Last Thursday, farm labourer O M Ismail woke up to find floodwater in his hut at Changadakkadavu near Panamaram in Wayanad district. The 44-year-old, his mother, wife and three children waded through the rising water and climbed a two-storey building, from where they were rescued later in the day.
As the water receded by Monday, Ismail returned to find that he had lost everything. “My children’s school books and uniforms were washed away. We have lost our documents. I was building a new house with my meagre earnings, but the flood has weakened its structure,” he said.
In villages along Panamaram river, which takes the discharge from Banasura Sagar Dam — the largest earthen dam in India — the heavy spill from the dam washed away the belongings of hundreds of people. Wells were filled with waste water and mud houses ran the risk of caving in. As the dam waters left a trail of destruction in Padinjarathara, Kottathara, Vellamunda, Thariyodu, Panamaram and Pulpally panchayats of the district, the residents claimed they were not properly informed about the lifting of the dam shutters. Kerala rains LIVE
The grim situation in Wayanad district was reflected in the number of affected people. On Monday, when 29,747 people were staying in relief camps across the state, 13,461 of them were in Wayanad district, the worst affected.
Bibin Joseph, Chief Engineer (Dam Safety) of Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), which operates the dam, said the board took all steps to alert people about lifting of the shutters. “However, there seems to be a communication gap in taking the message to the people. To avoid this, we have now appointed an executive engineer to coordinate with the district administration,” he said.
The dam, with full reservoir level of 775.6 m, was opened for the first time this monsoon on July 15. The shutters were lifted to 130 cm in a phased manner, and closed on August 5 as the rain subsided. However, subsequent rain in the district coupled with sudden rise in water level in the dam worsened the situation.
The catchment area reported 562 mm rain on August 7. That day, the dam inflow was 10 per cent of its total storage. KSEB lifted the shutters to 290 cm, which eventually flooded the region.
Joseph said the board had no option but to release the excess water. “The rains were beyond our prediction… We increased the outflow in a phased manner,” he said.
As the rains returned, the district administration sounded a fresh alert along the banks of the river downstream Banasura Sagar Dam. On Tuesday, the shutters were lifted to 210 cm.
However, villagers claimed that KSEB did not issue any warning about lifting of shutters to such a level. “The dam is opened during many monsoons. Never has water engulfed our houses. The board did not alert us,” said K Moitheen in Kuppadithara.
K P Shamsudeen of Puthusserykadavu near Padinjarathara had come home from Saudi Arabia, where he works as a driver, last week. “When the water reached the nearby road, I shifted my wife and four children to her house. The river is 300 m away, so I was confident the water would not rise further. When I came back to shift my articles on Wednesday night, water gushed into my house… I was in neck deep water,” he said.
People living along the Panamaram river blamed KSEB. “The board waited to lift the shutters of the dam until water started overflowing. If they had started releasing water in small volumes, this crisis could have been avoided,” said P Sajid, a resident.
According to the agriculture department, incessant rain has affected paddy and banana cultivation. Standing crops on 830 hectares has perished.