Nearly 500 hundred people drowned or were crushed in landslides and more than one million remain in shelters, displaced by the worst flooding in Southern India in a century. The impact on the tea industry is significant. While large tracts were inundated, geologists point to the long-term impact of massive landslides and damage to infrastructure.
Tea prices spiked 22 percent in the days following the heaviest rain but the long-term damage to property with entire gardens uprooted is still unknown.
South India produced 233 million kilos of India’s 1,325 million kilos last year. Kerala has 86,500 acres (35,000 hectares) under tea, producing 56.6 million kilos annually. Karnataka state has 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) under tea, producing 6.6 million kilograms a year. Rainfall there exceeded amounts recorded during Hurricane Harvey that dumped 1,500 milimeters of rain on Houston last August. In South India rainfall exceeded 2,300 milimeters since June with more than 700 milimeters falling in August. Kalpetta recorded 4,824 milimeters. Kerala was drenched by 42 percent more rainwater than the historical average during this year’s monsoons.
Growers there who export large quantities of tea also operate gardens in the Nilgiris and the north of India and are currently fulfilling contacts with tea auctioned in Calcutta or one of the other auction centers. The flooded Cochin Airport is operative and Coimbatore and Coonoor auctions are active. The Coonoor Tea Trade Association (CTTA) reported an 18-week high with 95 percent sold, according to CTTA chairman Nishant Vakharia.
Tea is difficult to deliver due to washed out bridges and mudslides, but the harvest is nearly over and recovery in the highlands is underway. The situation is different for smallholders who experienced 247 landslides and cave-ins in the Wayanad region as well as landslips. Tea must keep its feet dry and while floodwaters receded quickly enough. Wayanad received 2,944 milimeters of rainfall between June 1 and Aug. 29.
The tea should be wary of two developments, water management and research showing increase impact on the region’s geomorphology (erosion and deposition of soil).
Lapses in water management are blamed for part of the disaster in a region with hundreds of lakes fed by 44 rivers. India’s government assigns points for effective water management practices. Kerala scored 42, well below neighboring Gujarat (79), Madhya Pradesh (69) and Andhra Pradesh to the south which scored 68.
Himanshu Thakkar, a water expert at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told the BBC that “This could have been avoided if the dam operators had started releasing water in advance rather than waiting for dams to be filled up, when they have no alternative but to release water.”
“Much of that water would normally be slowed down by trees or other natural obstacles. Yet over the past 40 years Kerala has lost nearly half its forest cover, an area of 9,000 square kilometeres—just under the size of greater London—while the state’s urban areas keep growing. This means that less rainfall is being intercepted, and more water is rapidly running into overflowing streams and rivers,” according to Daniel Parsons, professor of process sedimentology and associate dean for research (science and engineering) at the University of Hull, which ran this article from The Conversation, published by the Academic Journalism Society.
Writing in The Conversation Parsons noted that “Under climate change the probability of such extreme rainfall is also predicted to grow by up to six fold towards the end of the century. The rivers and drainage systems of Kerala have been unable to cope with such large volumes of water and this has resulted in flash flooding.”
The adage “one man’s rain is another’s rainbow” proved true for tea grown at the highest altitudes. G Udayakumar, director, Avataa Beverages, told The Hindu Business Line, “We anticipate an increase of 25 percent in production this calendar over 2017 due to the recent rains.”