Kerala floods: Tech-savvy Indian citizens mobilize to minimize the damage

Flood waters started to rise in Kerala during the third week of July 2018. It has now reached disastrous proportions. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Mini Anto CC: BY-SA 3.0

The South Indian state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast, known for its lush landscape, coconut trees, and inspiring backwaters, has been hit with unusually high amounts of rainfall during this year's monsoon season, causing severe floods and humanitarian crises in the region.

As of August 17, the death toll has risen to 324, with over 200,000 people displaced and 14 districts placed on high alerts. At least 350 relief camps have been opened at various locations to accommodate the flood victims. Many educational and other institutes across the state have opened to accommodate the flood victims.

While Kerala officials continue with rescue and relief efforts, Indian citizens have activated social media and IT strategies to reach those in dire need of support.

On August 15, India's seventh largest airport, Cochin International, has suspended all operations until August 26 due to completely submerged runways. The southern railway has suspended train services on Thiruvananthapuram-Kottayam-Ernakulam and Ernakulam-Shoranur-Palakkad sections as water levels subsume railway lines. The Kochi metro service has also been suspended.

India's rising flood waters

Map depicting some dams in Kerala state. Image via Wikimedia/Openstreetmap.

Monsoons in India have worsened over the last 15 years according to one study done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Recent data reveals patterns of “shorter bursts of rain in higher amounts.” Rising land and sea temperatures may also explain increased rainfall.

During this year's monsoon season, powerful rains arrived with more force, filling dams to capacity. Nearly all 42 gates in the state of Kerala have opened, flooding local low-lying areas that have led to casualties.

On Tuesday, August 14, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared, “This is the worst monsoon disaster since 1924.”

Netizens demand better media coverage and awareness

Indian netizens have called for more coverage in local and international media, complaining that the state of Kerala lacks sufficient disaster management resources:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Kerala to assess the situation on August 17, 2018.

Educator T T Sreekumar wrote on Facebook:

Kerala is fighting it almost all alone, the severest and worst flood ever for last 100 years. If national and international agencies continue to show indifference, it will be a pity. But it is left to them to decide. The spirit of unity, willpower, compassion, and dedication of thousands of volunteers belonging to state and non-state agencies in Kerala are indescribable. Wherever possible they have sought and used whatever assistance that was forthcoming from the Naval and army units. Hundreds of people I personally know, people who are my friends, and several thousand others, have dedicated themselves to the rescue and relief operations, online and offline. Some of them have not slept for days together. The physical and material loss is enormous, the state's infrastructure is reduced to rubble. Crops and livestock are almost destroyed. But the loss of human life is kept to the minimum because Kerala is now an ocean of mutual love, care, and mindfulness. We have ourselves and we shall overcome.

Keralites step up to coordinate rescue efforts

Screenshot from the Keralarescue Website.

Kerala residents at home and abroad are working to connect rescue operations with those in dire circumstances. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Kerala and the Kerala government’s IT department has partnered with thousands of volunteer developers to design and run, a website working to connect all stakeholders.

To ensure transparency, their codebase is hosted on GitHub, an open source platform. Others are inputting Whatsapp emergency messages into Google Docs like this one from Chennai Cares:

Example of a call for help using Google Docs geo-coordinates.

Netizens have turned to Whatsapp to relay calls for help. The Kerala State disaster fund released a list of WhatsApp and landline numbers to contact for assistance.

Videos on Facebook describing how to mark one’s location in Google have been shared widely. Yet residents face uncertainty now that all five of the Idukki Dam Gates have opened for the first time in history. One man makes a desperate video plea as he stands neck-deep in the water on the second floor of his Kerala home.

The Times of India is providing Live Updates to follow this developing story.

1 comment

  • Nikita

    The political dynamic between the state of Kerala and the national government (and a Prime Minister that is known as a Hindu nationalist) is very interesting. While I do not know much about the Indian political or legal system, I wonder what the national government’s responsibility is to provide adequate disaster relief aid to states in need? As in, to what extent can the national government be held accountable for failing to provide sufficient resources during times of crisis? In the United States, FEMA has been the target of much criticism for its delayed response to Hurricane Katrina as well as various class-action lawsuits for failing to provide adequate or healthy temporary housing. I am unsure if this type of legal action is possible in this case in India. In any case, the use of social media and technology by the citizens of Kerala and India in general to bring awareness to this crisis demonstrates perhaps an emerging method for disaster relief that governments and agencies should begin to integrate into their operations and planning.

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