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Above: Flood water of Sarvari river may prove disastrous to migrant workers in Kullu district, who are living in sheds alongside the banks of Sarvari river/Photo: UNI

By Papia Samajdar

Barely a year had passed by and Kerala was just getting back on its feet, when tragedy struck again. The death roll has crossed 100, far less than the same time last year when nearly 500 people lost their lives and thousands of crores worth property completely destroyed.

“It is better in Kochi this time, but the situation is pretty bad in northern Kerala,” said Sreejith Sugunan, a PhD student and a native of Ernakulum city. “They were prepared this time; hence the situation is not that bad. Landslides cannot be predicted, and this time maximum damage has been caused by them.”

Though the authorities were better prepared than last year, the lives lost to landslides were unprecedented. Horror stories continue to emerge as rescuers dig through the debris. “We seem to have a reactionary response mechanism instead of a proactive one. I would be very interested to know why Kerala and other states has not borrowed from Odisha’s policies and plans for disaster preparedness. It has been globally recognized as a tremendous and successful plan during cyclone Fani. There were zero casualty, and the authorities carried out a well-planned and coordinated evacuation”, said Nitya Jacob, an expert on water conservation issues.

M George has suffered only minor damages to his house in Malappuram district. He thanks the fact that the house was on a higher level. His farmland however was swept away, along with many houses built along the Chaliyar river due to the flash flood. According to Jacob, “the Government should ensure that people are rehabilitated away from ecologically sensitive zone. The Government should carry out an exercise of zoning and should educate the people adequately about the reasons behind this exercise. This will reduce the threat to life to zero.”

Kerala Government wanted to be better prepared to manage any adverse situation 2019 monsoons might bring. Taking lessons from the 2018 floods, they released the updated disaster preparedness handbook. The Orange Book Of Disaster Management with standard operating procedures and emergency support functions was made available in May 2019. It laid down the crisis management mechanisms and responsibilities of the emergency operations centres during different kind of emergencies.  The authorities conducted evacuation and relocation as soon as the alert was issued in July-August 2019.

The 2018 floods had left Kerala, and the rest of the country in shock as it suffered the ‘worst flood of the century.’ Apart from the 500 lives lost, 1 million people were displaced and an economic damage of 30 thousand crores was estimated as the rains lashed in fury. The authorities’ unscientific management of dams received a huge amount of flack as did Kerala’s lack of preparedness.

By the time flood water receded, 1 in every 30 Keralite was living in 3,274 temporary Government camps. The appeals from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for help to rebuild the state saw an amount of 4402,93 crore in the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund. Besides this fund, there were additional financial aid, aid in the form of food, clothes etc and people from across states volunteered to help God’s own country back to its feet. The Government ended up spending about 50% of the fund according to the expenditure mentioned on its website. The money was spent on relief measures in form of cash handouts, food, textbooks etc. The funds were also utilised in construction of houses.

Weather anomalies is a ‘gift’ of climate change. As the monsoons descended on drought-stricken India, it quickly tipped to a life claiming floods. Floods were reported from across India, as the authorities struggled to save lives. The heavy rains descended from July 07, 2019, until then the there was a deficit of up to 44% in the beginning of the monsoon season. Scientists point the reason of delay to the very severe cyclone Vayu in the Arabian Sea from June 9-17.This slowed and stayed the monsoons.

The first spell of monsoon rains in July flooded large parts of the country. Isolated incidences of heavy concentration of rainfall damaged thousands of acres of crops, displaced millions of people and killed hundreds. Bihar and Assam were the first ones to bear the brunt. 27 out of 38 districts in Bihar were as much as 40% rain deficit until July 7th, one week after, seven of these districts suffered floods resulting in loss of life and displacing more than 7 million people.

The second spell of heavy rainfall hit in August. The depression over Bay of Bengal on August 6, 2019 hit the mainland with incessant rains – flooding Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The depression moved westwards flooding Gujarat and Rajasthan. The heavy and unprecedented rainfall resulted in breaching the levels of dams in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala, sending them under water. Heavy rains in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh has left people stranded. Yamuna has breached the flood level in Delhi, as the Government evacuates people from the banks.

Are these incidences climate induced? According to Arpita Mondal, Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay “certain conclusions are not possible as weather is not a completely predictable system.” Not all extreme weather events can be attributed to climate change, however some can be attributed to it with greater certainty.

One of the major reasons of flooding is that the absorption capacity of the rainwater has been reduced by drying out and building on the natural aquifers and catchment. Our cities flood even when there is below normal rainfall, and that’s because all the paths for water to seep has been encroached and concretised. Embanking rivers is another reason which has led to large scale devastation due to floods. Added to that unprecedented amount of concentrated rain, and you have a disaster in the making.

“There should be laws to protect our local water bodies, just like there are laws to protect our forests, insists Jacob. “Too many cities have done the same thing, built on our water bodies. The authorities need to realise that the economic cost of floods in humongous. It needs to ensure that our water bodies are not encroached upon and definitely not concretized.”

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