With the rains easing up and the flood waters starting to recede in Central Kerala’s Thrissur district since Saturday, relief and rehabilitation operations in low-lying areas have picked up pace. More than 50,000 residents have been shifted to 300 relief camps and their numbers are expected to go up in the coming days, revenue department officials said.

Kerala has been devastated by what has been called its worst flood in close to a century, with 357 people dead since May 29. On Saturday alone, 33 people died.

Among the worst affected by the floods in Thrissur are the areas surrounding the Kole wetlands – listed under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. According to the Ramsar Convention citation, the Kole wetlands are the largest brackish, humid tropical wetland ecosystem on the southwest coast of India. It is home to well over 140 bird species, including migratory birds.

On Thursday morning, KG Stalin, who lives in Adat gram panchayat close to the wetland, took his mother, wife and two children to the nearest relief camp when the water level in his home rose waist-deep. “It was raining heavily the previous night,” the 37-year-old mason said. “The water level began to rise. So we decided to leave, fearing for our lives. We are safe now.”

Adat, near Tholoor gram panchayat, and parts of Thrissur corporation were inundated when excess water was released from the Chimmony and Vazhani dams in Thrissur. The flooding submerged a major portion of the Thrissur-Ernakulam national highway for three days. Traffic was restored only on Saturday, with volunteers guiding vehicles through the water-logged stretch.

“We have survived many monsoon seasons in the past, but we never experienced flooding,” said Stalin.

Reclamation to blame

Many residents blame haphazard reclamation of the Kole fields – said to account for 40% of Kerala’s paddy production – for the flooding. Last year, a media report cited a study that said half of the wetlands and paddy fields in Thrissur had been reclaimed for the construction of residential and industrial areas, roads and bunds over the last 30 years.

R Bindu, former mayor of the Thrissur corporation who now teaches English at the Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur, said, “We are paying the price for greed.”

A camp has been set up at the college and Bindu is coordinating relief efforts there.

KG Rajithan, who lives near the Kole fields in Thrikkumarakudam colony, moved his family to the college on Thursday. “I had bought our monthly provisions the previous night and kept it in the kitchen,” the 39-year-old said. “We didn’t get to unpack most of the items and were forced to leave the house when the water began to rise.”

All 19 households in this colony are now taking shelter at the college. Some residents spoke of other dangers the floods had brought.

“I spotted more than 10 snakes just hours before leaving the home,” said Sarojini.

Another resident, Valliyamma, added, “I don’t know when we can go back home. Snakes must be hiding in our homes even if the flood water recedes. I am scared.”

Volunteers in Kerala are prioritising the rescue of elder citizens. Credit: PTI

The elderly are top priority

The floods and the move to the relief camps have been particularly hard on elderly residents.

Volunteers helped shift 82-year-old Sankaran and his 70-year-old wife Achukutty to the relief camp set up by the Adat gram panchayat at Sree Ramakrishna Mission High School in Puranattukara minutes before their house submerged. Sankaran is unable to walk because of an injury to his right leg and Achukkutty has age-related ailments.

“We wouldn’t be alive now had the volunteers not rescued us before flood water submerged our house,” said Sankaran.

Adat gram panchayat president TR Jayachandran said he and his team of volunteers were prioritising the rescue of senior citizens. “We are giving them adequate medical support,” he added. “As many as 300 inmates are in the three relief camps in the panchayat.”

Enough food and water

Despite having left their homes and most of their belongings, the inmates of the various relief camps are happy to have made it to safety.

“We get enough nutritious food and water,” said Nalini, who has taken shelter at the Sree Kerala Varma College. “We thank the government for taking care of us during this crisis.”

Rajithan said that apart from food and water, inmates have also been provided with clean clothes. “We could not take anything from our homes,” he pointed out.

Bindu said government and voluntary organisations were ensuring that the people received adequate food and water. “It is a coordinated effort,” she said. “Everybody has risen to the occasion to help people in distress. We will continue the efforts till we rehabilitate all affected persons.”