Prakashini was angling right in front of her home at Poovam West in Payippad panchayat near Changanassery.
She was trying to catch fish for the day’s lunch. Inside the house, her husband, Babu, was watching TV sitting on a sofa elevated using a few cement bricks. The bricks protected the furniture, apparently the only valuables in the house, from the floodwater, which had overflown to their home, situated along the Alappuzha-Changanassery (A-C) canal. Utensils were floating inside the kitchen.
Prakashini and Babu, both daily-wagers in their forties, had been jobless for days when Onmanorama met them last week.
They are among the hundreds of families staying near the A-C canal in various panchayats in the Kottayam and Alappuzha districts. The areas along the man-made canal are part of what is known as Upper Kuttanadu.
The construction work of the A-C canal is yet to be completed, even 70 years after it was envisaged.
Farmers and daily-wage workers are among those who reside near the canal.
“It has been four days since floodwaters entered our house. During the past, there were floods twice a year. Even then, the waters receded after a couple of days. Now, after the deluge in 2018, flooding has become frequent in the region,” Babu said.
“We have lost count of the floods this year. Our region has been flooded eight or nine times this year itself,” Prakashini added.
A few metres away, Sujith, a young man, was cleaning his house, which was also flooded.
“Our house was flooded at least four times this year itself. There are some houses in the neighbourhood which have been inundated for over a week now,” he said. Sujith said flooding became frequent in the region after the 2018 deluge.
While Babu and Sujith’s houses were still inhabitable, the plight of Praveena, who lived on the other side of the canal, was more saddening.
The young woman, along with her husband and two children, had to seek shelter over a bridge after their house was inundated by floods.
“Our house was destroyed in the 2018 floods. Then some philanthropists built a shelter for us. It has also become uninhabitable now,” Praveena said, standing in front of the shack covered by tarpaulin sheet. The four-member family cooked, ate and slept inside that makeshift structure.
“We feel safer here,” she said when asked why they hadn't moved to a relief camp run by the government.
Like Praveena, many families in the region are reluctant to shift to relief camps. Prakshini said she and her family stayed in a camp only during the 2018 floods. Sindhu, who lives in the neighbourhood, said her family and few others had moved to a rented house during the peak of the floods in October.
Fear of the coronavirus is one reason why people prefer to live in their flooded houses rather than shifting to relief camps.
They seem to have adjusted to their plight as floods have become a regular affair in Kuttanad.
Many families from various parts of the low-lying land have migrated to other districts.
Plenty of problems, few solutions
The flood situation along the A-C road is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Kuttanad’s woes.
Frequent flooding is a perennial issue to the entire region, spread over Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts. After rains, the Manimala and Pamba rivers overflow causing floods in Kuttanad. As it lies below sea level, the region is prone to flooding.
To make matters worse, there is no option for the floodwaters to recede. Encroachments in the Vembanadu lake, which forms a sizeable portion of the region, have triggered the flood situation in Kuttanad.
According to the Swaminathan Commission report of 2007, the water storage capacity of the lake had come down by 78 per cent of late.
Defects of the two major spillways of the area — Thanneermukkam and Thottappally bunds — also add to Kuttanad’s woes.
Experts and environmental activists say the flood situation can be tackled to some extent if the canal is opened fully. The A-C canal, meant to drain excess water from the Pamba and the Manimala into the Vembanad Lake, was built during the early 1950s.
Even though it was originally envisaged from Manackachira to Pallathuruthy, the works stopped midway at Onnamkara.
“If the canal can be extended to Pallathuruthy, 10 kms from Onnamkara, where the water can be routed to the Pallathuruthy river, there could be some solution to the flooding on the A-C canal,” Thomas Panakkalam, an academic who has done extensive studies on Kuttanad’s flood woes, said.
“The main problem of Kuttanad is that there are no facilities for floodwaters to drain out. Hence the polluted water covers the region, causing livelihood as well as health hazards. The opening of the A-C canal could only be one step towards bringing a solution to the region’s problems. The Vembanadu lake also has to be deepened by removing the mud and silt accumulated over the years,” Panakkalam, who teaches Malayalam at Bharata Mata College, Thrikkakara, said.
The government has announced steps for deepening and extending the canal in two phases — from Onnamkara to Nedumudi and from Nedumudi to Pallathuruthy — but the decision remains on paper.
(This is the first part of a series investigating the floods and related issues of Kuttanad.)