Could the Kerala floods have been mitigated?

Could flood forecasting stations, that were supposed to be set up, have prevented the disaster in Kerala? Experts weigh in.
Could the Kerala floods have been mitigated?
Could the Kerala floods have been mitigated?
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It’s been labelled the worst floods Kerala has experienced in a century – more than 350 people dead, around 13 lakh people displaced, damages to the tune of at least Rs 19,000 crore. And even as the state and its people pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the devastation, the question that many are asking is – could the floods and the sheer scale of the disaster been minimised, if not, averted?

In December 2015, the Central Water Commission (CWC) under the Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation had proposed setting up 40 flood forecasting stations including 2 in Kerala during the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017). However, over two-and-a-half years later no flood forecasting station has been set up in Kerala.

Incidentally, the CWC, which is the central agency for flood forecasting in India, appears to have pinned the blame on the state government. An official from the Commission told Indian Express that Kerala was not in its radar for flood forecasting this year as the state did not place a request before the onset of the southwest monsoon.

‘CWC cannot shirk responsibility’

Speaking to TNM, Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) says that CWC, being the nodal agency for flood forecasting cannot shirk its responsibility over the disaster that has unfolded in Kerala. “Flood forecasting stations warn you in advance by taking into account upstream river situation or when rain is likely to happen about vulnerable points that are going to flood. You can then take necessary action. You have a direct advantage on the proportion and management of floods,” says Himanshu.  

He points to previous floods in India. In June 2013, Uttarakhand faced its worst floods, killing over 5700 people. While Uttarakhand did not have a flood forecasting station, the CWC’s flood forecasting division failed to issue alerts of the impending disaster. Not only was its website down due to “technical reasons” but the then CWC flood forecasting management division director saying it was unable to issue warning as it would have been available only for a few hours, reported DNA. The scenario was no different in September 2014 when Kashmir floods left over 450 dead.

While 4 flood forecasting stations have since been set up in Uttarakhand and 3 in Jammu and Kashmir, Himanshu hits out at CWC, stating, “The northeast was also facing floods this year. There are no flood forecasting stations. Kerala is also in a similar situation now. This just shows that no lessons have been learnt.”

However, not all experts believe the impact of the floods could have been mitigated even if the flood forecasting stations had been in place in Kerala. “Though heavy rain was predicted, I don’t think flood forecasting would have changed the situation that much,” says a weather blogger, who did not wish to be named. He goes on to argue, “Flood forecasting stations can’t predict how much inflow dams will receive. The terrain is so difficult. The rains were so widespread and happening at the same. I have never seen anything like this – Wayanad, Idukki getting 1000 mm for four to five days continuously.”

Flood control lapses highlighted in 2017

2017 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report titled ‘Schemes for Flood Control and Flood Forecasting’ observes that no dam break analysis was carried out on all 61 dams in Kerala. And like a majority of the dams across India, Kerala neither carried out a mock drill nor had prepared Emergency Action Plans. What’s more, out of Kerala’s geographical area of 38.90 lakh hectares, the Rashtriya Barh Ayog (RBA) had identified 8.70 lakh hectares as a flood prone area – that means 22% of the state is prone to flooding.  And while the state government was asked to verify the figures of area liable to floods, no such verification was done.  

So, does this mean the disaster was waiting to happen? Not exactly.

Himanshu explains, “These aspects are important – dam break safety and emergency action plan. It is important in the context of dam breach. But there was no dam break here (Kerala). Every dam is a potential source of disaster for downstream areas. Theoretically, it can happen when you don’t operate the dams, instead of redirecting downstream floods.”

‘Dams should not have been allowed to fill up’

However, the CEO of SANDRP, blames Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), which operates most dams, for allowing dams to fill up well before the monsoon ended. “Dams are not supposed to be filled up before the end of the monsoon. Because if you receive heavy rainfall, you have no alternative but to open shutters. That is not acceptable,” he says.

Himanshu points out that most dams in Kerala were full by July, with Idukki dam – Kerala’s biggest dam, touching full capacity by end of July. “In the history of Idukki dam which was commissioned in 1975, it has never filled up by end of southwest monsoon. They could have released the water earlier. Following the downpour in August 9, they had no alternative but to release water.” But it’s not just KSEB that is to blame, he notes that Tamil Nadu that operates four dams in Kerala, including the Mullaperiyar dam, should have released water earlier.

‘Such rains were unexpected’

However, the weather blogger counters that water should have been released earlier from dams. “You are assuming that Kerala would have got more rains. Look at the 2015 December floods in Chennai. The Northeast monsoon ends on December 31. But there were no rains after December 1. We never know how much precipitation will fall. It is an assumption,” he argues.

Calling the amount of rains in Kerala unprecedented, the weather blogger says, “The situation was too complex. The kind of rains were totally unexpected. The weather models did not pick up the heavy rains for August 8 and August 9. The models forecast 50-60mm. Nilambur in Malappuram got 400mm for two days.” He also notes that the rains in Kerala defied previous years trends. “Kerala doesn’t normally get 1000 mm over continuous days. It is rare. There was no break in rains. Normally, the state would get breaks. Here it rained continuously for 8 to 9 days. No one could have managed,” he observes.

A similar argument has been put forth by James Wilson, an engineer who works with the Kerala government as special officer of inter-state water advisory committee. Dismissing allegations that the Kerala floods were a manmade disaster and that KSEB engineers mismanaged the dams, he put out a thread on Twitter explaining that the catchment areas of several dams received “extreme rainfall”.

And while the blame-game over the floods have begun, with the state Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala seeking a judicial probe into the disaster, Himanshu wryly notes, “This is not the first time that floods have happened because of dam mismanagement. Surat in 2006, Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh in 2009, Chennai floods in 2015. None of the times those responsible for dam operation have been punished, CWC was never held accountable and media attention span is also short. That’s not how you bring change.”  

Inputs by Prudhvi Vegesna

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