Time’s running out; act now or let people drown
News analysis

Time’s running out; act now or let people drown

The water has started receding after the monsoon fury in Kerala, but not the woes of its people as also their fears. From alerts of dam shutters set to be open and people worried about not knowing the water course to rice bowl Kuttanad and neighbouring district Kottayam inundated for days together, this monsoon has posed vital issues, calling for permanent harsh steps.

While only an orange alert was issued as the water level in Idukki dam began rising hardly a fortnight ago, all that the administration claimed was that it was well prepared to face any calamity, backing on its high-tech warning system. But for people near dams and those living by the shores of the Periyar, there was still an uncertainty as they had little idea of how and where to the water would flow once the shutters were opened. That it did not have to be opened may have brought temporary relief. But the next monsoon is not far off.

The reasons for such a situation have been just complacency as there have been no major disasters, though that is not what one would want. Had the shutters been opened, the course of the water in most places would have to be through encroached land. The so-called prosperity has seen the rise of buildings and other infrastructure in these vulnerable lands. Many of the canals, planned well long ago, have now either been filled or are apologies for one filled with waste.

While the opening of the shutters last was around 25 years ago and not much damages were done then, there have been terrific and terrible changes and a flood of half the magnitude of the 1924 one will take away with it all these developments, including the airport.

Planned land use is now a thing of the past, and on hill and along its slopes rampant quarrying is happening and goes unbridled by the authorities. Private check dams have come up aplenty, again with administrative recognition.

The around 580-km-long coastal line that Kerala boasts of with a hilly terrain on the other side has been witnessing erosion during every monsoon. Studies have pointed out that more than 36 per cent of this coastline is susceptible to erosion.

It becomes annual fare to provide free ration during monsoon to the affected, most of who are shifted temporary shelters where they have to come back the next season.

There is the old tradition of every house in Kuttanad having a boat. But now most houses abandoning boats for cars which they cannot use during floods. The cropping pattern has changed. The paddyfields used to hold quite a good amount of water which used to flow into the sea through canals which were once boat routes too. But most canals have given way to roads, choking the entire land. It is a crime of the authorities that they let people stay on rooftops for days together recently, crime because they did little to avert the disaster.

What then can be a lasting solution? The government should have the will power to first undertake the long-due mapping of the entire State, especially focusing on vulnerable areas. It needs to look at the course of water flow into the sea and have the guts to raze to the ground structures that have come up in these vulnerable encroached lands.

In Kuttanad, studies have pointed to hydrology balance having had an adverse effect with the coming up of granite bunds. To add to this has been the choking of natural drainage channels with not just waste but also silt which has added to the problems.

According to scientists, there has to be a revised farming calendar in the below sea level farming in these areas and going back to the one-crop system followed by a season of fish farming. The spread of rainy season farming has resulted in lesser land for retaining flood water.

Unfortunately, all that the State has been doing is waiting for a Central package after every disaster. If it were the floods this time, what can follow is a drought. There needs to be steps to have a permanent solution where also climate change has to considered so that people and land are safe.