Opening dam gates brings back fears of 2018 floods in Kerala’s Kuttanad

While people are being taken to safety, the picture perfect region, once a thriving tourist location, is now in tatters as it battles extreme floods year after year which has resulted in largescale migration

The opening of dams increases the fear of floods in Kuttanad. Photo: Twitter

As rains battered most parts of Kerala, State Minister for Fisheries Saji Cheriyan on Monday (October 18) called for a high alert in the Kuttanad region because the gates of Kakki dam were opened. The inflow is expected to increase the water level up to 1.5 feet, which may submerge several villages nearby.

While people are being taken to safety, the picture-perfect region of Kuttanad, once a thriving tourist location, is now in tatters as it battles extreme floods year after year which has resulted in people migrating to safer locations elsewhere.

The Kakki dam in Pathanamthitta district sits on a tributary of the Pamba and is on one side of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Photo courtesy: Kerala Tourism

The delta region comprises parts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts. Since it is a major producer of rice, Kuttanad is also called the ‘Rice Bowl of Kerala.’

It isn’t the first time that the palm-fringed emerald islets of Kuttanad are facing floods. The region has the lowest altitude in the country, and is one of the few places in the world where farming is carried on around 1.2 to 3.0 metres (4 to 10 ft) below the sea level. The lively presence of Pamba, Meenachil, Manimala and Achankovil rivers besides lakes like Ashtamudi, Punnamada and Vembanad give abundant water to the region all through the year. The backwaters/lakes fringe the vast paddy fields and the earthen embankments that separate these [fields and lakes] breach in the rains. Then, it is a sight to behold as it is one endless sea of water which extends into the horizon.


Navy personnel were involved in relief operations during the 2018 floods in Kuttanad.
Photo: Twitter
The flood in 2018 hit Kuttanad badly. Photo: Twitter

Kuttanad’s unique geography and presence of large number of water bodies have made the 18-lakh odd residents used to flooding. However, the water bodies, which have been the lifeline of the region, have become the cause of massive destruction to life and property in the region in recent years. What has appalled the residents of late is the frequency and magnitude of floods, especially since the year 2018, which has resulted in largescale migration. A government estimate suggests that over 6,000 families from the region have abandoned their houses and properties in the last three years.

The water-logged region has seen two intense floods since 2018. That year, floods hit the region twice– once in July and then in August. People living in several villages had to be shifted to relief camps while many others decided to live on boats converted into temporary homes. Nearly thirteen villages suffered devastating losses. People either fled the region or continued to live in the midst of rain, scared of the next time water will gush into their houses.

Also read: Data show Kerala rains washed away decades-old records

While the migratory farm labourers shifted out, individuals owning farm lands had no way but to live with the changing reality. In a measure to rebuild itself, several relief measures were carried out in Kutttanad to overcome the losses caused due to 2018 floods.

Eruthiyel, who abandoned his house in Kainakary, told Mongabay: “It was after the massive Kerala floods of 2018 that my family decided to leave. We have been facing at least half a dozen floods a year for over a decade and things got aggravated after the 2018 floods. Now, everything remains submerged for a long time. How can you cook and eat in a kitchen filled with water? Nights are fearful as water can enter anytime without warning. Whenever there is rain, the outer bounds of the paddy fields suffer breach, risking numerous lives.” Eruthiyel has now bought a piece of land at Poojaveli in Cherthala where he has built a house for himself and now sleeps without fear of waters gushing into his house.

Vinodini Raju, who lives in the waterlogged Kanakaseri Island in Kainakary panchayat, cannot abandon her house. Vinodini and her husband had taken a bank loan to build the house where they live now in constant fear along with two daughters. Vinodini’s house remains inundated for over seven months a year. Her two daughters, Pooja and Anamika, have no choice but to study in rooms filled with knee-deep water.

On Monday (October 18, 2021), State Minister for Fisheries Saji Cheriyan admitted that the vulnerable Kuttanad region needs extra attention. For the time being, Cheriyan said, they are working hard to evacuate people to safer zones, with IMD forecast suggesting more rains in the days to come.

While the rains have subsided for the time being, the flow of floodwaters from the eastern side has inundated most of the Upper Kuttanad region. People from Thalavady, Kidangara, Nerattupuram, Veeyapuram and Eedathua have been shifted to relief camps.

Also read: Met department sounds alert in several parts of Kerala

The Alappuzha district collector has issued emergency evacuation orders for people in Kuttanad and Upper Kuttanad areas. It is a precautionary measure, considering water levels was likely to rise as the gates of the Kakki dam in Pathanamthitta were opened. The administration is also thinking of opening the gates of the Pampa dam on Tuesday.

Passenger boats, buses of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, fishing boats and private vehicles have been deployed to evacuate people. Police and fire teams, 23 fishermen teams and two teams of National Disaster Response Force are on standby to meet any emergency situation.