Kerala rains: As shutters of 23 dams are opened to release excess water, Pinarayi Vijayan seeks army's assistance

TK Devasia
The magnitude of the Kerala catastrophe could have been minimised if the agencies involved in reservoir management had used a technically sound approach in the opening of the dam gates.

The southwest monsoon has brought huge miseries to people across Kerala with heavy rains since its onset on 29 May, claiming 175 lives and causing heavy damage to crops in 26,824 hectares worth Rs 342 crores so far, according to Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA).

The rain also caused heavy damage to property. A KSDMA official told Firstpost that 461 houses were fully and 11,954 houses were partially damaged in the rains across the state. The loss is estimated to be of Rs 23.3 crores. More than 5,000 people are living in relief camps.

The state witnessed an unprecedented rain fury on Thursday with 22 people dying and five missing and shutters of as many as 23 dams, including the Idukki dam opened, in one day. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has termed the situation highly alarming and sought the assistance of the army, air force, coast guard and military intelligence to help the state in the rescue and relief operations.

Most of the deaths have been reported from the central and northern districts of Idukki, Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode. Five members of a family died and one was reported missing in a landslide at Chettiyam Para in Malappuram district while another family at Adimali in Idukki lost five members in soil erosion.

The rain made a comeback on Wednesday, wreaking heavy damage in Malappuram, Kozhikode. Wayanad, Palakkad and Idukki districts. Torrential downpour accompanied by gusty winds in the past 24 hours has hit various parts of Wayanad, Kozhikode and Kannur districts and threw normal life out of gear.

Low-lying areas have been inundated and trees uprooted extensively due to rain. Power supply remained disrupted for long hours even in town areas, as electric posts were uprooted when trees fell on power lines. The landlocked Wayanad district has been fully cut off from outside world with the torrential rain bringing many parts of major highways under water.

Landslides added to the miseries of people. According to reports, more than 20 landslides have been reported from Palakkad, Idukki, Kannur and Kozhikode districts.  Landslides in the Wayanad ghat section disrupted traffic on Kozhikode-Kollegal  national highway, Palchuram and Periya ghat section of roads on the Mananthavadi-Kannur state highway and the Kuttiadi ghat section of road on the Mananthavadi-Kuttiadi highway.

Schools and colleges have been closed in Kozhikode, Wayanad, Palakkad and parts of Idukki, Malappuram and Kollam districts. The annual Nehru boat race in Alappuzha has been postponed in view of heavy showers forecast by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

The Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) suspended all arrivals at the Nedumbaserry airport for two hours in the afternoon, fearing flooding of the runway after one shutter of the Idukki dam was opened. The water from Idukki reservoir flows to sea through the Periyar river. Therefore, any rise in the water level in the river can disrupt the operations at the airport.

The Idukki dam, which is the tallest arch dam in Asia, is being opened after 26 years. Only once before 1992 was the dam opened since it was commissioned in 1975. One shutter of the dam was opened at 12.30 pm on Thursday on a trial basis.

"The decision to open the dam, which is tallest arch dam in Asia, was taken after the water level in the reservoir touched 2398.80 ft level following heavy rains in the catchment areas last night and throughout the first half of the day on Thursday. The full capacity of the dam is 2403 feet," the official said.

A KSEB official told Firstpost that the other shutters of the dam would also be opened if the rain continued like this. The shutter number three of the dam was lifted up by 50 cm, leading to discharge of 50,000 litres water per second during the trial run lasting four hours.

According to IMD forecast, the heavy rain will continue till Friday and come back again on Monday.

The catchment areas of the dam received 97.8 mm rainfall on Wednesday, according to IMD officials. Idukki district as a whole received 211.12 mm rainfall on Thursday. With this, the total rainfall received in Idukki district has gone up to 2,611 mm. This is the highest rainfall recorded in Idukki district in the last 17 years, said the IMD officials.

The full opening of the dam would lead to large-scale evacuation of residents of nearby areas and those living along the Periyar River may cause damage to property. The government has asked people living in the downstream areas to be prepared to move to safer places in the event of the opening of all the five shutters of the dam.

Besides human displacement, the opening of the dam could also cause heavy damage to property. According to KSDMA estimates, about 4,500 buildings may drown along 100 metres on both sides of Periyar River if all the shutters of the dam are opened.

Earlier in the day, the 22 other dams, including Idamalayar dam. were also opened. The opening of 23 dams on a single day is a never before seen event in in the state, according to KSEB officials. The water level in the reservoir of Kakki dam, another major dam in the district, is also rising alarmingly. KSEB officials said that the shutters of the dam may also be opened soon.

The opening of the shutters of the Kakki dam may inundate entre Kuttanad region, which is spread across Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanathitta districts. Alappuzha and Kottayam districts have already suffered huge loss due to the rain.

The chief minister advised people not to panic as the government had made all arrangements to deal with any eventuality. "There is no need to panic. All the safety requirements to be followed for opening the dam have been taken. Since the water level may rise in the river, people living on the banks should take precaution," Vijayan said in a Facebook post.

Later talking to reporters after reviewing the situation at a high-level meeting in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, Vijayan said that the state government had sought the services of the army, air force and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). He said that directions had been given to police and fire force personnel to coordinate with other agencies in rescue operations. Officials have also been directed to involve MLAs and other people's representatives in the relief works.

The government has set up a 24-hour monitoring cell at the state secretariat under Additional Chief Secretary (Revenue) and its units in all district headquarters under the district collectors to deal with the situation. The chief minister has urged people not to hinder rescue operations.

He has also cautioned people not to go near dams to view opening of the shutters. "This will not only be harmful to the visitors but will also affect the rescue works. Only the officials assigned for rescue operations will be allowed near the dams," Vijayan added.

He said that the state government had asked the central team visiting the state now to take stock of the damage caused by the rains to ensure the coordination of all central agencies in providing relief to the affected people. He said that the government had submitted a detailed memorandum on flood assistance before the central delegation. The team led by Joint Secretary Dharma Reddy held talks with the chief minister and officials on Thursday.

Also See: Kerala disaster management authority issues orange alert as Idukki reservoir reaches 2,395 feet, nine ft short of full capacity

Idukki Dam alert: With water level almost at capacity, government says no need to panic; 2 more dead in rain-related incidents

Kerala government puts army, navy, air force and coast guard on alert as Idukki dam nears full level, touches 2394.72 feet

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