Since July 17, approximately 170,000 residents of flood-hit Kuttanad taluk in Central Kerala’s Alappuzha district have been living in 470 government-run relief camps. They still do not know when they can return to their homes. The rain has subsided but most villages in the region remain under water. “They will be allowed to go home only after the water recedes,” district collector S Suhas said on Sunday. “It is impossible to predict when it will happen.”

The villagers were forced to flee to safety as the monsoon gained strength and caused massive flooding, damaging their homes, destroying thousands of hectares of paddy fields and killing livestock. Human casualties were averted as the district administration quickly set up relief camps.

Kuttanad is called Kerala’s rice bowl. In Kainakari gram panchayat, one of the worst-affected areas, more than 10,000 hectares of paddy fields have been destroyed. “Farmers in our panchayat lost crores of rupees,” said gram panchayat member KP Rajeev. “As many as 190 relief camps are functioning here.”

Bio toilets are shipped to relief camps in Kuttanad. (Photo credit: District Collector Alappuzha/via Facebook)

Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who undertook an aerial survey of Kuttanad on July 21, said the situation was unprecedented. On July 26, the state government declared Alappuzha and neighbouring Kottayam districts flood-hit on the recommendation of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. This makes the districts eligible for flood control measures, including crop insurance for farmers.

Data released by the India Meteorological Department shows Alappuzha has received 8% rain in excess this monsoon. Between June 1 and July 25, the district received 1,128.7 mm of rain against a normal average of 1,044.9 mm.

Apart from the destruction and displacement, the flooding of Kuttanad points to its failed wetland ecosystem development project. Under the Kuttanad package, as it is popularly called, the Central government had in 2008 sanctioned Rs 2,139.8 crore to revive agriculture in the region, restore its ecology and make it flood-free. This was done on the suggestion of renowned scientist MS Swaminathan, who hails from Kuttanad. However, residents and people’s representatives say corruption and lack of coordination between government departments scuttled the ambitious project.

Residents use country boats to get about in flooded Kuttanad. (Photo credit: Anandu Radhakrishnan)

‘A man-made disaster’

Kuttanad is nestled between the foothills of the Western Ghats in the east and the relatively elevated plains of coastal Alappuzha in the west, and lies below sea level. Floods affect Kuttanad when water levels in four rivers – the Pampa, Achenkoil, Manimala and Meenachil – rise during monsoon.

A 1989 study on water balance in Kuttanad stated, based on historic data, that floods in Kuttanad have a return period or recurrence interval of two years, five years, 10 years, 25 years and 50 years. According to it, floods with a return period of 10 years and above are severe, while those with a return period of five years are less severe. The last time a severe flood hit Kuttanad was in 2005.

In 2007, Swaminathan submitted his report on “measures to mitigate agrarian distress in Alappuzha and Kuttanad wetland ecosystem” to the Union Agriculture Ministry. The 215-page document emphasised the need to strengthen ecology, health, sanitation, crop-based agriculture, livestock-integrated agriculture, fisheries-based agriculture, Kuttanad’s tourism potential and measures to manage flood. Noting that floods occurred when excess water from various water bodies could not drain out into the Arabian Sea, it stated, “Lake encroachments, unscientific construction of roads, bridges and culverts, silting and aggressive spread of waterweeds block free flow of water, resulting in flooding to water logging.”

The report went on to state that floods, as a natural phenomenon, are essential to Kuttanad’s ecology, acting as a natural cleanser and replenisher. But it raised concern over the increase in the frequency and intensity of floods over the years and the damage they inflicted.

“Prior to 1970s, major floods used to be rare and there were only two recorded major floods,” it said. “The impact of these floods used to last about seven days to 12 days between June and July [southwest monsoon] and about three days to five days between October and November [northeast monsoon]. During such floods the water used to rise about three feet to four feet above the normal level, often entering houses in many areas.”

But uncontrolled or unplanned road building across the region with no regard to the direction of water flow had “seriously blocked floodwater ingress and egress, leading to at least four to five or even more flash floods in a year, each lasting seven days to 10 days, depending on the rains in the hills and in the Kuttanad plains”, the report noted. It blamed the government, panchayats and people for the construction.

To improve flood management, the report recommended deepening the Alappuzha-Changanassery Canal and removing all encroachments, water weeds, silt and other sediments that hinder water flow in the canal.

Dr Anil Kumar of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, who was part of the team that prepared the report, said non-sustainable development practices have taken a toll on Kuttanad’s ecology. “All the canals are choked now with water weeds and plastic waste,” he said. “Land reclamation is aggravating the situation. How can water drain off to [the] Arabian Sea when the waterways are blocked?”

He added, “I would rather call this current crisis a man-made disaster.”

Alappuzha district collector S Suhas visits a relief camp in Kuttanad. (Photo credit: District Collector Alappuzha/via Facebook)

Going off target

Activists say the project failed because it deviated from the recommendations. Another reason they cite is lack of coordination between the irrigation and revenue departments, which executed the project. They point out that the irrigation department used up a major share of the funds just to build bunds to block saline water from entering the Vembanad lake. The waters of the major rivers in Kuttanad empty out into this lake.

In March, the Kerala Assembly discussed the project’s failure when U Prathibha Hari, the MLA representing Kayamkulam constituency in Kuttanad, sought a white paper on package implementation, fund utilisation and how officials had derailed the programme. She also demanded that an Assembly panel visit the region to assess the lapses.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA told that government officials “should be held accountable” for lapses in implementing the project. “We lost a big opportunity to revive Kuttanad,” Hari said. “Those who implemented the project failed to do justice to the proposals.”

She also said immediate measures should be taken to ensure water flows into the sea and that human lives and agriculture are protected. “It needs a concerted effort,” she added.

Agriculture minister VS Sunil Kumar admitted the project had failed because of unscientific planning and implementation.

Anil Kumar of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation said, “It [the project] couldn’t achieve many of the targets because of lack of coordination between government departments. Agriculture minister recently admitted this in Assembly.”

He went on to say, “Our team was not involved in the implementation level. The government should have sought help of experts from India and foreign countries while launching such an ambitious project.”

Residents of Kuttanad say the special package has not done their region any good. “It failed because the government officials never consulted people before implementing the project,” said Kainakari gram panchayat member KP Rajeev.

The failure of the project notwithstanding, media reports suggest the state government is considering launching a second Kuttanad package, focussing on sanitation, water supply, flood control, management of water bodies, promotion of organic farming and responsible tourism.

“The second package will definitely help farmers in Kuttanad and reduce floods in future,” said Hari.

But the immediate challenge is to ensure rehabilitation of the flood affected and disease prevention, she pointed out. “Epidemics may spread when the water begins to recede,” she said. “Let’s brace for the tough test.”

Women wade through floodwaters in Kuttanad. (Photo credit: Prathibha MLA/via Facebook)