Prone to floods and landslides, Kerala has no warning system to avert tragedies

Disaster Management Authority blames Central departments for the lack of a warning system in state

The IMD seems to have lost its credibility and was blamed for its inability to foresee the torrential rainfall of 2018 that caused massive floods in Kerala. File photo: PTI

In Kerala, all the 14 districts are flood-prone and all but one are prone to landslides. Yet, shockingly, the state, hit by severe floods in 2018 and 2019 and by frequent landslides that have killed hundreds, has no warning system in place to alert it to such disasters.

The state has been mostly depending on the forecasts of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) to chart out its flood response. In 2018, in fact, as the state was dealing with unprecedented floods in 13 districts, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan alleged that the IMD’s failure to warn about heavy rains had hampered the state’s flood-preparedness.

This year, while the IMD’s forecast has been better, the amount of rainfall received by the state was much higher than the average predicted by the department.

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The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) blames departments under the central government for the lack of a warning system in the state. It says it needs details of flood-prone areas to set up a warning system and also to draft a flood-response strategy.

According to the ‘National Disaster Management Plan of 2019’, the Central Water Commission under the Ministry of Jal Shakti of the Union government is responsible for preparing the large-scale hazard maps of flood-prone areas.

But the state has not received any update from the Central Water Commission on the preparation of the flood-susceptibility or the flood-hazard-prone map, the disaster management authority says.

“The availability of these maps is essential to the preparation of flood mitigation and response plans,” says the ‘The Orange Book’, a draft guideline for various departments in Kerala on disaster preparation published by the authority.

According to sources, the regional committee for scientific assessment of flood-prone areas constituted by the Central Water Commission has not had a meeting since July 16, 2015.

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The Kerala government wrote to the Commission demanding that the meeting of the regional committee should be held to take forward the process for the preparation of flood maps.

The state, however, did not receive a promising response, say officials. A reply sent by the Commission only says that the meeting has not taken place due to “unavoidable circumstances”.

Further, in response to the state’s demand for a flood hazard assessment map to prepare a flood-warning system, the Commission said that the Expert Committee for Scientific Assessment of Flood-prone Areas in India is on the job and that it will be shared with all stakeholders when it is finalised.

Kerala continues to be hit by heavy rains, floods, landslides and coastal erosion while progress on a warning system gets stalled by the endless correspondence between the state and the Centre. The lack of coordination between various departments within the state makes matters worse.

According to sources, the casualties due to the massive landslides in Malappuram and Wayanad districts in 2019 could have been avoided had officials acted on the warnings they received.

The Kavalappara hills in Malappuram was listed as a high hazard zone prone to landslides in 2018 itself. Still, 59 people were killed in a landslide last year; 11 bodies are yet to be recovered. The Disaster Management Authority and the Mining and Geology Department claim that prior warnings were given to people about the possibility of a landslide. Locals, however, allege they were never warned.

“When it happened in 2019, some said that experts had visited the place in 2018 and had warned people about landslides. We had no idea about it,” says Jayan, who escaped from the disaster. Jayan lives just 300 metres away from the spot where the hill came down.

“No one met me, I was told that some experts came to the village and had a meeting with the village officer. They should have given sufficient information to the local self-government,” says Karunan, who was then the president of the Pothukal Panchayat under which the hill was located.

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Last week, over 80 people were buried in a landslide in Pettimudi. While 12 were rescued, the bodies of 55 people have been recovered till Wednesday afternoon.

Despite such a heavy loss of life, the state has no system to warn it of a landslide. According to the Disaster Management Authority, there is no such system anywhere in India.

That means people have to fend for themselves. This year, all the families in Kavalappara vacated their houses and shifted. “I am staying with a colleague. My wife and children went to her home, while my parents went to my sister’s place,” says Jayan.

Families disperse for two months during monsoon to escape from any possible landslide.

The 24 tribal families on the other side of the hill that were shifted to a camp in a rescue mission last year continue to live there. No alternative arrangements have been made for them so far.

State officials say as the probability of a landslide is dependent on multiple factors, from the soil’s character to the amount of rainfall, it is not easy to predict it.

According to various studies, 14.4 per cent of the total land area of Kerala is susceptible to landslides. It is estimated that around 5,000 landslides of varying nature and intensity occurred all over the state in 2018. In 2019, too, Kerala witnessed two massive landslides, killing about 100 people.

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“If we consider the land area being hit by landslides, then around 30 per cent of the state would be unliveable,” says an officer of KSDMA. However, evacuating people from such a vast area of habitation is not a solution. “For the time being, there is only one pragmatic solution — shift people temporarily,” says Shekhar Kuriakose, member secretary of the Authority.

A majority of the automated weather stations of the IMD are located in the planes. The high range areas of the state have only a very few such stations.

In the hilly terrains, rain is measured with gauges installed by the forest department; in Munnar, the gauges set up by Kannan Devan Hill Plantations (KDHP) Company also help. However, these measurements are often not reliable, say officials, which is an impediment to predicting monsoon tragedies in the high ranges.

The rain gauges of KDHP showed that Pettimudi had received 61.64 cm of rainfall on August 6, the highest in a day in 40 years. This was a day before the landslide struck the area, which was not considered to be at risk of a landslide.

Talking to The Federal, an official of the Disaster Management Authority questioned the accuracy of the reading. “We cannot accept it. When there is a discrepancy in readings, we can only go by the measurement of the IMD,” he said.

Experts, however, point out that irrespective of the exact reading, rains above 10 cm could be dangerous anywhere in the high range. But despite Pettimudi receiving continuous rains for six days, no one bothered to shift the plantation labourers to a safer place.

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