecedented rainfall in Kerala was under the influence of a low-pressure system formed in the Arabian sea which touched the Kerala coast on October 16.

Also read: As Rains Batter India, Climate Change’s Dangers Become Apparent

‘Treading carefully this time’

Against the backdrop of the 2018 deluge, 2019 flash floods, the 2020 landslides, the state government was under tremendous pressure from environmental activists and the Opposition as they accused it of not learning from its mistakes. The 2018 Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report had also pointed finger towards the state administration, citing poorly managed dams, ineffective forecast system and a general lack of seriousness as reasons for the monsoon floods in Kerala being one of the worst in 2018.

Even though the government defended its position with the Central Water Commission’s report and some other technical bodies, the Opposition parties and the civil society organisations had not backed out. But the thumping victory of Pinarayi Vijayan and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the assembly elections effectively put them to rest.

Environmentalists still call it an invited disaster by the political leadership and the government. Many of them argue that the report submitted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel chaired by Madhav Gadgil had predicted and warned about the impending disaster but the government, especially the ruling CPI(M), ignored it with disdain. Even after appointing another committee led by K. Kasturirangan, to review the Gadgil report, regions with high ecological sensitivity continued to be the epicentre of ‘development’ activities including heavy granite quarrying.

“It is the bureaucracy which is to be squarely blamed for botching up of the flood zone mapping and subsequent precautionary measures that should have been taken after the 2018 floods,” said K. Soman, an environmental geologist while participating in a Malayalam Television debate show. The Netherlands model ‘room for the river’ project, which had been projected by the chief minister after his visit there also did not take off as planned, he added.

Also read: Climate Projections Suggest Earth Could Become Alien to Humans by 2500

At the same time the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) which was at the receiving end in 2018, for untimely opening of the dam shutters, is treading very carefully this time as they have decided to release water from three major dams including the Idukki, well in advance, anticipating heavy rainfall for the next three or four days. “We have calculated possible inflow into the reservoirs and the combined discharge planned from three dams is relatively low,” said B. Ashok, chairman and managing director of KSEB.

An inter-university study conducted in 2020 had already observed that the unusually unstable and convective nature of the 2019 event (flash floods and landslides), as detectable in its higher cloud tops and evidently fuelled by anomalously warm local sea temperatures, is raising concerns regarding the changing patterns of rainfall over the southern parts of the west coast of India. This analysis had revealed that the floods of 2019 in Kerala satisfied the criteria for a mesoscale cloudburst event, more common in the north but a very rare and never before reported phenomenon in the Kerala region which was backed by satellite-derived rainfall and cloud microphysical parameters.

“The west coast of India is prone to massive flooding both from a moderate to high intensity rain spell that follows a prolonged wet period and also from events such as a cloudburst that pours enormous amounts of precipitation in a very short period. Heavy precipitation in a short duration brings runoff water beyond the capacity of the rivers and the sloping topography from high land western ghats to low laying west coast accelerates the rush of floodwater. Under normal monsoon conditions, the water level in the rivers of Kerala during July and August remains high. It suggests that a prolonged/intense spell of surplus rainfall during these months that follows a normal June monsoon has a huge potential to produce flooding near the river basins of Kerala. In addition, as the present study highlights, mesoscale cloudbursts occurring under favourable ocean-atmospheric conditions may leave a vast area of the state vulnerable to flash floods and landslides, any time during the monsoon season,” the study said.

With the IMD forecasting  that a fresh spell of easterly wave is likely to affect South India from October 20 which may cause widespread rainfall with isolated heavy falls over Kerala during the next few days, the people as well as the government has already gone into a high alert mode.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.