Lessons I learnt from the Kerala flood tragedy

Photo from NDTV.com

2018 is an unforgettable year for me. My native state of Kerala, in the southern part of India, better known as “Gods own country”, faced one of the largest episodes of flooding and devastation owing to it. This flood, unprecedented in recent history saw 300+ deaths, 70,000 homes destroyed and estimated 2.8 billion dollars in economic losses. While my home was spared the effects of the flood, many of my relatives and friends had to undergo grueling days having to be rescued, staying in relief camps and finally seeing their lives’ investment get destroyed overnight.

As the rains recede and the state limps back to normalcy, I feel it is time to do an introspection into what caused the floods and what lessons can we learn from it that we can take forward and prevent similar incidents happening in the future.

Through my analysis of the situation, reading and watching the coverage on the floods, talking to some of the affected people, I have crystallized on 5 key lessons that I will take forward both in my personal and professional life.

  1. Hope for the best but be prepared for the worst — We are always taught to be optimistic in life. It is a great trait to have and helps one succeed against tremendous odds. However what the Kerala floods taught me if anything, is that it is great to be optimistic, but at the same time one has to prepare for the worst. Flooding in Kerala is not an isolated phenomenon. History recorded that there was a flood in 1924 almost a century ago. In recent times, the state faced partial flooding during Tsunami in 2004. In 2015, Chennai, a major city in the neighboring state faced an episode of massive flooding as well. However despite all these indicators, the state was least prepared for this episode of flooding and was caught unawares. There was limited strategy on how to deal with this scale of flooding, how to organize and coordinate relief efforts and how to mobilize disaster relief force locally. There are enough examples of disaster relief efforts well executed in other crisis and this too was no different.
  2. Be careful of assumptions — A key problem that hindered proper handling of the crisis and subsequent relief efforts was the assumption that the incessant rains ( going on for 3 months) would stop, the water levels will not rise beyond a point and so on. The water from dams was let out only when they endangered the dam, rather than focusing on releasing the same little by little and not letting it build up. Similarly during relief operations, several people desisted from moving out of their homes because they felt that the water levels will not rise beyond a point. Later on the water level rose to such an extend that people had to be airlifted or ferried from their upper floor balconies or terraces. The problem with making unwarranted assumptions is not limited to disaster relief alone but also in business and other sectors as well, as we have witnessed with the case of Blockbuster, Toys R Us, Nokia and others.
  3. Karma sometimes come back with added interest — Kerala is surrounded by the Western Ghats ( a series of mountains ) that is responsible for the monsoon rains that the state receives. For past few decades Western Ghats has been subject to constant quarrying, clearing of forests in favor of getting construction material, building resorts and so on. As a result of these activities, there was nothing to prevent the soil erosion that occurred during the heavy rainfall, resulting in landslides. Whatever we as humans did to improve our wealth through reckless exploitation of natural resources, we now have to start from scratch. An example that comes to my mind from the corporate world is the collapse of 168 year old Lehman Brothers, whose greed for quick profits made them exploit the mortgage market recklessly.
  4. Embrace differences, not reject them — One very interesting aspect I observed in the current Kerala flood relief operations was the involvement of people from all walks of life, especially the fishermen community in rescue missions. These men went to save many lives stranded due to floods in far flung areas where no one else was able to go. Their expertise in water, their ability to understand currents and tides, helped tremendously in the relief effort. This is significant as in the normal course of life many look down upon the community owing to the differences in their way of life. Yet when it mattered, these were the people who rose to the occasion heroically and proved to be critical. This flood has taught that every one matters and we need to keep an open mind and not reject someone who is different from us. Who knows when they will become valuable to us.
  5. Crisis beckons humanity to unite — If there is one inspirational lesson that Kerala floods has taught me, it is that the entire population came together to combat the flood crisis. People irrespective of religion, sex, caste, creed came together, buried their differences and worked to provide the much needed aid. This is special, as once upon a time the great sage Swami Vivekananda had remarked that “Kerala is a mental asylum” looking at the way people differentiate each other on the basis of religion, caste and other parameters. This is not an isolated phenomenon but was seen during the Mumbai and Chennai floods as well. However the extend of cooperation extending an entire state was an eye opener. What it tells me is that when the right causes unfold, people come together irrespective of their differences and work together without selfish interests. There is hope still for combating climate change. All we now need are great leaders to lead the way and develop the urgency.

In a nutshell, while I wish to never again having to encounter a natural disaster of this magnitude, I hope people take lessons out of the calamity and guide their future action, rather than losing these valuable lessons in the sands of history.

  • All views are strictly personal.