It never rains but it pours, and that’s exactly what happened in Kerala this year, making it the rain god’s own country. 1st June is the date for the onset of the southwest monsoon in the state, so that schools and umbrellas open at the same time. Every year, the Met Department predicts the date, giving a little leeway for inaccuracy, it being the weather, after all, and therefore expected to be erratic. This year the monsoon was in a bit of a hurry, setting in on 29 May, three days ahead of schedule, and everyone regarded it as the agent of relief from the sweltering heat of summer. Alas!
The monsoon is no stranger to the state; in fact, Kerala can boast of nature’s plenty since it is the recipient of two monsoons - the southwest and the northeast. Being the darling of rain clouds has made this tiny state a favoured destination for tourists during the monsoon season. What is known as monsoon tourism attracts visitors not just to drink in the beauty of Kerala through rain-tinted glasses but also because monsoon time is believed to provide the perfect conditions for supposed rejuvenation and ayurvedic treatment.
When it keeps within bounds, the monsoon is a romantic adventure, as Alexander Frater portrays in his excellent work, Chasing the Monsoon. But let the plot go horribly wrong, as it has this year, and romance is replaced by heart-breaking tragedy.
The relentless rain that lead to unimaginable flooding and the loss of almost ninety lives has left Kerala shattered. It isn’t that the state is unfamiliar with floods. They do happen occasionally, but on a smaller, more isolated scale and the disaster management machinery is able to cope with the crises. But this year, torrential rain bombarded the whole state, with central and north Kerala bearing the brunt of it. Dams which earlier used to report inadequate rain in catchment areas and warn about possible power cuts now got filled to capacity with one or two actually overflowing. The sluice gates had to be opened and rivers, already in spate, swelled up alarmingly, inundating vast areas and triggering massive landslides.
Pathanamthitta, Trissur, Wayyanad, Idukki, Ernakulam and Alapuzha are some of the worst affected districts with the damage to crops, property and plantations running into hundreds of crores. Initially, Thiruvananthapuram had steady rainfall though no floods, much to the chagrin of democratically-inclined people. But on Independence Day, that complaint was taken care of. Flood waters came surging into low-lying areas, houses, hospitals, shops and buildings leaving the city in less than capital form. On that day, one of the worst in the state with 24 deaths reported, all 14 districts came under red alert for the first time.
There is nothing like personal experience to drive home the enormity of any disaster. I was beginning to write this article, water surrounding my house like a moat minus the crocodiles but possibly with snakes and other creepy-crawlies, when flood waters crept in sneakily from the back door and the front at the same time, swiftly flowing to occupy all the rooms. With no power, we waited, hearts in our mouths, watching the level rise to a height of five inches and continued to watch like hawks for a further increase. By evening it receded, leaving behind dirt and slush that needed massive cleaning up.
If five inches of water inside the house can make me panic, I dread to imagine the emotions of people who lost their loved ones, houses, property, belongings, and livelihood. No drinking water, though there is water all around, no food, no electricity, no means of communication, bridges collapsing, roads disappearing, railway tracks under water and rain battering from above - this scenario is anyone’s worst nightmare come true.
Everyone has been rallying around since the first flooding began - the government, the ordinary people, the armed forces, organisations and institutions, volunteers, not to mention the fishermen and the casual passers-by, inevitably the first to lend a helping hand at any scene of catastrophe. Daring rescue missions are being undertaken, people are risking life and limbs to save those in trouble, the KSDMA (Kerala State Disaster Management Authority) and the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) are working round the clock to handle the crisis. Supplying drinking water and food to stranded people and to people in relief camps is a prime priority. But though much is being done, much more needs to be done, the scale of the devastation being of such epic proportions.
A huge challenge awaits the state once the deluge, possibly surpassing even the 1924 floods in ferocity, comes to an end. Large-scale rehabilitation, repair and reconstruction need to be done and, let us hope, with ecological considerations prominent in everyone’s thinking.
People have been talking about nature’s fury. But we have to think twice before making nature the scapegoat. The damage done by dams having to open their shutters simultaneously has been mind-boggling. Many are widely admitting that this is a man-made, or shall we say, dam-made disaster, with a little help from nature. Some affluent nations have abandoned projects involving dam building and are adopting more eco-friendly ways of harnessing nature and we need to take lessons from our present terrifying experience.
For decades environmentalists have been warning Kerala about extreme weather caused by global warming and climate change that could hurt the state and finally it has happened. This witty and meaningful short poem sums up the problem succinctly: The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.
Reckless cutting of trees, land mining, reclaiming paddy fields and low lying areas to build apartment complexes and similar short-sighted projects are regularly undertaken to make the lives of the rich more comfortable at the expense of the poor. I fear even a disaster of these proportions will not make people reconsider their priorities, particularly about the burning of fossil fuels. Will we re-define ‘development’ after this or continue to slip on the banana skin of environmental degradation? Only time will tell.