• Benny Kuriakose

Kerala FLOODS AND CLIMATE CHANGE


Stilt houses and buildings have been proposed as one of the solutions to the Kuttanad area, which is below the sea level. The Government is planning to put flood shelters on stilts to house the people during floods. What is going to happen to the large population and properties in Kuttanad and other areas with the sea level increase is not sufficiently thought about. According to many climate scientists, the seawater is likely to rise by one meter by 2100. (In 2006, the prediction was 60 cms and it has now become 1 meter). According to some others, this can go up to 2 meters also, if global warming is not brought under control. 85% of Venice will be underwater if there is 2 meters rise in sea level. When the seawater rises by 1 meter, the river water will not empty into the sea easily and floods will be very common. The situation is very alarming. Many of the coastal cities will look very different from what is now.

When the 2006 Cancun (in Mexico) meeting on Climate Change predicted increase in sea level rise, the Dutch Government formed a committee which made its recommendations to fight sea-level rise. 30% of the Netherlands is below sea level and 60% of the area is very vulnerable to floods and an increase in sea level. Based on the Committee’s recommendations, the Government started building new dykes and regulators so that they can withstand a sea-level rise of 4 meters. In some other cases, they were strengthening, raising and widening the dykes. They were widening the rivers to take care of floods. All these steps were taken as part of the integrated approach. I saw a basketball court which will become water storage during floods. They were adding more green into the cities (for example, a recreation park becoming a flood basin) and creating sufficient water storage. I had the opportunity to visit the Netherlands in 2011 as per the invitation of their Government. Please see the image of the dykes which have been converted into roads etc.


  • Why can’t we think of such a step in Kuttanad also?

  • We can build new buildings on stilts, but what will happen to the building and agricultural fields which are already existing?

  • What is the point in having stilt houses, when the whole surrounding is going to be underwater fifty years from now?


We have to start thinking now about these changes and need to have a long term strategy to take care of climate change. It will be too late to start thinking about the sea level rise in 2040. To make Kerala flood resilient will be a fifty-year project. Short-sighted solutions and wait and see approach can be very dangerous for Kerala’s future. We have to find our own solutions for the future and of course, it is a question of the political will and financial resources.


After all, prevention is far cheaper than evacuating our people during floods every year.

It is a misconception that floods will come only once in 50 years or 100 years. When 2018 Kerala floods came, some reacted that the last major floods were in 1924, now it will take many years for major floods to come again. Even one leader said that floods will come, some people will die and properties will be lost once in a while. But this is not true according to the probability theory.

Estimating the lifespan of a building as fifty years and the floods as once in a hundred year event, the table (image attached) provides a probability of a flood occurring during the building’s lifetime as 39%. If the useful life of the building is only thirty years, the chance of a flood occurring during its lifetime is 26%.


In addition to this, there are other reasons that floods will become more common in Kerala in the coming years. I am not trying to scare people, but we have to accept this reality and plan for the future.

  1. All-natural disasters are on the increase all over the world due to climate change and global warming (please see the attached graph).

  2. Due to increase in seawater level due to global warming (1-meter rise is predicted by 2100 AD), the river water will not empty to the sea easily, which in turn will cause floods in low lying areas.

  3. People owning land by the side of the river will now start filling their land to build houses. This will decrease the cross-sectional area of the river to carry water and will start flooding even areas which have not been flooded in 2018. At present, there is no integrated planning for flood mitigation.


Importance of Disaster Preparedness


It is a misconception that we need not do any preparedness for disasters and we need not plan for the future. Disaster management involves preparing society to face a similar disaster without any issues.


October 17, 1989 - Earthquake magnitude of 7.1 struck California. The quake killed 62 people throughout Central California, injured 3757 and left more than 12,000 homeless. The damage was estimated at almost three billion dollars in San Francisco.


March 20, 2005, Kyushu, Japan. Earthquake magnitude is 7.0. The quake killed one person, injuring more than 400. 510 houses had been destroyed or partially damaged. The meteorological agency immediately issued tsunami warnings but lifted them one hour later.


September 30, 1993, Latur, India. Earthquake magnitude is 6.2. The quake killed 9,748 people, injuring more than 30000 people.


According to a study done by the Centre for Research on Epidemiology on Disasters, higher-income countries experienced 56% of disasters but lost 32% of lives, while lower-income countries experienced 44% of disasters but suffered 68% of deaths. Why was the casualty higher in the Latur earthquake, although the intensity was lower when compared with the earthquakes in California or Japan. The reason is very simple. In the US and Japan, they do disaster preparedness and give tremendous importance to human lives. So it is very important to make the buildings and the community more resilient. The people should not suffer to the same extent as earlier and will come to lead a normal life at the earliest.

What we are finding in Kerala is rebuilding the houses in the same location without making them disaster resistant. People and various NGOs started rebuilding houses. The people who are living in these areas are unaware of the extent of damage which will occur if the floods of a particular intensity come. They do not know whether they are rebuilding the house in a flood plain or how much they should elevate the building to guard against any future floods. If they do not consider such factors, when a flood of the same intensity as in 2018 reoccurs, the situation will be worse.


30 million people are displaced every year by disasters on an average. The poor are the most vulnerable in disasters due to various reasons and they do not have insurance and bank balance. The shelter is more than just a BUILDING. It is home. The stress caused by the disaster is huge.


How Soon The Permanent Houses To Be Constructed


It is an accepted norm in disaster-management that temporary shelters shall be erected for the families who lost their homes. Bureau of Indian Standards is bringing out a separate IS code for the building of temporary shelters. BIS has consulted various people across India who had prior experience in this, including me.

The permanent shelter will be constructed only after making sure that they are able to withstand a disaster of at least the same intensity. If the existing location is unsuitable, then they will be relocated to a new location. Perhaps, the existing site is chosen, but the house might be elevated. The construction methods and techniques used also will ensure that the house is disaster-resistant.


When Tsunami struck the coastal areas in Tamil Nadu, the TN Government came with a policy that all new houses shall be constructed 500 meters from the sea as a precaution against future tsunamis (of course, this was questioned by many others). They came out with technical guidelines on constructing new houses. Gujarat Government has come out with guidelines for the repair of existing buildings as well as the construction of new buildings after the Bhuj earthquake. Our building codes & rules do not talk about landslides and floods, but we can definitely follow certain guidelines and preventive measures.


It is the right of every house owner to know the vulnerability of the houses where he is living. Flood mapping exercise should be done for all the areas and communicated properly to the concerned people. Even those people who were not affected by the 2018 floods should know the vulnerability of his house if a flood of a higher intensity comes so that he can do retrofitting of the houses and take proper precautions so that they may not have to undergo the same trauma which many faced during the last floods.


But unfortunately, the media attention went to the financial assistance to be given and the delay in the reconstruction of the houses. Television news reported many instances where the reconstruction of the damaged houses have not started. Permanent shelters shall be constructed only after proper studies and precautions taken.


Housing is a major investment. Making houses resistant to disaster is important. The elevation is very critical in floods.


Quality of Construction


The The biggest challenge the construction industry in India is facing today is to ensure good quality of construction. The durability of a building depends on the quality of workmanship and the design details. Many well-constructed buildings have survived the floods, while poorly constructed buildings have been damaged.


The quality of workmanship has come down drastically during the last two or three decades. Society is accustomed to paying for quantity, not quality. Labour contracts and overtime lead to a reduction in quality. In labour contracts, the labour cheats by reducing quality. The owner thinks that he has gained because of the apparently increased output. Building owners don’t realise that. The additional cost in attaining quality is only marginal, whereas ensuring quality pays off in the long run in lowered maintenance costs.


Today, there is little incentive for the worker to do quality work. There is no substitute for good quality workmanship. The durability of a building is very much dependent on the good quality of workmanship.


For solving the housing problem for the bulk of the population, whether it is a disaster or not, it is essential that certain minimum standards of residential accommodation are set, keeping in view the limited resources available. If the houses are not of good quality, they become a liability for the beneficiaries instead of becoming an appreciating asset. One of the reasons for the low quality of construction is the lack of knowledge on the part of the skilled labourers. Because of the lack of quality in construction, the housing units need to be replaced at more frequent intervals. It is very important that we not only insist on quantity but also on the quality, of the new houses coming up.


It is to be remembered that much of the houses which has collapsed during Kerala Floods have been qualitatively not satisfactory. We should seize this opportunity to improve the quality of our housing stock. Unfortunately, a good percentage of the houses which are coming up did not have any technology inputs for their housing needs in spite of the various initiatives by the Government leading to poor quality of construction. If the quality of construction is to be improved, then the professional input is necessary. Various studies show that a significant percentage of houses for the economically weaker sections constructed is in a poor state of repair within 10 years, made worse by the original poor quality of construction and lack of timely maintenance.


It is very important that the houses which are being built are done with the highest quality possible to withstand any future disasters. Each of these shall have a durability of at least 75 years. Many houses which are built have collapsed after a decade or two when the disaster struck again because they were in a bad state.

#Climatechange #KeralaFloods #Sustainability

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Copyright © Benny Kuriakose