How Kerala's Room for Pampa project may have helped prevent flooding in Kuttanad

When the 2020 monsoons didn’t bring floods to Kuttanad, the project was deemed to work, however, the October rains of 2021 brought new questions.
Room for Pampa project
Room for Pampa project
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When it rained savagely in 2018 and the year after, there was a quiet fear among the people of Kerala that it would keep happening every monsoon. Lives, homes, and farms were lost in hundreds – that was the scale of destruction in 2018. It was less in 2019, but still bad. Among the many measures by the Kerala government to tackle the issue of flooding was the Room for Pampa project, drawn from the Room for River project of the Netherlands

It had worked for the Netherlands, when it was initiated in late 1990s, it remained to be seen if it would for Kerala’s Kuttanad. The project involved creating space for water to stay in the river so that it wouldn't rush out to the surrounding lands and cause floods during rains. This would be done by cleaning up the river bed of pollutants, creating more depth and preventing anything that disrupts the flow. 

When the 2020 monsoons went by without incident in Kerala, there were murmurs that the project, while still in its early stages, was beginning to show some results. But when in October this year, rains created unexpected havoc, fingers were pointed at the state’s precious project – why wasn’t it working?

Because, the project, thus far, is only limited to the Pampa river in Kuttanad, says Ramakumar, State Planning Board member and lead author of the project report. “It worked for Kuttanad – around which Room for Pampa – was built. The flooding happened in other parts of the state and those rivers are not covered under the project, yet," he says.

As a first step, the Board had created the plan for a single river – Pampa, in specific – because that surrounded Kuttanad, the most flood-prone area. There wasn’t a year when some part of Kuttanad was not flooded –as it lies 2-3 metres below sea level. That’s what first prompted the state to look at what the Netherlands, with a similar low-lying geography, did to face their extreme weathers. It sounded simple and obvious enough. If they didn’t want water from the river to flow out into the land, they had to create space within the river for the water. It is when there is not enough room in the rivers that water flows out and floods the surrounding land.

What’s been done so far

In late 2018 and early 2019, a team from Holland had visited Kerala and made expert suggestions and the Planning Board duly prepared a report. “The Netherlands was not so good in handling the frequent attack of storms and floods until the 1990s. That’s when they put the Room for River project into action. They had a 15-year plan and they finished it between 2011 and 13. And it worked. Our project had begun only two years ago. We have already covered a couple of aspects we identified as part of implementing it,” Ramakumar says.

This includes removing the sandbar at the Thottappally spillway and cleaning Pamba, the area that once used to be the base camp of Sabarimala (this is now Nilakkal). Last year, 75,000 cubic metres of mud and waste were removed from Pamba by dredging.

River Pamba’s problems are many, Ramakumar says. It starts from the hills in the east and flows up to the Thottappally spillway where it spills into the sea. In between, it splits into Pamba and Achankovil and joins again at Veeyapuram before going through the spillway into the sea. “When it flows from the hills it passes through Sabarimala, through the old base camp of Pamba. There is construction happening there; pollution and human activities. This wrecked the flow of the water, and water should be allowed to flow freely. So we cleaned up the Pamba area to allow the water to pass through quickly,” Ramakumar says.

Other aspects of the project

There are also other maneuvers on the way – the river has twists and turns and bends that further slows it down. “We will see if there are ways to straighten these bends. A team at the IIT-Madras is doing a study on this and other aspects of the project. We are expecting their report in a few months,” Ramakumar adds.

The next steps include widening the leading channel so that enough water will reach the spillway to be pushed out to the sea, increasing the depth at places by dredging soil or other pollutants to create more space for water, and so on. “Wherever possible widen it, and wherever else deepen it, all for the purpose of letting the water remain in the river, flow quickly to the sea,” Ramakumar says.

Another aspect of the project is to build regulators so that water will not enter paddy fields on either side of the river. The much-delayed AC (Alappuzha-Changanassery) canal is also part of the Room for Pampa project. The canal had been in the works since the 1950s when the AC road was conceived, to run in parallel to the road. The idea was that it could take water from the upper Kuttanad region to the Vembanad Lake so it would be quickly flushed into Thottappally. Sixty-five years later, the canal is still not complete.

Once the Room for Pampa project is complete, it will be seen how it can be replicated in other rivers of the state.

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