Kerala, After The Flood: Rivers dry up, mercury rises and earthworms die as state gears up for drought after deluge

TK Devasia

The flood that caused massive devastation across Kerala has left behind several scars that will impact the people and their lives for a while yet. The immediate worry is the drop in water levels of rivers, the sudden drying-up of wells and a dip in groundwater levels.

People fear that the drop in water level of rivers and other water bodies may trigger a severe drought and drinking water shortage in the coming months, adding to the miseries of the flood-hit people. A sudden rise in mercury levels have compounded the fears. The Periyar river, which was in spate during the flood, is now flowing well below its earlier levels. According to a report in Malayala Manorama, the water level in the state's largest river has dropped 10 centimetres below the September 2017 level. The river meets the irrigation and drinking water needs of lakhs of people throughout its course from Idukki to Ernakulam.

The drying Chalakkudy river in Thrissur. Firstpost/Anup K Venu

The drying Chalakkudy river in Thrissur. Firstpost/Anup K Venu

The water level in Pampa that drowned the entire Kuttanad region has gone back to the December-January 2017 level. The Bharathapuzha river, which is the second largest river in the state, is also becoming dry with floods depositing sand mounds, shrubs and weeds all over the place. The river caters to a large number of people in Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts.

The water level of the Kabani river, which is one of the major tributaries of Cauvery, is also found to have decreased abnormally raising concerns among people in the hilly district of Wayanad, devastated by the flood as well as a slew of landslides during and after the deluge. Several other rivers in the flood-hit areas have also shrunk similarly. Another phenomenon baffling the people is the drying-up of wells. Curiously, it's the wells on the river banks that have gone dry. Water levels of several wells on the banks of Periyar, Pampa, Bharathapuzha and Kabani have dipped drastically.

Apart from this, the phenomenon of wells caving in has also been widely reported. Reports in this regard have come up from not only landslide hit areas like Idukki and Wayanad, but also flood-hit districts like Ernakaulam and Alappuzha. Many wells in these places have sunk.

State water resources minister Mathew T Thomas said that the government has been receiving field reports about the sudden drop in levels in water bodies. He said that the strange occurrences had caused apprehension among people and added that the government would assess the situation with the help of scientific agencies and take measures to alleviate the miseries of the people.

Plantains destroyed by the flood in Ernakulam's Kalady. Image procured by TK Devasia

Plantains destroyed by the flood in Ernakulam's Kalady. Image procured by TK Devasia

The flood has also left deep fissures on land in many places. The topography of the land has been altered beyond recognition in several places in Idukki, Wayanad, Kozhikode and Kannur districts, which were hit by a series of landslides. Deep fissures have formed in many mountainous areas in these districts damaging houses and crops. A two-kilometre-long crack has appeared in Idukki's Mavadi, where 15 landslides have occurred.

Many of the people from these areas have been shifted to safer places while others are living in fear of further landslides. Continued living and farming in these places may not be possible as the earth can cave in any time. The flood has also brought a bacterial disease to the paddy fields. The disease called leaf blight has spread in large extent of paddy fields in Palakkad and Thrissur districts. The pathogenic fungus that cause the disease grows mostly during flooding and it can lead to 70 percent yield loss.

The farmers in the drought-prone Palakkad district have already started facing drought conditions. Paddy crops in hundreds of hectares of fields in Kuzhalmandam, Alathur and Chittur blocks are likely to perish if water from the Malampuzha dam is not released within a week.

Drought conditions have also become visible in Wayanad and Idukki districts with earthworms dying en masse. The phenomenon started after day time temperature started rising over the past 10 days with no rain. Experts have attributed excess heat and increase in the temperature of the sandy soil for the mass death of the worms, which help in improving farm productivity.

Agriculture Minister VS Sunil Kumar said that the government would conduct a detailed study to examine the phenomenon. Farmers see this as a strong sign of drought gripping the district after the deluge. They said earthworms were breaking dying in the open after coming out of the soil due to a lack of enough water. A drought after the devastating flood is unthinkable to the government, which is struggling hard to mobilise resources to reconstruct the lost assets. The government has appointed the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) to study the water-related issues.

AB Anita, executive director of the agency, said that an expert panel of hydrologists and geologists has been constituted to study the phenomenon. She said that a detailed, location-specific geographical investigation was necessary to establish the exact cause for the shrinking of water bodies. "Heavy run-off of the top soil in the upland areas and the siltation in the rivers could be the reasons for the falling water level in the rivers. The natural blocks in the rivers that hold water may also have been washed away by the flood," Anita said.

She said that the floods had removed the top soil in the hills and upland areas to a depth of up to two metres in many places that received heavy rainfall during the monsoon. The hills lost their natural capacity to sponge in rainwater when the top soil was washed away by the rain water, she added.

Anita went on to say that the major reason for the massive soil run-off was the ecological destruction caused by deforestation, indiscriminate land use and granite quarrying in the upland areas. The siltation on the other hand was caused by sand-mining in streams and rivers. Geologists said that the huge pressure exerted by the volume of water that flowed into the rivers after the dams were opened might have led to a readjustment of hydrogeological properties of the aquifer leading to fall in water levels in rivers.

"The lowering of water levels in the river will indirectly affect the groundwater level. When the river turns effluent, it draws in water from the ground level that in turn leads to drop in the groundwater table and wells," PK Sabu, a retired geologist, told The New Indian Express.

Experts said that the loss of water in rivers and other water bodies could be made up if the state receives normal north-east monsoon (NEM) beginning next month. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) is yet to come out with the prediction for the second phase of the monsoon.

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However, atmospheric scientists say a normal NEM may only be a brief respite as the state has been witnessing two extreme climatic conditions-floods during monsoon and drought during summer over the years. Abhilash S, assistant professor of Atmospheric Studies at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), said that the two extremes are the result of climatic variations induced by global warming as well as local factors.

The local factors responsible for the climatic variations, according to Abhilash are massive forest encroachment, tree felling, mindless quarrying, sand-mining and increased human intervention in floods planes. The reduced capacity of the atmosphere is induced by global warming.

"The calamity will recur if factors responsible for climatic variations aren't assessed scientifically and steps aren't taken to address them," Abhilash said.

Also See: Tamil Nadu releasing water from Mullaperiyar Dam didn't cause Kerala floods: CWC report

Kerala floods leave trail of destruction in forests; elephants, tigers among several animals killed

Kerala, After The Flood: East Delhi Municipal Corporation donates Rs 1 crore to relief fund for victims

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