[Published in Madras Courier, September 6, 2018]

As a child, I dreamt of becoming a birdwatcher. The earliest of my primary schools, where I studied for four years till the age of eight, stood by the banks of river Pamba in Malakkara, southern Kerala. The fish in the river and the earthworms in the moisture rich lands nearby, made it an inviting place for the birds. To my imagination, some of them became “tourists” from distant lands. I stared past the school gate, to spot birds — many of them with their outlandish head gears and split tail ends — who ambled and necked, in the envelope of calm that the river brought with it. Nowadays, when I think of birds, even these American birds outside my apartment’s window, my mind returns to that unostentatious school and the quiet of the river, both of which were our common playgrounds. Two weeks ago, when a once-in a -century flood hit Kerala, the river reduced my classrooms and the libraries of my childhood to a mound of clay and silt. This flood now bookmarks an event where an island of my memory has forever submerged.

The Kerala floods of August 2018 has been compared to the floods that Kerala witnessed in 1924, also called the ‘The Great Flood of 99’ (it occurred in the year 1099 of the Malayalam calendar). Back then, the estimated death toll was around 1,000. Seeing the scale of destruction in Kerala’s Malabar regions, Mahatma Gandhi mobilized a sum of Rs.6000 to support the relief efforts. Strikingly, a temple in Kerala still stands as an archaeological witness to the floods. The Parthasarathy temple in Puthiyedam, about 40 kilometers from Kochi, has a stone inscription which indicates the watermark of the flood of 99. Except for anecdotal information here and there which briefly assuage one’s curiosity, official records are yet to be fruitfully mined into a persuasive narrative to understand how the flood of 1924 was experienced.

Contrary to then, today, we have tools to digitize the memory of a flood in different ways and forms. During this recent August 2018 floods, social media was used extensively to support the rescue and relief efforts by different groups — the State government, volunteer networks, NGOs and other actors. Soon, the pictures and words of trauma, triumph and collective activism overwhelmed various social media channels — men and women in neck-deep water calling out for help, a drowning pet dog, a pregnant woman being airlifted to a safe delivery, fishermen and their army of boats rushing to rescue sites, volunteer trucks loaded with essential supplies, celebrities and the public sharing rooms together in relief camps and politicians keeping their calm amidst the nature’s fury. Each of these parallel running stories speak of those not-so-conscious attempts to concretize the memory and experience of this flood, in both online and offline terms. Aided by technology, the memory of a local flood event was thus globalized for current and future consumption by media outlets in different parts of the world.

In what seemed like a novel initiative, a group of researchers in a UK-based university embarked on an academic journey to explore the association between floods and memories. In November 2010, the Centre for the Study of Floods and Communities at the University of Gloucestershire, along with The Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) researched and compared three different communities affected by the disastrous floods of July 2007 around the River Severn, which rises in the middle of Wales in England and flows into the Atlantic Ocean. They investigated the concept of “Sustainable Flood Memory.” This was an effort to understand how exposure to events of past flooding can “psychologically and practically” better equip local communities to face similar new flood events. Their goal was to study how this could lead to long-term resilience among communities. Through in-depth semi-structured interviews with 65 residents (in both urban and rural settings), the researchers examined memories at three levels — the individual (micro-memory), household/community (meso-memory) and social/historical/political (macro-memory).

The insights from the study showed different means by which the community “memorialized” the flood of 2007 — instances of trauma and triumph during the flood (“emotional highs and lows”), epigraphic marking of water levels in public settings, flood albums, photo-sharing on social media and other forms of story-telling. To address the reputational damage to the economy from the floods (tourism, local house values etc), the narratives also showed how the community members hid memories to promote the imageries of ‘back to business-as-usual.’ The greatest challenge that the UK-based researchers cited was how these memories and lay knowledge could be converted to “actionable knowledge” and “coping strategies” which would come handy for communities, when struck by future flood events. The key to this they argue is to “archive and share” these memories.

A natural disaster like the Kerala floods is a levelling force in many ways. At the same time, people get affected by floods differently, depending on their geographic setting (urban or rural) and social determinants like class, gender, and caste. For instance, the floods brought to light the plight of marginalized communities living in Kakkathuruthu (Crow Island), an islet in Alappuzha ensconced within the Vembanad lake. Those families who came from landless, lower caste and poor socio-economic backgrounds had chosen to build their houses within the “puram chira”, the peripheral zone of the island where previous governments had built bunds (an embankment to control floods). Meanwhile, the middle class and the rich had built their homes inside the island’s mainland. During the times of high tides and an exceptional event like the floods, these poor and landless were the groups who were the most affected. Similarly, we hear of anecdotal accounts that caste, class and gender influence the access to goods and services being distributed at various relief camps.

To build a public repository of memories, we ought to think about documenting experiences of people across different strata of society. Such first-hand oral narratives might be able to provide crucial insights for policy makers, social scientists and disaster management experts in designing effective flood management practices in the future. To this end, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030) adopted by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction is a useful guideline. It highlights the importance of “traditional, indigenous and local knowledge and practices” in an effort to “complement scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessment.” The recommendations of the ‘Sustainable Flood Memory’ team in UK also bears weight here in terms of coming up with systematic ways to document flood memories through artwork, social media, oral recordings, videos, photographs, flood groups, news reports and water festivals. In this light, the Kerala floods offer a great opportunity for a knowledge building exercise, premised on archiving and sharing of individual and collective memories.

Development practitioner & writer | Former policy consultant & researcher with United Nations | I work in migration, gender policy & technology for development.

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