Dark Clouds, Silver Lining: Kerala Floods, Gulf Responses, and More Lessons

By Mihir Bhatt | Founder and Director - All India Disaster Mitigation Institute | Oct 9, 2018
Dark Clouds, Silver Lining: Kerala Floods, Gulf Responses, and More Lessons
Donation Drive for Kerala | Mumbai, August 25, 2018

Over the past 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This essay series explores measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...


The unprecedented flooding witnessed in the Indian state of Kerala in August 2018 has been heart wrenching. Climate experts and meteorologists have dubbed it the worst flooding observed in the state in over a century and have attributed it to unusually high monsoons.[1] Several attribution studies are ongoing. According to the Government of India’s Home Ministry’s National Emergency Response Centre (NERC), this catastrophe of epic proportions has left 443 dead displaced 223,139 people in over 150 relief camps set out across the state.[2]

As the floodwaters recede in Kerala, leaving behind lost lives and damaged houses and wiped out livelihoods, it is important to imbibe the lessons that this disaster has offered for effective relief and sustainable reconstruction.

Dark Clouds

Within the first 24 hours of the torrential downpour, Kerala state was battered by 310 mm (12 inches) of rain.[3] By mid-evening on August 8, the state’s dams had filled to capacity. All of Kerala’s 14 districts were placed on red alert, while the floodgates of 35 of the state’s 54 dams were ordered open. The latter measures, in turn, led to widespread flooding in the low-lying areas.[4]

According to the Kerala government, one-sixth of the total population of Kerala has been directly affected by the floods and related incidents.[5] Among the floods’ many thousands of victims—men, women, and children—the hardships faced by migrant laborers and the links between their plight and Kerala’s future wellbeing require more attention than they have thus far received. An estimated four million migrant laborers from other states work in nearly all sectors of Kerala’s economy.[6] Reports are also emerging that these migrant laborers in Kerala are returning home because the floods have shattered their lives and snatched away their livelihoods and assets.

According to Benoy Peter, executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (Perumbavoor), most migrant workers’ employers could have taken adequate care of them. In fact, some even refused to lend their plywood factories to provide shelter to those rescued.[7] Peter stated that, except for the Odisha state government, which dispatched a team to evacuate those stranded by the flooding, migrant workers’ home state authorities had likewise yet to come to their aid. Responses by state governments other than that of Odisha were limited to lodging enquiries with their Kerala counterparts and appealing to the Railways to run special trains. All India Disaster Mitigation Institute’s camp-to-home relief work in villages of Thrissur shows that the district administration is doing its best to not leave anyone behind.

The fact that many migrant laborers have returned to their places of origin is also likely to have an adverse impact on Kerala. The loss of this labor force with skills and credentials will almost surely impede the state’s ability to recover from the disaster, as many native Keralites are themselves migrant workers employed in the Gulf countries.

Silver Lining

As stories of the human distress, kindness, bravery, and charity emerge from this disaster, we must imbibe the many lessons it has to teach us. While, understandably, the electronic and print media are replete with images of distress and havoc, the silver lining to these dark clouds has been the resilience of the people of Kerala and the outpouring of sympathy support from throughout the country.[8] Together, India’s states and union territories have pledged about Rs. 211 crores ($293.06 million) in relief compensation to help Kerala deal with this disaster. The government of India has promised the immediate release of Rs600 crore ($85.8 million) in response to the state’s request for assistance.[9]

The Kerala floods case conveys a second lesson, namely the importance of incorporating into disaster response strategies plans for addressing the distinctive needs and vulnerabilities of migrant laborers. Indeed, migrant laborers are typically exposed to multiple health and economic risks, and possess little or few coping mechanisms. It is important for the administration and institutional structures of any state to adequately plan for the rescue and welfare of its migrant worker population during a catastrophe.

Third, as the responses to the Kerala floods reveal, international cooperation is vital to providing effective relief. The strong bond between Kerala and the Gulf countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, has served as the basis for such cooperation. According to the Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) report, of the estimated 36 lakh migrant workers originating from Kerala, the large majority live in the Gulf region. Half of the Keralites working in the Gulf live in just two countries — the UAE (41.5 percent) and Qatar (8.5 percent). The importance of these transnational labour links to Kerala’s economy, and to the Indian economy as a whole, is reflected in the large sums remitted annually which, according the World Bank, amount to nearly 3% of the country’s GDP.[10]

The long-standing connections between Keralites and the Gulf countries are clearly discernible in the latter’s pledges of assistance. UAE and Qatar are encouraging its citizens to make donations and have provided help in cash and kind since the floods struck. Indian businesses based in UAE have collected $2.7 million as part of the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation for Kerala flood victims.[11] Similarly, Qatar has offered a relief package of $5 million. The current chief minister of Kerala has also hinted that the UAE had offered an even larger relief package.[12] The Sultanate of Oman stepped forward with delivery of relief material as well.[13]

Indian media outlets hailed the pledges of help from Gulf countries.[14] However, such gestures of generosity have sparked a fractious debate in India whether to accept offers of financial assistance for reconstruction, as opposed to relief supplies.[15] Nevertheless, the readiness of UAE, Qatar, Oman (and others) to help Keralites in their time of need offers an important lesson in humanitarianism. Specifically with respect to the Gulf Arab states and their citizens, as well as Indian expatriates residing in the region, this instance demonstrates how people-to-people links and long-term economic association can be leveraged to provide dignified relief assistance to a disaster-ravaged community.


In the aftermath of massive disasters, such as has recently occurred in Kerala as the result of torrential monsoon rains and flooding, it is possible, and indeed necessary to look for lessons that could mitigate the adverse impact of future calamities. This article has highlighted a few of them. It has also brought to light the fact that long-standing people-to-people connections, such as those that exist between Keralites and the Gulf countries, can serve as the basis for providing solace and support in exigent circumstances. In fact, given a chance, members of local communities can change their lives from that of aid recipients to agents of prosperity.

[1] See for example, Chris Baynes, “Worst floods in nearly a century kill 44 in India’s Kerala state amid torrential monsoon rains,” The Independent, August 15, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/india-worst-floods-floodin....

[2] Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Disaster Management Division, National Emergency Response Centre (NERC), “Situation report on Heavy Rain fall in Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh,” August 26, 2018, https://mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/Situationreport26_27082018.pdf.

[3] Amit Badhuri, “Kerala battles the worst flood since 1924,” India Water Portal, August 25, 2018, http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/kerala-battles-worst-flood-1924.

[4] Vishnu Padmanabhan, “Kerala floods highlight India’s poor dam management,” Livemint, August 21, 2018, https://www.livemint.com/Politics/oSkzuw37GHm9u0UvbD0C5H/Kerala-floods-highlight-Indias-poor-dam-management.html; and

Anonna Dutt, “Early release of dam water could have reduced Kerala flood damages, say experts,” Hindustan Times, August 21, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/early-release-of-dam-water-cou....

[5] Krishnadas Rajagopal, “The worst floods in a century, Kerala tells SC,” The Hindu, August 24, 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/the-worst-floods-in-a-....

[6] T.K. Devasia, “Kerala, After the Flood: Displaced migrant workers heading home will adversely affect rehabilitation efforts,” FirstPost, August 21, 2018, https://www.firstpost.com/india/kerala-after-the-flood-displaced-migrant-workers-heading-home-will-adversely-affect-rehabilitation-efforts-in-the-state-5013551.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Kerala floods donation: This is how much the state has received so far,” The Indian Express, August 22, 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kerala-floods-heres-all-those-wh....

[9] “Kerala floods: Will hold a discussion with Centre on UAE relief aid issue if need arises, says CM Vijayan,” The Indian Express, September 4, 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kerala-floods-rains-rescue-bakrid-eid-relief-assistance-pinarayi-vijayan-5318473/.

[10] Prabhash K. Dutta, “Beyond floods: How much money Kerala receives from UAE,” India Today, August 24, 2018, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/kerala-uae-remittances-1322340-2018-08-24.

[11] Neil Halligan, “UAE-based Indian businessmen donate $2.7m for Kerala flood victims,” Arabian Business, August 19, 2018, https://www.arabianbusiness.com/south-asia/402952-uae-based-indian-busin....

[12] Sam Bridge, “UAE gov’t offers $100m in financial aid to rebuild Kerala,” Arabian Business, August 21, 2018, https://www.arabianbusiness.com/politics-economics/403044-uae-govt-offer....

[13] Abnanya Bhatnagar, “Gulf Unites To Extend Support As Situation Worsens In Flood Hit Kerala,” News World India, August 18, 2018, https://www.newsworldindia.in/uncategorized/gulf-unites-to-extend-suppor....

[14] “Indian Media Hails UAE Support to Kerala Flood Victims, IPS, August 20, 2018, http://ipsnews.net/wam/en/2018/08/20/indian-media-hails-uae-support-for-....

[15] See for example, Ramananda Sengupta, “Kerala flood relief: Policy wonks question Centre’s line on foreign aid,” The New Indian Express, August 24, 2018, http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2018/aug/24/kerala-flood-relief-p....