Kerala floods: Experts raise questions on preventive steps, dam management

As Kerala gets down to the job of rebuilding the infrastructure devastated by the floods, one crucial question is how, given the state's geographical peculiarities and high population density, to introduce scientific management of the state's 80 dams to prevent such a disaster in future. 

Does the state need an early warning system for its dams? Should it prevent sedimentation of water in the reservoirs? Is a proper manual for operating the reservoirs needed? A protocol for emptying the reservoirs before the monsoon perhaps? What about a drainage and canal master plan for the cities? 

As the post-mortem into the causes of the colossal tragedy kicked off, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress Party blamed the government for the floods, saying it followed unscientific shutter operations in various dams, releasing water without proper alerts.

Others have accused the government of ignoring the warnings of the Kerala State Electricity Board in mid-July that all the dams were 90 per cent full. Critics have pulled out last year’s Comptroller and Auditor General’s report that criticised the government for not equipping the Emergency Operating Centres properly to respond to a disaster.  

Experts are asking whether the dams were emptied before the monsoon. 

Since many of the dams are inter-connected, experts believe that mismanaging just one of them can cause a disproportionate ripple effect.  “Most of the dams in Kerala are mono-purpose dams, which means they are mainly for hydro electric power generation.  They are meant to be filled up to the Full Reservoir Level but the problem with this is that there would not be a flood cushion for releasing the water when it crosses the level,” said Nayan Sharma, Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham and former Professor of IIT Roorkee. 

Anil Kumar Bansal, Director, Urban Infrastructure, IPE Global, believes the urban areas of Kochi were inundated due to flood water from the canals, not from the rising water levels of the rivers. The Thevara-Perandoor canal, he said, used to be 40 metres wide before it shrank to its present width of just six metres. “There is a lack of city wide drainage and a canal master plan in the cities,” said Bansal. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has rejected the idea that either the dams or their faulty management caused the floods.  He pointed out that Kerala received an inordinate amount of rainfall. Between August 1 and 19, it received 788.6 mm of  rain as compared to the average of 287.5 mm. Idukki alone saw a 617 per cent increase.  “It was not the dam spills, it was the natural rains that was the main factor for the floods,” said Vijayan. 

Technology will probably hold the key to protecting Kerala against a repeat of this year's calamity, both in terms of managing dams and providing advanced weather prediction systems. Agencies such as NASA have information which could be incorporated into other ground data to control and release the water whenever it is needed.  Professor Sharma said a system called Piano Key Weir technology which has been used in the west to increase the storage capacity of existing dams (and which has been installed in Himachal Pradesh) could also be considered. 

A combination of measures will probably be required: shoreline management for deciding soft and hard solutions to be taken up for the coastal region, estuaries,and rivers; a risk management plan at the regional level; mapping of vulnerable zones; Geographic Information System-based mapping of topography;  hydrological modeling of rainfall and flood scenarios; and upgradation of the state's storm water drainage network.  Meanwhile, the state's tourism industry estimates that about Rs20 billion has been lost because of the floods. Tourism here is a Rs 300-350 billion industry. “While the damage was massive in the hill stations of Munnar and Wayanad, properties in other areas were not so affected. But road connectivity has been affected. If the roads are repaired, we can restart tourism operations. The only other issue is that there will be concern for the tourists on safety. We need to allay that fear,” said E. M. Najeeb, President of the Confederation of Kerala Tourism Industry.

Pilgrim tourism has been badly hit. Sabarimala, a major pilgrimage centre, has suffered a loss of around Rs 1 billion. The infrastructure at the foot of the Lord Ayyappa Temple, built on a hill, has been shattered by the flooding of the Pamba river. A 50 feet high heap of sand has formed in the river, the bridge has disappeared, and the river has split into two, flowing through new routes.

A race is on to repair at least two bridges — one to make the temple accessible and the other for ambulances and vehicles — in time for November when the pilgrimage season begins.  The government has said it will hand over the bridge repair work at Pamba to the Army.  

The Travancore Devaswom Board has 1,258 temples which survive on the revenue that comes in from Sabarimala. The board needs over Rs 4 billion to pay salaries and pensions alone. “We are in deep crisis,” said A. Padmakumar, Board President.

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