Flash floods kill 27 in south India’s Kerala state, prompting US travel alert

Indian rescuers conduct rescue operations after a landslide at Kuttampuzha village in Ernakulam district in Kerala, India, on Aug 9, 2018.
Indian rescuers conduct rescue operations after a landslide at Kuttampuzha village in Ernakulam district in Kerala, India, on Aug 9, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (REUTERS, AFP) - Flash floods and landslides have claimed at least 27 lives in the southern Indian state of Kerala, officials said on Friday (Aug 10), prompting the US to advise its citizens to stay away from the tourist hotspot.

The coastal state, famed for its pristine palm-lined beaches and tea plantations, is battered by the annual monsoon every year but the rains have been particularly severe this season.

The June-September rains in the state have cost 175 lives and damaged crops worth 3.42 billion rupees (S$68 million) across 26,824 ha since their onset on May 29, an official at the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA), who did not wish to be identified, said.

Nationwide, more than 700 people have been killed in monsoon flooding. Last year 1,200 people perished.

In Kerala the army has been roped in for rescue efforts after two days of rain that have forced authorities to open the shutters of 24 reservoirs to drain out the excess water in an unprecedented move to prevent potentially disastrous breaches. 

“Twenty-four dams have been opened so far, which is unprecedented and is telling of the seriousness of the situation,” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wote on Twitter. “People living in the downstream areas of these dams must be cautious.”

One of the five shutters of a large reservoir in the mountainous Idukki district was opened for the first time in 26 years.

The maximum storage level of the reservoir, which is one of the largest arch dams in Asia, is 732m. 

"If the rain continues, the other shutters will also be opened. All residents living along 100 metres of the dam have been asked to relocate to safe places," a Kerala State Electricity Board official in Idukki, who did not wish to be named, said.

Some 20,000 people have been displaced and 260 relief camps have been set up.

Fifty-seven tourists including 24 foreigners were stranded in the hill station of Munnar.

In view of the devastation, the US embassy Thursday advised its citizens to avoid the areas affected and constantly monitor local media for weather updates.

The state meteorological department forecast rains to continue on Friday and return on Monday.

"Kerala has received 17 per cent more rainfall so far during the current season compared with last year," K. Santhosh, Kerala director of India's Meteorological Department, told Reuters.

 
 
 

The state, which has 44 rivers, witnessed its worst floods in 1924 following torrential rains.

"The situation is grim, especially in the coastal parts of Kerala, given the continuous rains," P.H. Kurian, State Relief Commissioner and Convenor of the KSDMA told Reuters.

With its sweeping coastline, riverboats and tea plantations, Kerala, about the size of Bhutan, has become a leading tourist destination, promoting itself as 'God's Own Country', and has seen a boom in infrastructure.

"Wetland refilling, encroachment and unauthorised construction in river banks and conversion of paddy fields have affected the flow of water, leading to stagnation and flash floods," another official at KSDMA said on condition of anonymity.