Following the 2018 calamity in Kodagu district, geologists surveyed the areas affected and warned that landslides might recur, but landslides struck a different part of the district this time.

Why district officials were caught unaware by the landslides in southern Kodagu
news Landslides Tuesday, August 20, 2019 - 14:43

On August, 9 the officials in Kodagu’s District Disaster Control Room received frantic distress calls requesting rescue groups to rush to Thora, a hillside hamlet in Virajpet taluk of the district. Landslides had struck the region, ultimately taking the lives of five people. Eleven days on, the search operation to find the people missing after a major landslide in the village is still underway.

Though the tragedy in Thora evoked jarring memories of the landslides in the hilly district around the same time last year, this year’s landslides came as a shock to officials. Authorities had identified vulnerable areas to monitor as per the 2018 landslides, which killed 18 people and displaced more than 7,000 others. However, the recent landslides occurred more than 50 kilometres away from that areas.

Geologists from the Geological Survey of India (GSI) are now conducting surveys in the district for the second consecutive year and believe that change in rainfall patterns in the district may offer clues as to why the landslides occurred in these areas.

"Landslides mainly occur due to heavy rain but it is not the only reason. It also depends on the slope, geology of the rocks and whether any modification (construction) was done on the slope. It is often a combination of two or three reasons," explains KV Maruthi, director, GSI told TNM. 

Landslide in Thora, Kodagu

Advance planning

The district administration, caught unprepared by the landslides last year, planned for the monsoon in advance this year. Locations to open relief centres were identified, mock rescue drills were conducted and rescue groups were kept on standby in the district.

On June 20, residents living in vulnerable areas identified by GSI were asked to shift to rented accommodations or rehabilitation centres as a precautionary measure. The district administration provided rent for up to three months for those displaced by the floods and landslides.

However, their plans were thrown out of gear by incessant rainfall in and around Virajpet. Residents of Thora said that there was relentless rainfall in the village on Thursday, August 8 and early on Friday, August 9 before the landslide struck between 10.30 am and 11 am. In the week leading up to the landslide, Virajpet received 905 mm rainfall, which was 728% more than the normal rainfall.

The district, on average, received 789 mm of rainfall in the week leading up to the landslide with Virajpet and Madikeri taluks bearing the brunt of the damage. Thirty-two areas in Virajpet and 30 areas in Madikeri taluks were hit by flooding. The district administration has opened 45 such relief centres across the district, accommodating more than 7,800 people.

GSI survey flags vulnerable areas in Kodagu

Following the 2018 calamity, geologists from GSI surveyed the areas affected and warned the district administration that landslides might recur.

The team of scientists carried out landslide susceptibility mapping in the areas affected. This included areas in Makkanduru and Hebbatageri, and areas in Niduvattu, Mukkodlu and Mekethalu villages in the district. The GSI report, published in May 2019, identified 35 locations in the district as prone to landslides, of which 13 were termed highly vulnerable. The report also identified six locations where surface cracks were observed.

Landslide in Eradane Monnangeri, Kodagu. Photograph from October, 2018

Based on the GSI's recommendation, the Karnataka government took measures and decided to halt conversion of  land for commercial purposes in November 2018 until strict guidelines for land use in the district are framed. 

Geologists and authorities caught unaware  

But unlike last year, landslides reported in Kodagu this year were in the southern part of the district in Madikeri and Virajpet taluks. This surprised geologists and district authorities since their plan for this year's monsoon focused on the areas affected last year.  

In 2018, landslides were reported towards the western and northern part of Madikeri in Makkanduru, Jodupala, Monnangeri, among other nearby areas.

This time around, two major landslides were reported in Thora village of Virajpet taluk and Korangala village of Madikeri taluk. In addition, surface cracks were reported in Ayyappa Hill and Nehru Nagar, hilly areas in Virajpet town and in a hilly area near the Talacauvery temple. These areas were surveyed by geologists from the Geological Survey of India (GSI) on Sunday and families living in these areas were evacuated to relief camps until restoration works can be taken up. 

Relief camp in Ramanagara, Kodagu

“Based on the GSI report (on last year's landslides), we considered the areas affected last year as critical areas and we took extra precautions there. The vulnerable areas identified were in Sowmarpet and Madikeri, but the NDRF team was prepared to respond to calls from the entire district and had visited Virajpet as well in advance,” Kodagu Deputy Commissioner Annies Joy explained.

When the rains intensified in Virajpet taluk in the district, the NDRF team was moved to Virajpet. “It was unexpected that there would be landslides in the southern parts,” Annies added. 

While the immediate focus remains on ensuring supply of food and clothing to displaced survivors, the district administration plans to carry out a detailed survey of the landslide in Thora and and also survey areas in other parts of the district. "This has happened for two years in a row now and we have to get back to the toughest part of the process - rebuilding. We will also focus on finding the answers to why this is happening," Annies added.