Posted by Hari Kumar, Regional Coordinator for South Asia / May 19, 2019
Last August, my home state of Kerala in south India received an extraordinary amount of rain not experienced in almost 100 years. Widespread flooding inundated coastal lowlands, and thousands of landslides in the hills killed nearly 500 people.
It was a big setback to the state, but the government has resolved to rebuild a resilient Nava Keralam (New Kerala). In the meantime, the annual monsoon will begin soaking Kerala this June. Debris from many landslides remains unstable, and in some cases the landslides may grow or fail again.
I knew that GeoHazards International could help, as our recent work with Mizoram state resulted in sweeping changes to reduce landslides and is cited as a model approach by the National Disaster Management Authority. We are advising Mizoram how to manage existing landslides, improve construction on slopes, and enact policies that protect people from new landslides.
This Kerala landslide took lives and destroyed businesses. The damaged highway is repaired, but monsoon rain may loosen debris to bury it again. Photo: Heidi Stenner
GeoHazards International’s technical team of Kevin Clahan (of Lettis Consultants International), Heidi Stenner, and I conducted a field study of landslides that may continue to threaten lives. Mr. Ajin R.S., Hazard Analyst of Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, accompanied us.
We stopped first at the University of Kerala Geology Department to talk with students and colleagues of co-investigator Prof. Dr. Sajin Kumar. A majority of the students are women, and they were excited to meet Heidi, another woman geologist. Dr. Sajin Kumar and four of his graduate students joined the field study.
GeoHazards International Project Manager Heidi Stenner, surrounded by geologists studying at University of Kerala. Photo: Hari Kumar
We focused on Idukki district, one of the hardest hit by landslides. By mid-August last year, the hills were so wet from the monsoon that, when especially intense rain fell, slopes collapsed and took down homes or buried them in mud. The landslides were sudden and nearly impossible to escape.
Several families living near known landslides had been evacuated, but the rains also triggered new and unexpected failure. A few slopes still have water seeping out, even though we visited in the driest time of the year.
A Kerala home and property damaged by a landslide. Photo: Hari Kumar
Many landslides occurred where people had cut slopes to build a home or a road, without realizing that alterations can weaken slopes. We investigated such a site at Anaviratty Government Lower Primary School, a small village school.
Builders had carved out some of the slope to create a level site with space for students to play. After last August’s intense rain, the hillside behind the school failed. Mud flowed into classrooms and partially collapsed the building.
High spirits at Anaviratty Government Lower Primary School, the first day back after a 7-month closure. Photo: Heidi Stenner
Fortunately, no one was injured because school was closed for the rains. It had to remain closed for seven months to repair damage and install a retaining wall. Children attended a distant school, difficult in this rural area.
Coincidentally, our team arrived on the children’s first day back at their home school. There was a lot of excitement, not just among children. The elected Panchayat Representative Mrs. Sherly George and Assistant Education Officer Mrs. Shyni Habeeb came to be with the children on their big day. They asked us how to make the school even safer.
It was a reflection of how the community values its school and how the state values education. Kerala is India’s most literate (94%) state. This has been possible in part because the state has made schools at every level easily accessible to all, even in remote, hilly, rural areas like this.
A classroom damaged beyond repair by landslide, Government Art College of Munnar in Idukki District. Photo: Heidi Stenner
Of the many landslides in Kerala last year, the largest destroyed several buildings at Munnar Arts College as well as the main road. Dr. Sajin Kumar and local officials had noticed hillside cracking in advance, so the college had been evacuated. Our team is offering some strategies to mitigate this still-hazardous slope.
Though my family home is in a district unaffected by the floods, I felt a lot of sadness seeing the scale of destruction, but came away with a lot of hope because there is a strong desire for change.
This family of a state employee, living in a government-owned home near a landslide, was asked to move to safer quarters before the monsoon. Photo: Heidi Stenner
Kerala is certainly not the richest state, but one that values health and education. Its governments have proudly promoted social reform and progressive thinking. People reject divisions of caste and religion. Women hold positions of responsibility and may be leaders in reducing risk. We saw this with students pursuing geology careers, the elected representative, the assistant education officer, and the revenue divisional officer who pressed us to examine more sites.
Kerala will continue to accomplish great things, and we hope to assist them in preventing 'roadblocks' (or road slides!) in that progress.
Regards from the field,
Regional Coordinator for South Asia
P.S. This work is possible thanks to support from Munich Re and people like you. And until May 31, your donation may be matched dollar-for-dollar.