Life in Kerala has always moved to the rhythm of its two annual monsoon seasons, however for the past two months the Southwest monsoon has unleashed an epic deluge and a flood crisis unseen in a century. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, from June 1 to August 18 the state cumulatively received 40% more rainfall against the long-term norm. In the east of the state, Idukki district, comprised of the tea plantations in and around the picturesque town of Munnar in the north and stretching to the elephant and tiger reserve of Periyar National Park in the south, has received over 70% more rainfall than usual in the same period. The district is also home to the 450,000m3 Idukki dam, which was forced to open all five of its sluice gates for the first time in its history in order to take pressure off the dam wall. The forced release of rapidly rising waters from Idukki dam and other dams across the state has contributed to the sudden inundation that has submerged downstream towns and cities, pushing Kerala into a state of emergency.
The unprecedented flooding combined with Kerala’s high population density (over twice the Indian average) has tragically resulted in a high human cost, with the death toll rising to over 370 as of August 19. The human stories emerging from the crisis have been heartbreaking, often playing out in real time over social media as desperate family members have pleaded for help to be directed to their loved ones trapped in rising flood waters. In one clip, a man from the heavily affected town of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, which was cut off from rescuers for three days, used his phone to film an appeal for help while standing in neck-deep water inside his home.
Upwards of 850,000 people have now been evacuated from their homes to emergency relief camps, with the state desperately in need of basic supplies to shelter and feed the growing number of displaced people. The Indian government has mobilised troops and sent boats and helicopters, however the scale of the crisis has also spurred locals into action, with one report of a group of 21 fishing boats travelling over 120 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram district to Alappuzha district to assist with rescue operations.
The true cost of this disaster will not be known until the flood waters have receded, but government officials are estimating that damage to infrastructure alone will top US$3 billion.
Kerala has, rightly so, long been heralded as a development success story. It consistently ranks number 1 out of all Indian states for literacy, life expectancy and gender equality. However, the impacts of this crisis on Kerala’s economy and the livelihoods of its people will be significant and long-lasting in a state where the per capita income is only US$2400. While the rain has thankfully begun to ease in recent days, the state faces a long and challenging recovery.
Those who have had the privilege of meandering through the backwaters, hiking the tea plantations of Munnar, or navigating Kochi’s wonderful old town will know why Kerala bills itself as God’s own country. In many ways, Kerala is an enduring symbol of the Indian zeitgeist. It is now up to the Indian government and the international community to help it get back on its feet.
The following organisations are collecting donations for relief efforts: