How Kerala is preparing for monsoon amid the COVID-19 pandemic

This year, Kerala is relying on multiple weather inputs and not solely on IMD, to have maximum visualisation of the meteorological situation.
Kerala Floods
Kerala Floods
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“Kerala works six months and fights the monsoon in the other six months,” says Sekhar Kuriakose, member secretary of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA).

Usually, Kerala begins its monsoon preparedness by January, even before the India Meteorological Department (IMD) makes its first long-range forecast for southwest monsoon, in April. “From January to May, the state infrastructure gets engaged in the pre-monsoon work, including waste and silt deposit removal, weeding, infrastructure repairing work etc,” explains Sekhar.   

This year, however, the state officials were posed with an unprecedented crisis in January. “We got busy with the containment of the COVID-19 even before the first case was reported on January 30 in Kerala. Hence, the monsoon activities that ought to have begun in January had to be pushed to April this year,” says Sekhar.

Pointing to predictions of weather experts that there would be excess rain this year, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recently admitted that this would be a grave challenge for the state, which is already battling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It has been decided to take urgent preparations foreseeing the situation. KSDMA has prepared a plan to face the rain-related calamities,” the CM said, warning the public to be prepared to face the worst.

The state officials took on the challenge. Amidst the fight against the COVID-19 lockdown, teams have been pressed into action. 

The work to remove the silt deposit and waste in rivers, streams and canals had begun in April. The rest of the work is expected to be completed in two weeks. The water level in dams is also being assessed regularly. There may be no need to open big dams, including the Idukki dam.

“COVID-19 does affect the monsoon preparedness,” says Sekhar. But they have found ways to circumvent it. 

“Currently, we are looking at two drawbacks — the delay in beginning the pre-monsoon work and the lack of weather data for accurate prediction due to technical delays caused by the pandemic. These can, however, be overcome by empowering the local self-government departments (LSGDs) and by having additional weather inputs," he elucidates. 

The work to remove the silt deposit and waste in rivers, streams and canals had begun in April. The rest of the work is expected to be completed in two weeks. The water level in dams is also being assessed regularly. There may be no need to open big dams, including the Idukki dam.

District-wise, too, pre-monsoon works have begun. For example, in Alappuzha, 71 lakes have been cleared of silt. Other works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), including cleaning streams, are still underway. “It is an effort to increase the capacity of rivers so that their water level capacity increases, ensuring a smooth flow,” Alappuzha district collector M Anjana told TNM.

Adding COVID-19 to disaster management protocols 

Taking lessons from the consecutive floods in 2018 and 2019, KSDMA looked for additional measures ahead of the monsoon.

The Orange Book for Disaster Management, which includes the standard operating procedures (SOP) and protocols for disaster management in the state, has been upgraded this year with 31 institutions, including central agencies, that would work together during natural calamities.  

It also includes certain procedures, especially for the local self-government departments. For instance, if there is a flood warning, the book details, inter alia, how to run camps and the dam management, intended to give more situational awareness to officials.

Since the state is in the midst of a health crisis, the Orange book has been further revised to accommodate COVID-19 guidelines for pandemic management during monsoon. 

It specifies that every Local Self-Government Department (LSGD) should have four types of buildings in the event of an emergency evacuation — for the public; for elderly and those with illnesses; for those with COVID-19 symptoms; and for those who are in quarantine.

The state already has a huge list of schools, hostels, auditoriums, their locations and capacity, which can be used as COVID-19 care centres during floods. 

“As many as 27,000 buildings have been identified for quarantine facilities in case of a calamity. Among this, there are over 2 lakh bathroom-attached rooms. More buildings have been identified for emergency purposes,” the Chief Minister said. 

About 10 lakh people can be accommodated in these facilities. 

Also, under the LSGs, closed houses, retreat centres and training centres will be opened during the flood management situation.

However, the CM also pointed out that shifting people together, in case of a flood, would be challenging during a pandemic. 

“If the monsoon causes floods that calls for evacuation, people will be shifted from their houses based on COVID-19 guidelines only,” Idukki Collector H Dineshan told TNM. 

Evacuees will have to wear masks and maintain physical distancing. People with symptoms cannot be housed with others, and that is why we have identified four types of buildings,” he said, adding that district collectors have asked tehsildars to identify more buildings so that the guidelines can be properly followed.

Disaster management at taluk-level

As part of an Incident Response System or IRS, the KSDMA has directed the district collectors to assign individual officers at the district and taluk level to handle any emergencies.

The KSDMA has Hazard Analysts in nine districts (except in Kannur, Kasaragod, Pathanamthitta and Palakkad), and has 28 operational teams, which will be deployed in case of emergency.

The Kerala SDMA, with the help of Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA), has given out 33 maps to LSGs, with details on the areas that were ravaged by the floods and the landslides, the vulnerable regions etc. 

These maps, prepared using data from state research institutes and central research agencies on the flood vulnerable regions, contain details of flood-prone, vulnerable and non-vulnerable and landslide-prone areas in the state.

Using these maps, 648 out of 1,200 LSG departments have developed their own Disaster Management Plans. 

On Wednesday, the State Relief Commissioner held a meeting with all the departments concerned on the preparedness for monsoon. “The full corporation of the army and navy forces have been ensured for all disaster management work. All the departments in the state would give monsoon-related work updates and other information to state emergency control room on a daily basis,” the Chief Minister said. 

Multiple weather inputs

According to Sekhar, Kerala usually relies only on the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for weather predictions. “Situational awareness is vital. This year, we wanted to have maximum visualisation of the meteorological situation. That is why we decided to collate and rely on multiple inputs from various international prediction agencies and use some model outputs of these agencies,” he explained.  

Sekhar Kuriakose/PC/Facebook

For instance, the state took inputs from Skymet, a private forecasting agency, which has around 100 weather stations in Kerala. They have earth networks that do lightning warning systems across the world, and are associated with most of the SDMAs in the country. 

Similarly, the state plans to source inputs from IBM, which developed a sophisticated model called GRAPH jointly with NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research, the US). GRAPH is Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System, the first hourly weather updating system. 

Sekhar said that they were unofficially taking inputs from some of these agencies earlier. “When we compared the 2018 and 2019 data, we saw that some of these models had better inputs. So we decided to rely on them officially this year,” he said, adding that these inputs are not to issue alerts but to broaden their perspective on the weather patterns and be prepared accordingly. 

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