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Devastating flooding in Kerala, India exposes flaws in water management infrastructure

Devastating flooding hit the southwestern state of Kerala, India and its surrounding areas from August 8 onward, causing over 400 deaths and displacing roughly 1.3 million people.

Although India is currently in its monsoon season, this flooding dumped far more water onto the country than usual—two and a half times more. The state has 44 rivers flowing through it and 35 reservoirs that were already full prior to the flooding. To prevent them overtopping, the state was forced to release water from 80 dams at one time, making the flooding even worse.

“This could have been avoided if the dam operators had started releasing water in advance rather than waiting for dams to be filled up, when they have no alternative but to release water,” said water expert Himanshu Thakkar.

The Indian government requires that all states send in dam emergency plans. Of the 5,000 dams that exist, only seven percent had plans in place—zero of which were in Kerala. Indian experts have said that flooding is exacerbated by Kerala’s faulty dams, and that these massive floods will continue if they are not better managed.

Meenachil river right after 2018 Kerala floods. Photographed from town busstand Pala. August 17, 2018. Courtesy: Praveenp/wikipedia
Meenachil river after 2018 Kerala floods. Photographed from town busstand Pala. August 17, 2018. Courtesy: Praveenp/wikipedia

This was not the first time that India has had issues with water management. A month before the flooding began, the Indian government named Kerala the worst state in southern India for their management of water resources and was on the list of top 10 states most prone to flooding. From 2017-2018, India allocated $5.8 billion to agricultural welfare, and just $1 billion to water management infrastructure. In the event of flooding, the country had planned for 219 flood forecasting stations to be set up all over the country. Of these, one-fourth were actually built and 60% of those built were claimed to be “nonfunctional after installation”. Dam maintenance is lacking as well and even when damages are found, they are often not fixed. Kerala contains no flood forecasting stations at all, just flood monitoring sites.

To recover, the government has promised $85 million even though the damage is estimated to cost the country $3 billion. The United Arab Emirates has offered India $100 million to aid in the recovery process, but India rejected it. Indian citizens have speculated that this could be due to political discrepancies or national pride. In a statement from Raveesh Kumar, the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, this decision falls “in line with the existing policy… the government is committed to meeting the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts.”

According to reports from The Times of India, too much has been spent by state and government officials on relief and rehabilitation after disasters, and not enough on integrating disaster risk reduction (DRR) into their planning. A risk assessment study by India’s Home Ministry that collected data from 640 districts based on a national resilience index, focused on aspects of DRR measures including assessment, prevention, mitigation, and reconstruction, found the resilience level to overall be very low and in need of improvement.

Climate change plays a role in the increase of flooding and rainfall that has plagued India. Kira Vinke, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told AFP, “What we will see with climate change in India is that the wet season is going to be wetter and the dry season drier…If we continue with current levels of emissions — which is not unlikely — we will have unmanageable risks.”

 

Sources and further reading

After Worst Kerala Floods in a Century, India Rejects Foreign Aid

993 deaths due to floods in this year’s monsoon & still counting

The Floods In Kerala Might Be Over, But The Worst Is Yet To Come, Warn Scientists 

Why the Kerala floods proved so deadly 

Kerala Floods Show Modi Has His Priorities Wrong