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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

Disaster Response to Kerala Flood 2018

The stress caused by any calamity is immense. On average, 30 million people are displaced by disasters every year. The economically weaker sections are the most vulnerable as they have no proper access to insurance and financial resources. A shelter is more than a BUILDING. It is a home. It is a dream and lifetime investment for many. Unfortunately, they are the most damaged in recurring disasters like floods.

Floodwater has the power to destroy a house built over many years in a matter of seconds. I am not trying to scare anyone, but we need to accept this reality and plan for the future. After all, prevention is far cheaper than evacuating people during floods every year. This blog explains the extreme effects of sea level rise and the importance of incorporating disaster planning into the world. It surveys several natural adversities and the importance of disaster planning in India.

List of Contents

1. Reports on Sea level Rise

According to climate scientists, the sea level is likely to rise to one meter by 2100. In 2006, the prediction was 60 cms, and it is now 1 meter. When the sea level rises to 1 meter, the river water will not empty into the sea, and floods will become very common. Others say this can go up to 2 meters if global warming is not under control. If this is to happen, 85% of Venice will be underwater.

It is a misconception that floods occur once in 50 years or 100 years. But this is not true according to the probability theory. Assuming a building's lifespan is fifty years and floods occur once every hundred years, the table below shows a 39% chance of floods occurring during the building's lifetime. If the useful life of the building is only thirty years, then the chance of a flood is about 26%.

2. Kerala Flood 2018

When the 2018 Kerala floods struck, people said that the previous floods were in 1924 and would take many years to erupt again. This statement may not be accurate as floods will become more common in Kerala in the coming years for the following reasons:

  • Natural disasters are increasing due to climate change and global warming. (please see the attached graph)

  • An increase in seawater level will cause the river water to not empty to the sea, and in turn, bring about frequent floods in low lying areas.

  • Flooding will begin in the unaffected areas of the 2018 floods due to landfilling along the sides of water bodies for infrastructure development.

Kerala flood 2018
Kerala Flood 2018
Kerala flood 2018
Kerala Flood 2018

3. Defects in Kerala Flood Recovery Plan

At present, there is no integrated plan for flood mitigation in Kerala. As a part of the flood response plan, houses in Kerala were reconstructed in the same location without making them disaster-proof. Stilt houses and buildings were also proposed as disaster response solutions to the Kuttanad area which is below sea level. The Government is planning to construct new flood shelters on stilts to house the people during floods. New construction using stilts is a possible solution, but what will happen to the existing buildings and agricultural fields? What is the point of having stilt houses when the whole surrounding is underwater fifty years from now?

Building on stilts
Building on Stilts: An Efficient Method to Protect New Buildings From Floods

Thus, enough consideration to the impact of flooding on the present population, properties and essential services in Kuttanad has not been given for the flood mitigation schemes. People living in the hotspots are unaware of the extent of damages floods can cause. They do not know whether they are rebuilding the house in a flood plain or how they should elevate the building to guard against future floods. If such factors are not examined in disaster planning, the repercussions will be severe in the future.

4. Importance of Disaster Preparedness

October 17, 1989- earthquake of 7.1 magnitudes struck California. The quake killed 62 people in Central California, injured 3757 and left more than 12,000 homeless. The estimated damage was at almost three billion dollars. March 20, 2005, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude hit Kyushu, Japan. This one killed one person, injuring more than 400. Approximately 510 houses were destroyed or partially damaged. A tsunami warning that was issued, was withdrawn after an hour. September 30, 1993- an earthquake of 6.2 on the Richter scale in Latur in India killed 9,748 people, injuring more than 30000 people.

According to a study from the Centre for Research on Epidemiology on Disasters, higher-income countries experienced 56% of disasters and 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(1993), although the intensity was lower when compared with the others. The reason is direct. Countries like USA and Japan carry out disaster preparedness strategies and disaster planning. Hence, it is crucial to make buildings and communities more resilient to disasters.

5. The Netherlands- A Disaster Management Example

When the Cancun meeting on climate change forecasted a significant rise in sea level in 2006, the Dutch Government organised a committee to provide recommendations on how to deal with it. Thirty per cent of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and sixty per cent is vulnerable to flooding. Based on the recommendations, the Government started building new dykes and regulators to withstand a sea level rise of 4 meters. In some areas, they were strengthening, raising and widening the dykes. They were widening the rivers to take care of floods.

All these steps were taken as a part of the integrated approach to managing unprecedented sea level rise. I had the opportunity to visit the Netherlands in 2011 as per the invitation of their Government. During the visit, I saw a basketball court that will become a water storage structure during flooding. They were working on increasing the percentage of green cover in the cities. For example, a recreation park that will transform into a flood basin.

6. Indian Standard Code for Disaster Management

It is an accepted norm in disaster management that temporary shelters shall be erected for the families who lost their homes. When Tsunami struck the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, the Government, despite heavy opposition, came out with a policy that all new houses shall be constructed 500 meters from the sea as a precaution against future tsunamis. They released technical guidelines on the construction of new houses. Gujarat Government has also worked out guidelines for the repair of existing buildings as well as the construction of new buildings after the Bhuj earthquake.

Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) is bringing out a separate IS (Indian Standard) code for the building of temporary shelters as well. BIS has consulted various people across India who had prior experience in this, including me. Some of the existing regulations present are as follows:

  • Permanent shelters will be constructed only after confirming that they can withstand a disaster of at least the same intensity.

  • If the existing location is unsuitable, they will be relocated to a new location. Further, in situations where the existing site is chosen, the house might have to be elevated.

  • The construction methods and techniques used also will ensure that the house is disaster-resistant.

7. Elements of an Integrated Disaster Management Plan

Housing is a massive investment. Making houses resistant to disaster is pivotal. It is the right of every house owner to know the vulnerability of their respective homes. Before anything, a flood mapping exercise should be done for all the areas. Even those who were not affected by the 2018 Kerala floods should be aware of their property's susceptibility in the event of a flood of greater intensity. This exercise will help them in taking precautions and retrofit the buildings accordingly.

Next, one must be mindful of the quality of construction to increase the durability of a structure. The quality of workmanship has come down drastically during the last two or three decades. Society has also accustomed to paying for quantity, not quality. Building owners don't realise that the additional cost in attaining quality is only marginal, whereas ensuring quality pays off in the long run due to lowered maintenance costs. There is no substitute for good quality workmanship. To solve the housing problem, regardless of whether it is due to a disaster or not, the basic criteria of residential accommodation must be established after taking into account the limited resources available.

Bad Quality Workmanship
Bad Quality Workmanship

Because of the lack of quality in construction, the housing units need to be renovated at more frequent intervals. It is to be remembered that many of the houses which have collapsed during the 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 new houses do not have any technology inputs for their housing needs, despite the various disaster recovery initiatives by the Government. If the quality of construction is to be improved, then professional input is necessary.

good quality workmanship
Society Pays for Quantity Rather Than Quality

8. Conclusion

When disaster struck, many houses constructed a decade or two ago were damaged badly. It is a misinterpretation that we need not need disaster management and disaster recovery management plans. Disaster management involves preparing society to face a similar incident in the future without any difficulties. We have to start thinking about global warming 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 or any other area flood-resistant will be a fifty-year project. But unfortunately, the media generally focuses primarily on the financial assistance to be given and the delay in the reconstruction of the houses. Short-sighted solutions can be dangerous for their future.

We have to form our disaster response solutions for the future as it is a question of political will and financial resources. Therefore, the reconstruction of houses after floods must be carried out with the highest quality possible to withstand all future misfortunes. People should not suffer as much as before and lead a normal life at the earliest possible. Each of them shall have a durability of at least 75 years. Our building codes & rules may not talk about specific disasters in detail, but we can follow certain guidelines and preventive measures. Permanent shelters shall be constructed only after proper studies and precautions are taken.


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