Kerala suffered a similar devastating flood nearly a century ago. But recently it has been hit hard by drought. Photo: Rejimon Kuttappan
Kerala suffered a similar devastating flood nearly a century ago. But recently it has been hit hard by drought. Photo: Rejimon Kuttappan

Kerala has been ravaged by devastating floods after officials were forced to open 80 dams in India’s southernmost state following weeks of incessant rain.

This led to 44 rivers overflowing and the death of at least 324 people between May 29 and August 17, while about 800,000 residents were forced to leave their marooned homes and take shelter in camps.

This has occurred just two years after the state witnessed its worst drought in 115 years. The State Meteorological Department had warned that Kerala was on the verge of a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

The incessant rains in Kerala forced the government to open the floodgates of 80 dams leading to floods. Photo: Rejimon Kuttappan

In October 2016, the Kerala government announced that all districts were hit by drought. The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority called on the government to brace for a crisis and impose rationing of water.

VS Sunil Kumar, the state’s Minister for Agriculture, had warned that around 30,000 hectares of crops had been affected and they feared more losses if the water scarcity continued. Around 200,000 farmers were affected, which forced the government to increase crop insurance payments to compensate them.

The state had early signs of drought when the southwest monsoon — from June 1 to September 30, 2016 — recorded 33% less rainfall than normal. But the northeast monsoon immediately after — from October 1 to December 1, 2016 — delivered 61% less rain than usual.

The first two months of 2017 also saw a drop in rain. And in February of that year, a raging forest fire reduced 100 hectares of grassland and verdant forest to ashes. Indeed, there were hundreds of forest fires triggered by the severe drought, which threatened Kerala’s rich biodiversity. In March, Kerala Forests Minister K. Raju said some 440 fires had destroyed about 2,100 hectares of forest.

The ‘Great Flood of 99’

The current flood crisis has brought back memories of a similar disaster nearly a century ago.

In July 1924, the rain continued for three weeks forcing the authorities to open the gates of the Mullaperiyar Dam. That led to many districts including Munnar, Idukki, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Aluva, Kottayam and Alappuzha being marooned.

The 1924 flood is known as ‘The Great Flood of ’99’ because it happened in 1099 as per the Kerala (Malayalam) calendar. Even a huge mountain called Karinthiri Mala (Karinthiri Hill) was washed away, and the road to Munnar went with it. With the road to Munnar destroyed, a new road from Ernakulam to Munnar became necessary – the present-day link from Ernakulam to Munnar was constructed after this.

The Kundala Valley Railway, the first monorail in India, was also destroyed at that time.

According to the archives, around 3,300 millimeters fell during the Great Flood. Meanwhile, data from the Indian Meteorological Department this month shows that Kerala received 2,091 millimeters of rain between June 1 and August 15, about a third more than normal.

Interestingly, weather bureau data shows that, on average, the state has seen a whopping 257% more rainfall between August 9 and August 15.

The latest data, from the week since August 15, is yet to come. But we know that the state endured heavy rain from August 15 to 19, which left 11 of the state’s 14 districts on red alert.

Frequent low pressure 

According to S Sudevan, a scientist with 33 years’ experience in forecasting, low-pressure systems frequently form in the Bay of Bengal and they often intensify the southwest monsoonal rains in India.

“Usually, low pressures form in a gap of 15 to 30 days in the Bay of Bengal and they move to Kerala, which suffers a push and pull [effect] from North India. In the process, rain happens in Kerala and then in Northeast India,” Sudevan, who retired from India’s Meteorological Department two months ago, said.

Rescue operations underway in rain-battered Kerala. Photo: Rejimon Kuttappan

“This year, the low pressures formed in the Bay of Bengal in a short period that is less than the normal [timeframe]. This intensified the southwest monsoon and we experienced back to back rain,” the scientist said. He said a storm that formed in the southwest Pacific also had an impact on the rain that hit Kerala.

“There was a cyclonic formation happening in the southwest Pacific. This was also enhancing the southwest monsoon. So, it was a double whammy,” the scientist said.

(This is the second of a three-part series on the floods that have devastated Kerala state. Click here for the first part.)

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