India wins praise for ‘exemplary’ flood relief

From helicopters plucking families from rooftops to fishermen ferrying villagers to safety, India’s response to floods in Kerala has won praise, but experts say unchecked development contributed to the disaster.
Nearly 400 people have died since August 8 in the worst floods to hit the coastal state in a century, with dozens more missing and about a million forced into temporary camps after roads, bridges and homes were swept away.
As torrential rains began, the army, navy and national disaster response force teams swung into action, battling neck-high waters and mudslides to bring food and drinking water to tens of thousands of marooned people.
But it was the volunteer efforts that drew particular praise — from the fisherman who got on all fours and made a human step for women to clamber onto a boat, to prisoners preparing thousands of chapatis for homeless victims.
“The whole society came together, not only those in Kerala but from across the country,” said Vikrant, head of Sphere India, a network of humanitarian agencies.
“We have not seen this in other states previously,” he added, recalling floods in southern Tamil Nadu state in 2015 and in the northern mountainous state of Uttarakhand, where nearly 6,000 people were killed in 2013.
Flooding on the scale seen in Kerala could have killed 10 times more people a decade ago, but India’s disaster management capacity has improved significantly in that time, said Chandra Bhushan of the Centre for Science and Environment think tank.
“The relief and rescue response in Kerala has been exemplary,” he said.
“National government to state government to local authorities to NGOs to church, temple, fishermen, children — everyone participated and this must be recognised and lessons should be learned from this kind of response.”
Kerala is one of India’s wealthiest states and has seen rapid unplanned development in recent years, with luxury resorts, residential complexes, power plants and mines built on floodplains, often in violation of the rules.
Critics say such unregulated construction on river banks has caused deforestation and destruction of the mangroves that previously acted as shields against coastal erosion.
“The floods were inevitable, but the impact in Kerala was exacerbated by human influence: bad dam management, bad planning, deforestation and destruction of natural habitats,” said Bhushan.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation

Annie Banerji