Disaster preparedness
The IMD has forecast the onset of southwest monsoon in Kerala on June 6, a deviation of five days.

Kerala was caught napping when the southwest monsoon in June 2018 burgeoned over several weeks into high-intensity rainfall by August. The heavy rainfall, the fast-filling dams and unplanned release of dam water culminated in floods and landslides across the state. A year later, as the southwest monsoon is set to begin by June 6, how prepared is Kerala to handle the rains?

According to government officials whom TNM spoke to, district administrations and various departments in the state are still in the process of doing the groundwork to prepare for monsoon. Many have taken lessons from last year’s disaster and updated the existing system of operations.  

The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA), for example, has updated its Emergency Action Plan for all departments (including agriculture, power, wildlife) this year.  Although the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast that the 2019 southwest monsoon is likely to be near normal, the KSDMA is preparing for extreme condition.  

“Last year, the general monsoon report had forecast an average rainfall of 23%. But on the days of the disaster, the state recorded 300% to 400% rainfall. Hence, a general monsoon forecast is not reliable. This year, as well, we are anticipating landslides. And so, founded on the experiences from last year, the KSDMA has prepared an Orange Book for the public and all departments,” Fahad Marzook, Hazard Analyst, KSDMA, told TNM.   

According to the IMD data, in 2018, Kerala received 2346.6 mm of rainfall last year, about 42% above the normal of 1,649.5 mm rainfall. A month-wise break-up shows that the state recorded 15%, 18% and 164% above normal rainfall in June, July and August respectively.

The Orange Book of Disaster Management, which will be released on KSDMA website in May last week, will feature updated and department-level Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), actions each department must take in the event of a disaster warning, and how to analyse a warning, among other guidelines. These guidelines will also be documented in a handbook, for the public. Response officers, too, have been assigned at all taluks in every district.  

District administrations, too, are anticipating monsoon-related disasters, especially in districts such as Idukki and Alappuzha, which were worst-hit last year.

“This year, irrespective of a flood-like situation, Idukki district will be prone to monsoon-related disasters, even with minimum showers. There are fragile areas in this district,” H Dineshan, Idukki District Collector, told TNM.

Being a hilly area and close proximity to the Cheruthoni dam, numerous houses and crops were destroyed and washed away in the landslides. According to the Collector, around 100 people in the district are yet to receive financial assistance to rebuild houses.

As part of monsoon preparedness, the Task Force has identified vulnerable areas and have placed signboards in these areas. Additionally, works are underway to protect riversides and relay roads.

“In the eventuality of floods, we have also identified buildings in all five taluks in the district to double as relief centres. Unlike last year, using schools as a camp is not a long-term solution. Around 25 such buildings have been earmarked so far,” said the Idukki District Collector.  

In Alappuzha district, which is a low-lying area, the embankments and canals are being cleaned up, said S Suhas, the District Collector.   

“We have also constructed around 200 transitional shelters in highly vulnerable areas such as Kainakary, Pallikkunnu, Kavalam,” Suhas added.

Even after the flood water receded in the state, some areas (like Kuttanad) was grappling with stagnant water in 2018, but soon saw a water crisis.    

“This year, we have set up several RO water plants in ecologically sensitive areas and also Ion Exchange Plants to remove salt content from the water. These plants are capable of generating around 25,000 litres of water per hour. Around 3,800 water tanks have been distributed to vulnerable areas, along with filters. People are being encouraged to set up mechanisms for rainwater harvest,” Suhas elucidates.

“In addition to control rooms in every taluk, satellite phones will be used in case the mobile networks fail,” Suhas added.   

Incidentally, people of Kerala have become more alert and cautious after the floods in 2018, Fahad of KSDMA noted. “Last year, we faced difficulties as many were not ready to evacuate. This year, we have observed that they are taking serious note of the warnings being issued,” he said.

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Monsoon days away, dam management plan in Kerala not fully in place