Traversing the vast expanses of arid farmland across Namakkal, Salem and Erode in western Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to believe the state has sounded flood alerts in these districts, along with nine others that lie along the course of the Cauvery. Yet, pass the dry palm trees and tracts of barren land and you are suddenly onto inundated betel vines and plantain trees.

While cultivators staying just 4 km beyond the course of the Cauvery and its tributaries Bhavani and Amaravathi rue the lack of water for irrigation, those close to the banks have been forced to leave their homes or are living in fear of inundation as the rivers flow in all their fury. Most worried are the people living near the Mayanur check dam in Karur, the confluence of the Cauvery, Amaravathi and Bhavani. Here, the Cauvery is at its widest and the check dam measures 1,233 meters. It has 86 vents and 12 scour vents capable of discharging 4.63 lakh cusecs of water.

In Arur village, about 6 km from the Mayanur check dam, palm trees are drying up for lack of irrigation. Photo credit: S Senthalir

So far, among the worst affected by the flooding of the Cauvery are the largely impoverished daily wage labourers who have built homes on the river’s banks in Pallipalayam and Kumarapalayam in Namakkal, and in Bhavani, Karungal and Kodumudi in Erode. “We lost all our belongings,” said Basira Begum, sitting in a relief camp in Kodumudi, Erode. “Though warnings were issued, we thought we had enough time to move out. But within two hours, our houses were submerged.”

They are being provided food by some local leaders and government staff, Begum said, but they are in need of clothes. N Balasubramaniam, the local tehsildar who was visiting the relief camp, said at least 209 houses have been inundated, forcing 613 people into in the camp. In Erode alone, some 7,832 people are currently staying in 67 relief camps.

The floodwaters have submerged vast tracts of coconut groves, and plantain, turmeric, tapioca and groundnut farms, but the extent of damage is yet to be assessed.

A father and son forced out of their home by the floods at the relief camp in Kodumudi. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Fearing the worst

At Mayanur, a disaster management team was trying to arrest the erosion of the bank on Saturday. The base of the building housing the Public Works Department’s control room, which operates the barrage’s shutters, was getting washed away. By Saturday evening, around 2,22,000 cusecs of water was flowing through the dam with all its 86 vents opened.

“We started calling the officials when we first saw a coconut tree submerge near the PWD room on the bank four days ago,” said Manoharan, a milk vendor in Mayanur. “Only when the lower portion of the building started eroding on Saturday did they rush to the spot. No precautionary measures were taken to stop the erosion. If water continues to flow at this rate, chances of flooding are high. The last minute throwing of sand and stones will not be enough.”

If left unattended, Manoharan added, the erosion would already have caused flooding in Seelipillayarputhur, Natham, Kaduvetti, Karakadu villages as well as Thirunarayanapuram town near the dam. As news of the erosion caused panic among people living close to the dam, Transport Minister MR Vijaya Bhaskar, parliamentarian P Kumar and senior government officials reached the spot to inspect the progress of the work. The villagers lent a hand to the officials to fill the eroding bank with sand and rocks through the day.

People fearing inundation, however, remained in their houses as the revenue officer Ravichandran allayed their fears. “We have taken all precautionary measures to arrest the erosion,” he said. “More than 100 officials from police, PWD, revenue departments have been pressed into service.”

Water flowing downstream from the Mayanur check dam on the Cauvery. Photo credit: S Senthalir

In Salem, meanwhile, the inflow into the Mettur dam was around 1.80 lakh cusecs on Saturday evening and discharge was 1.95 lakh cusecs. At least 20,000 cusecs of water was also flowing through Bhavanisagar dam on the Bhavani in Erode. A senior Public Works Department official said for the first time since the reservoir became full on August 11, the water level reduced a little on Saturday, to 119.93 feet from 120 feet.