The southern Indian state of Kerala has always been a popular tourist destination with its idyllic beaches and lush greenery owing to seasonal rainfalls. Since the beginning of the monsoon season in June this year however, the state has seen torrential rain – some 42% more than its usual amount. The price Kerala has had to pay for these rains has been substantial. Nearly 400 people have been killed, with the death toll expected to rise. About 800,000 are displaced in a state that is only 1/200th of the land area of Australia. The cost to the state and its people stands at a staggering $A4 billion.
Kerala has not seen a crisis such as this in the last 100 years. Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the state, said to the media, “We’re witnessing something that has never happened before in the history of Kerala.”
A state that is known for its high levels of education, health index and record of social development, Kerala is estimated to have gone 10 years behind in its economic development, following this crisis. It is said it will take at least five years to get through the short-term rehabilitation process, with the long-term rehab remaining.
Why were the floods so destructive? The Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) during 2016-17 stated that Kerala has been the worst performer among southern states when it comes to effective management of water resources. The shortcoming certainly proved disastrous. The BBC quoted experts advising that Kerala gets no early flood warning from the Central Water Commission (CWC), the only government agency authorised to do so, which resulted in no flood forecast.
Combined with this, the riverside homes in a densely populated state with 44 rivers flowing through it, did not provide enough space for the rivers to expand in times of relentless rains. The copious amount of water that poured down, along with the opening of the shutters of 35 of the 39 dams in the state, submerged a major part of the region. Landslides exacerbated the destruction exponentially.
Water was everywhere, and the resultant massive confusion too, to a set of people who have never seen a natural calamity in their life. The whole state was stupefied for a day or two, as they saw rising water levels around their homes. Every single person in the state was affected in some way or other.
Steny Sebastian, a resident of the Ponds in the western suburbs of Sydney told Indian Link, “My parents were stranded in my hometown in Kerala – they stayed in the second floor of my house for a week. They did not have power supply, and hence they could not charge their phones. That terrible feeling of texting your parents and waiting to receive a text back to see if they are safe or not, is the worst thing ever.”
After the initial shock subsided, people began to react. Information on people who were stranded was circulated first within their friends’ circles and then in wider groups. The requirements of food, clothing, shelter and basic necessities were circulated, and everyone that was safe lent a hand – to rescue stranded people, to cook food for the relief camps, to supply clothing and so forth. Life changed in one night; but people bounced back. Schools, universities, churches – all were converted into relief camps. It was a humanitarian crisis; however, humanity was not at stake.
An unprecedented development was the emergence of social media platforms as the biggest monitors during the catastrophe. In addition to Facebook safety checks and Google person finders to report missing persons, people kept vigil day and night on Facebook and WhatsApp. There were no official instructions, but these platforms suddenly started to be used as citizen-led control rooms. People live-fed the situations that triggered the rescue missions. They passed the information which helped procurement and transfer of amenities. Being a highly computer-savvy community, different avenues of technology were explored and utilised, something never seen before in any natural disasters, anywhere in the world. Simple yet thoughtful initiatives, like Engineering students developing use-and-throw power banks to keep the mobile phones and torches alive, proved to be very helpful.
The Kerala Government centralised all the rescue efforts in a single website https://keralarescue.in/, for effective collaboration and communications between authorities, volunteers and the public – where you could do everything from requesting for help to donating to volunteering to mapping the places in need of help, all at the click of a button. One single website was established for channelising all the much-needed monetary help in the form of donations to the state – http://www.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in/, something that was relied on by everyone including the Chief Justice of India to contribute to. The active involvement of young District Collectors who worked at grassroot levels was another novel phenomenon that inspired many.
Many things were done on a war footing. A Kerala Flood Resources Map – an interactive map to find helpline numbers, relief camps and other essentials like ambulance – was implemented by Google. True Caller pay was linked up with the Chief Minister’s disaster relief fund to allow people to contribute. Amazon Cares was established to donate for relief operations through NGOs.
Rescue operations were stepped up by the involvement of Indian Army, Navy, Air Force and disaster management agencies such as National Disaster Response Force, along with the efficient Police force of the state.
Amidst all this, the real heroes that emerged – who were escalated to the ‘Superheroes without capes’ status – were the fishermen in the coastal areas. They were termed ‘Kerala’s army’ by the chief minister himself. In their mammoth efforts, they travelled and transported their boats to long distances to engage in rescue missions and save about 16,000 affected people. Their service proved to be invaluable, especially in areas with massive undercurrents.
It is interesting that these couple of weeks of terrible catastrophe have been named ‘Kerala’s finest hours’ by Muralee Thummarukudy, the Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction in the UN Environment Programme, a Malayalee himself. He said that never before in its history has Kerala experienced such unity and collaboration. The hashtag “We Shall Overcome” was used widely in all the platforms, wherever people spoke about the floods, reinforcing the spirit of resilience.
Yet, normalcy is still a long way away. The state and the Government machinery are equipping themselves for the rehabilitation process which might take years to complete. Generous donations are needed from kind-hearted people and organisations for this. The infrastructural damages like the loss of bridges and roads are manifold. Small-scale industries, small businesses and trades are back to square one. Majority of people who lost their homes did not have any kind of insurance. Many farmers who lost their crops and animals will have nothing to look forward to in the coming months. There are people who come back to their water-destroyed homes, to see what they gathered in a lifetime has been damaged or lost.
Expat Keralites, who have migrated all over the world, are extending their help to their home state, in cash as well as in kind. Malayalee-Australians are playing their part too. The harvest festival Onam, which the community usually celebrates with pomp and gaiety, stands cancelled across the country, or has been converted to fundraising campaigns. Aligning with these activities, the Malayalees in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne are holding a public vigil on 26 August. John Jacob, the Secretary of Sydney Malayalee Association commented when asked about this, “This is a community vigil of reflection, solidarity and connection to help rebuild Kerala. Every thought, every prayer, every penny and every presence counts.” There is no better way of summing it up.
While Kerala faces its worst flood in a century, Australia is grappling with the Big Dry. Read Emie Roy’s report on it here.