On August 15, the Cochin airport in Ernakulam was completely shut down for 14 days due to the runway and terminals getting flooded. The heavy rains in the state saw Periyar river flowing in spate and several reservoirs were opened. As a result, the airport, which is situated close to the river, was inundated. The flood water levels reached as high as 8.8 metres, submerging the first floor of the new International terminal of the airport and even damaging a 2.6 km-long boundary wall of the runway.
Residents in the areas neighbouring the airport in Nedumbassery were equally affected in the floods. However, they knew such a situation was imminent ever since the airport was constructed there.
In 1992, when the National Airports Authority (now Airport Authority of India) approved the 1,253-acre land in Nedumbassery to construct the greenfield airport, several residents in the neighbouring areas opposed the move, stating it was a low-lying, agricultural land.
Why was a low-lying area approved for an airport?
When the proposal to build an airport in Ernakulam was approved, VJ Kurien, the founding managing director of Cochin International Airport Ltd. (CIAL) and the then District Collector, had suggested a few locations in the district, including Cherthala, Edakkattuvayal, Thengode, Maradu and Kalamassery, to build the airport.
After a committee appointed by AAI submitted its findings, Nedumbassery was finally zeroed in as the location for the new airport.
According to a CIAL official, â€śThe 1,213-acre land in Nedumbassery was chosen for its easy access to rail and road connectivity, both of which are closer to the proposed site. Besides, on one side, the airport connects with MC Road, and on the other side, with NH47.â€ť
The residents and experts, on the other hand, point out that the site was chosen for its low price, without factoring in that it was a low-lying region.
Before the airport, the 1,213 acres of land majorly comprised a paddy field, a few brick-kiln factories and a parcel of marshy land, say residents in the neighbourhood.
â€śPeople knew that if the airport came on this site, the paddy field would be destroyed and several houses would be razed to the ground,â€ť says Laiju Paulose, a resident of Kavaraparambu, which is 3 km from the airport.
Joji Mathachan, 48 years old, who was at the forefront of the agitations held by several residents and institutions when the site was proposed, says, â€śKalamassery was one of the areas CIAL had considered. Being a mountainous area, clearing the land would be a cost-effective option for them. Similarly, the place near Vytilla was a marshy land. Hence, giving it a rock-solid foundation would mean a huge expense for the government. But Nedumbassery was a plain land. It was an easy task for them to clear the old soil, replace it and build the airport.â€ť
Aviation expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan makes a similar observation: â€śCochin airport is built on a low plateau and is not an ideal location for an airport. The recent flooding of the airport is an example of what happens when an infrastructure is built on or near a waterbody.â€ť
He draws parallels to the Chennai airport. â€śThe runway of Chennai airport was built in clear violation of the norms. It was not constructed at a height it was approved initially; instead, it was built on a low platform. It blocked the path of the river. So, in 2016, when the water level rose, it cut across the runway and flooded the area.â€ť
NR Joseph, a Cochin-based civil engineer, agrees. â€śThe Kochi airport is located on a low-lying area. It was a paddy field, which could get flooded. Though the land was raised, the airport is still on the floodplains of Periyar river.â€ť
An official of CIAL, however, denies this. â€śNedumbassery site is not a low-lying area and only small percentage of the land was paddy field,â€ť he tells TNM.
â€śThe runway, which runs from east to west, is built on the parcel of land where the brick-kiln factories used to be located. Paddy field constituted only a small portion of the land acquired,â€ť he says.
Joji, who was 22 years old at the time of the agitations, also claims that the airport authorities bought the land at the rate that the Kerala government had registered then. â€śSince it was an agricultural land with no roads, the land was available at a low cost,â€ť he says.
To this, the CIAL official says, â€śYes, the land was purchased at a rate the Kerala government had registered it for, but we offered more than the market value then.â€ť
The Chengal canal was not enough
While the CIAL officials maintain that the location of the airport never posed any problem, they thought the diversion canal from Chengalthodu, a creek to the Periyar river could handle the floods. â€śBut, the canal failed to hold the flood water this time,â€ť admits the official.
Chengalthodu functioned as a stormwater canal, to collect excess water from the Periyar river and give it to the lower streams and eventually back to the Periyar. When the Cochin International Airport was being constructed, the engineers had to cut a portion of the creek, which ran through the airport land, to build the 3.6 km runway. However, in the 2013 deluge in Kerala, Chengalthodu canal overflowed, affecting the runway mechanism and forcing officials to shut the operations at the Cochin airport for two days. â€śWe learnt a lesson then,â€ť says the official.
Although a diversion canal was created and more depth was added, the water breached the canal and flooded the runway in August.
Several residents in the neighbouring areas, including Kanjoor and Thuravankara, feel that the disruption in the natural course of the canal contributed to the flood situation in their regions as well.
Joji agrees that the floods could not have been avoided even if the canal was not cut. "However, only one-fourth of the flood water would have affected us,â€ť he adds.
Suggesting what can be done to prevent the crisis in future, Captain Mohan says, â€śCIAL will have to make the canal deeper and wider so that the flow of water is not restricted. In fact, more than one canal can be constructed. They may have to build stronger embankment and higher boundary wall, as the flood water broke the wall and overflowed.â€ť
Next, a master plan
As part of its plan to manage, mitigate and be equipped for such crises in future, CIAL has chalked out a master plan.
â€śFirst, the CIAL will build a regulator and bridge at the mouth of Chengal canal. Second, we are proposing four connectivity bridges in the neighbouring localities, such as Chengal, Thuravankara and Kanjoor, as several people were isolated in the floods,â€ť explains the official.
Kitco, an Indian public sector engineering consultancy organisation, along with the Irrigation Department, has formed a consortium and started a survey to assess the water lines that can be diverted and how to mitigate such situation. They are expected to submit a report on October 15.
CIAL is also in the process of bringing engineering specialists from the Netherlands, â€śwho are known for reclaiming low-lying areas of land from the sea and constantly adopting new approaches to manage floods.â€ť
This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.