Use Kuttanad paddy fields to store flood water in case of deluge: Expert

In an interview with TNM, Dr KG Padma Kumar, Director of IRTCBSF, explains how excess river water from floods can be stored in paddy fields to mitigate flooding.
Paddy field
Paddy field
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In view of the massive floods that devastated the state in 2018 and 2019, experts say that the paddy fields in the Kuttanad region can function as flood water storage structures. This is so that the excess water from the rivers from the rains can be stored in the paddy fields, which can function as a dam and thereby mitigate any flooding.

It is high time the state government formulates a scientific landscape and waterscape management plan so that excess water from rivers as a result of floods and tidal floods from the sea can be effectively conserved, says Dr KG Padma Kumar, Director of the International Research and Training Centre for Below Sea-level Farming (IRTCBSF), Kuttanad.

In an exclusive interview with TNM, Dr Padma Kumar says that the paddy fields from the bottom of the valley to the midlands have a very crucial function to perform. It is at the valley bottom to the midlands that a huge loss of paddy has occurred during the past few decades. He says that other than paddy cultivation the coastal paddy fields of Kerala also have a unique role to play with regard to the containment of flood waters.

He adds that the state should anticipate the simultaneous occurrence of river floods as well as tidal floods.

“To mitigate this, water needs to be stored in at least 70% of the paddy fields in the Kuttanad region. Farming can continue in the rest of the fields,” he explains. Till the 1940s, a similar farming system prevailed in the state. He said this system should be revived to give impetus to environmental conservation.

Dr Kumar says that one of the most serious threats occurring as a result of climate change is salinity intrusion. “Sea water intrusion is a major threat faced by the wetland system. The problem in salinity intrusion is that we cannot extend rice cultivation. The intrusion may increase in the coming years,” he says, adding that the salinity is also caused by the lack of flow of river water into the sea.

In 2018, only river floods occurred and Dr Kumar says that the simultaneous occurrence of river and tidal floods can be disastrous. He maintains that the coastal areas of Kerala are highly unstable and that flood water should be stored wherever possible – ponds, water bodies, forests lands, wetlands, etc. Through these storage methods the river floods can be contained.

Currently many water bodies in the state’s coastal areas are being destroyed. The revival of these water bodies is essential. Dr Kumar says that the surface area of the paddy fields is almost equal to 35 major reservoirs in the state. “Once the rainy season is over, we could flush out all the water from the paddy fields. Thus there would be a continuous flow towards the sea and sea water intrusion can be prevented,” Dr Kumar adds.

The rain water storage suggested for Kuttanad can be replicated in the Kole lands of Thrissur, the Kaipad lands of Malabar and the Pokkali lands of Ernakulam to mitigate the effect of floods.

The average annual rainfall for Kuttanad in the past 115 years is 2,594 mm. Rainfall during the month of July is usually the highest, the average recorded being 488.54 mm. During July 2018, the recorded rainfall was 683.3 mm, 40% higher than the monthly maximum recorded earlier.

This abnormality led to the devastating deluge in Kuttanad. There is a school of thought that the situation in Kuttanad worsened due to the poor functioning of the Thottappally spillway. This year the state government has taken steps to cut open the mouth of the spillway, which may reduce the flood damage. All the seaward openings (azhis and pozhis) should be securely opened so that the flood damage can be mitigated.

As per data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Kerala received 2,346.6 mm of rainfall from 1 June, 2018 to 19 August, 2018. This is abnormally high when compared to the expected 1,649.5 mm of rainfall. This resulted in severe flooding in 13 out of the 14 districts in the state.

As per IMD rainfall records, it has been found that the rainfall recorded in Kerala during 15-17 August, 2018 is comparable to the severe floods that occurred in 1924, when the state witnessed unprecedented and very heavy flooding in almost all rivers. Heavy losses to life, property and crops were reported.

Abhish K Bose is a journalist based in Kerala.

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