The Great Flood of 99

Munnar, the hill station of Kerala, once suffered the wrath of a flood. Sounds unbelievable, right? The movie 2018 captures the Kerala Floods that occurred in 2018, where a simple rain turned into a flood within no time, affected the state, and left many grateful for being alive. However, the credits scene reveals that this wasn’t Kerala’s first battle with a dangerous flood. References to the ‘Great Flood of 99’, which had threatened the state’s existence, are also made in the movie. Multiple hotels in Munnar still display the framed black and white photos of this Great Flood as a memory that even the mighty hill station falls weak when nature decides to retaliate.

What is the ‘Great Flood of 99’?

The heavy flooding of the Periyar River in 1924 for almost three weeks led the State into despair. Helpless people watched as their family, friends, and livestock were being washed away. Before 2018, it was known as Kerala’s worst flood of the century. The collective trauma faced by the people, and the tales of survival, have been passed down through generations. The lack of media, the inability to circulate newspapers, and the lack of modern techniques and equipment, as we had in 2018, proved to be a disaster where people died not just of drowning but of starvation as well. Worse, the census could not be taken accurately, leading to an inaccurate count of people who died. This led to many families holding on to the hope that their family and friends may have survived and still be alive for years after the flood. The lack of assurance on their death led to their cases being filed as missing.

Great Flood of 99

Even though the flood happened in 1924, it is revered as the ‘Great Floods of 99’ or ‘Thonnotti Onbathile Vellapokkam’ because the incident occurred in the year 1099, according to the Malayalam Calendar. As the Malayalam Calendar was the precedent back then in Kerala, the incidents were referred to according to that calendar. 

How did it begin?

During the last week of July, a simple rain continued with no signs of subsiding. Then there was an increase in rainfall and windspeed. The unprecedented rain was abnormally high in comparison to the previous months. The destructive floods that followed are believed to have claimed over 1,000 lives, along with much ruin to flora and fauna. While the property and crops of Kerala suffered a heavy blow, most areas of the state were submerged under the flood water.

The most startling, however, was when Munnar, the hill station located 1500 meters above sea level, also sustained significant damage.

“It is astonishing that the Munnar region, located about 6000 feet above the sea level, was also submerged under floodwater”– reference from the website of the Kerala Government.

The Kundala Valley Railway was the first monorail in India and operated in the Kundala Valley of Munnar. The floods wrecked it completely, and it has never been rebuilt up to this date. Many inhabitants of Munnar look back and often remark on the absence of the railway and how it has affected their lives. This narrow gauge railway was of great help to the plantation owners. Further, the old Aluva-Munnar route was unstable due to landslides, and the official Travancore records state that the road was submerged up to 10 feet of water for the entire stretch. The weeks of rain also brought down an entire hill called the Karinthiri Malai which destroyed the Ernakulam-Munnar road. 

Great Flood of 99

The number of families in the refugee camps who had been displaced from their homes is said to have been around 28,000. The impact of the Great Flood of 99 has been such that most of Kerala’s official records begin only after 1924. The older generations refer to the flood as a significant event of their life, categorizing their experiences as happening before or after it. 

What were its causes?

The causes of the same have been widely disputed. The older generation of Kerala believes that a breach in the Mullaperiyar Dam had promoted the floods. The overflowing rivers were faced with more incoming water when the sluices of the same were suddenly opened without a proper warning to the public. The breach occurred around 29 years after it was built. The lack of other regional dams implies this is the sole cause. The restriction in flow due to the swelling of the Periyar River led to changes in river flow and the eventual gushing of the water into the populated areas. 

The other side of the argument is that there is little evidence to support this, considering the previous floods that Kerala experienced before the Dam’s construction. The Kerala floods of 1341 have no written records but are said to have had a major impact on forming new land masses like Vypin Island and Cochin Port. 

The Aftermath of The Flood

Kozhikode and a few districts faced major famine due to the severe loss of crops. The breaches in the construction of the same were attributed to the British engineer John Pennycuick. The people who had lost their life savings resorted to drinking as they believed the relief funds would take care of their families. The construction of roads and rails by the British Government was blanked as the major reason for the flood because the ‘mud bunds’ blocked the flow of water. This was debated in the legislative assembly, and the British promised to look into the matter. They also began changing their strategies and employing better ways to conserve nature and assess modern machinery’s impact on nature. Many other railway tracks and stations were underwater and were strewn with cattle carcasses upon the receding of water. The civil courts also had no business as the people were too busy to be indulged in the cases. 

Great Flood of 99

Kerala’s constant battle with the flood is due to its topography and geography, which is majorly formed due to siltation which is the accumulation of fine particles of sand and mud on a land mass. Kerala served as a basin upon which the rundowns of the Western Ghats were focussed. This, coupled with its proximity to the sea, makes it susceptible to future floods as well.

Shivani Sarat
Content writer and creator. Author of 'Black Daises', a poetry anthology.

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