India’s flawed approach to dam operations contributes to floods: Himanshu Thakkar

Courtesy Rainer Hoerig/ Himanshu Thakkar
02 September, 2019

This year’s monsoon rains caused landslides and flooding that reportedly resulted in the death of over 1,300 people, and displaced over one million people across 14 states, including Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Indian Meteorological Department has cited incessant and above-normal rainfall in a short span of time in early August as the reason for the scale of the disaster. Kerala witnessed similar devastation last year, when over five hundred people died in the deluge that swept the state.

Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People—an informal network of organisations and individuals working in the water sector—spoke to Nileena MS, a reporting fellow with The Caravan, about the shortcomings of India’s approach to disaster management. Thakkar argued that effective management of dams could bring down the damage caused by floods during monsoon. He noted that the circumstances leading up to the flooding in the last two years, and the response to it, clearly show that “there is culpability of dam operators in completely mismanaging the dams and contributing to the flood disaster.”

Nileena MS: In your analysis of the floods that swept Kerala in August last year, you said that prudent operation of dams could have alleviated the magnitude of the disaster. What has been the main reason for the floods in the state this year?
Himanshu Thakkar: This time, most of the deaths occurred in relatively higher-altitude areas. Most of them were related to land-use change, quarrying, mining et cetera. The dams, as such, have not created problems so far. If you want to see whether the lessons of last year were reflected, [look at] disaster management in general. There is little bit of change here and there, but on the whole there isn’t any big change.

For example, one of the things that you immediately require if you want to avoid disaster, you need to know the carrying capacity of the river downstream for each of the dams. So you know that if you release more water than [the carrying capacity], which includes the release rainfall, then you will be creating flood. But they have not done that assessment. There are other similar issues, and not all things that are required have been done.

NMS: The floods in the last two years have also been attributed, in large part, to torrential rains and cloudbursts. How should the dam-operation system respond to such a situation?
HT: Dam operations should consider many factors. It has to take into account the river flow—both upstream and downstream, and particularly the downstream river flow in comparison with the carrying capacity of the river. The second is the status of dams in the river basin—both upstream and downstream. The third thing is the rainfall that has already happened and that is going to enter the river. There is a gap between [the time of ] rainfall and the time the water is going to enter the river. The fourth is the rain forecast. Now, we are fortunate to have a reasonably accurate short-term forecast from the Indian Meteorological Department. At least, four days rain forecast is generally accurate. That forecast has to be taken into account.

Then, this has to be coordinated with other dam operators across the river basin, across the states and between states. There have to be coordinating agencies to do this. All these steps have to be followed, if you want to reduce the disaster caused by floods. We need to keep in mind that every dam can help moderate flood in the downstream area. It cannot completely control or flood-proof the area. It is also true that every dam is a potential source of disaster in the downstream areas if it is not operated properly. It is like a two-edged sword.

NMS: The IMD data indicates that this year’s floods were caused by above-average rainfall in a short span of time, and not much could be done to avoid the resulting disaster. But according to you, the rain forecast is sufficient warning to prepare for the floods?
HT: Absolutely. For instance, in the case of this year’s Maharashtra floods, the water started crossing the Highest Flood Level around 5 or 6 August. [The HFL refers to the highest water level ever recorded.] Now, if we look at the dam situation—the amount of water flowing on both sides [of the dam] and the water released from the dam—we can see that the water released from dams also coincided with the river crossing HFL. One thing is very clear, if the dams had not released that water, then the HFL may not have been crossed, and the dams would not have added to the disaster in the downstream area.

Why did the dams start releasing water from 5 August? Because the dams were full. The dam operators love to say there is no alternative. But the question is: why were the dams were full? On 5 August, the monsoon is less than half-way through, and the dams were not supposed to be full. If you look at the outflow from the dams, they started releasing water only when the dams were full. That clearly shows that the dam operation has been completely mismanaged. The first problem is that the dams should not have been full at all, and they bungled up in filling the dam.

The second problem was that even if they had started releasing water on 1 August, then they could have helped to reduce the flood disaster. If we look at the IMD figures, the high rainfall started on 1 August. If the dam operators had started releasing from 1 August, then by 5–6 August, they would have created some space in the dam, so that they did not have to release water when the downstream area was flooded.

The third problem is that the high rainfall on 1 August was already predicted by the IMD five days earlier. Actually, they should have started releasing water from 25–26 July. If they had done this, then they would have 100 percent not contributed anything to the flood disaster because there would have been enough space in the dam during the high flood event. If we look at the dam filling schedule, we could see that by 24–25 July, the dams were 50 percent full. This is equally true for the dams in Almatti, Ghataprabha, and Malaprabha dams in Karnataka. It was criminal. Almatti dam was 99.5 percent full on 28 July itself. That is even before one month of rainfall. How can you do that with the biggest dam in the Krishna basin? All this clearly shows that there is culpability of dam operators in completely mismanaging the dams and contributing to the flood disaster.

NMS: Yet, in September last year, the Central Water Commission, the Indian government’s nodal agency in the water sector, released a report on the 2018 Kerala floods, which stated that there was no lapse by the state’s dam operators.
HT: The Central Water Commission report actually defended the dam operation. This is typical of the CWC. The CWC as an agency stands up immediately for the dam operators. Whenever we raise this issue, they say it is all because of heavy rainfall. The problem is that high rainfall is going to happen, but you have to look at the dam operation also. If you operate the dam in an alternative way, in Kerala’s case, [the devastation caused by the 2018 floods] could have reduced.

The CWC, in fact, is a responsible party. It is India’s only flood forecast agency. But if you look at their forecasting, it is so pathetic. The CWC is the only agency that monitors dam operations, provides directions to the dam authorities and approves the rule curve for every dam.

Every dam is supposed to have a rule curve [to ensure that] it is filled in a certain away, so that it is only full closer to the end of the monsoon, and not earlier. This rule curve is approved by the CWC, and once approved, it remains cast in stone. But it needs to be revised every three to five years because the conditions of the dams—such as the storage capacity, carrying capacity of the dam, carrying capacity of the downstream river—change and the rainfall patterns are also changing. But nobody is reviewing this. Rule curves are not in the public domain. For every dam, the rule curve has to be in public domain along with the daily water level, storage level, inflow and outflow from the dams. Then anyone can check whether rule curve has been followed and whether rational decision about inflow and outflow has been taken or not.

NMS: Though the CWC absolved the dam authorities of responsibility, it also emphasised the importance of following the rule curve. Why do we see this contradiction in the CWC’s approach to dam management during floods?
HT: Unfortunately, the CWC works like a lobby for dams. They defend dam operators because it is ideologically important for them. But it needs to show itself as a technically competent body. So, it makes such statements that the rule curve should be followed. The question is: did you check whether the rule curve is followed or not? If you are saying rule curve need to be followed, then why didn’t check if it was followed. They didn’t check or analyse or write about it. This is like after committing murder, you are saying, “No, murder should not be committed.” There is no consistency in your statements and behaviour.

NMS: Why is there such mismanagement in dam operations?
HT: Basically, the problem is the dam operators want to fill up the dams as soon as possible. Then they think they can just release whatever water comes in. The problem is you are then creating a potential disaster in the downstream area. They forget that every dam is a potential source of disaster.

The second thing is that they are never held responsible when a wrong operation creates a disaster. Every dam operator in India knows they will never be held responsible, even if they kill people. And this has happened. For example, the Indira Sagar dam [in Madhya Pradesh] across the Narmada suddenly released water in April 2005. There was a mela happening [in the] downstream area, and seventy people were washed away from Dharaji, in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh. But nobody was held accountable. During the enquiry, the dam authorities said that they had sent a postcard to the district magistrate saying that they would be releasing water. The magistrate said he never got the postcard. So, they got away with it. Dam authorities are not bothered and the CWC would stand by them.

NMS: Does the proposed Dam Safety Bill address these issues?
HT: The [new] Dam Safety Act is very much required. The earlier version of the Dam Safety Act was only talking about structural safety and not operational safety. We have been saying that this was not enough. Every dam can create disaster in the downstream area if it is not operated properly. The current draft bill talks a little bit about operational safety, but it is far from adequate.

The second problem with the DSA is that it is drafted by a closed-door club of government engineering experts who think that the [knowledge of operating a dam] lies only with the government officials. There are no independent people in it, we need independent oversight.

The third thing is that CWC is in charge of everything there. It has a very poor track record. More importantly, there is the basic issue of conflict of interest. The CWC is the organisation that sanctions all the dams, sanctions all the designs of the dams—construction, monitoring, weather forecasting, hydrological data—and is in charge of flood-safety and dam-safety issues. Now, is such an organisation going to say that their sanction of dam-safety guidelines were wrong if a disaster occurs? They won’t, because then they will be held guilty.

The fourth major problem is that it is essentially a public-interest act. Dams are public property and it is the people at large who are at risk if the structural or operational safety is in question. Everything about the dam safety—the minutes, the agenda, the discussions—everything should be in the public domain. People whose lives are at stake have no role at all. These are the problems in the DSA. It is not going to change much from the situation now.

NMS: Do we have any examples of good practices in dam management in India?
HT: We don’t have any comprehensive good examples. But there are a few good practices. For example, Karnataka has a Disaster Management Monitoring Centre, which provides information such as the level, storage, inflow and outflow of dam on around twelve dams on a daily basis. It is a good example of transparency. Similarly, the Narmada Control Authority also gives daily figures on major dams in the Narmada valley. There are some other states, like Orissa and Maharashtra, which also provide this kind of information.

After the 2005 floods in the Krishna basin—where, again, the dam authorities were responsible—the Maharashtra government had set up a committee to study it. [In August 2005, Maharashtra witnessed severe flooding in the basin of the Koyna and Krishna rivers.] The committee had given some recommendations, but the report is not in the public domain yet. The government issued a recommendation in 2011 that they accept most of the recommendations of the office. But nothing really happens in the implementation stage, unfortunately.

This year, the Bhakra Dam authority has been very careful. [The Bhakra Dam is situated on the Sutlej river in the Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh.] They started releasing water before the dam was full. The dam’s capacity is 1,685 feet, and they started releasing water when the level reached 1,674 feet itself. They notified that they’ll be releasing around 25,000 cubic litres of water, [and that they will] monitor the downstream river level and reduce the flow as soon as the inflow to the dam reduces or the downstream water level goes up. They were conscious of the fact that they could create a disaster in the downstream area. This is a good practice.

There are some instances of responsible behaviour like this, but we don’t see a comprehensive system in place which will ensure complete transparency, responsibility and accountability in any state.

NMS: As the flood-affected states are slowly recovering from the havoc caused by the floods, what are the immediate measures to be taken by the authorities? What should the state and central governments focus on in the aftermath of such large-scale disasters?
HT: Immediately, the states need to set up a public and independent enquiry, particularly in the case of dams in the Krishna basin in Karnataka and Maharashtra. The enquiry should look into how the dams were operated, how they contributed to the disaster and who were responsible for it, including specific dam operators, water resources department officials and the CWC. This is very important.

The second thing that needs to be done is that the government of India and the CWC should come out with comprehensive and clearly designed dam-operational do’s and don’ts. They should make sure that for every dam in the country, the rule curve should be in the public domain, and it should be updated every three–five years. During monsoon, information about the dams should be in the public domain every day, including the people responsible for the dam operation, storage level, inflow and outflow, and the coordinating agency at the state level and between the states.

The dam operation needs to change significantly. For instance, look at the case of big dams in the Krishna basin’s downstream area—Nagarjuna Sagar and Srisailam. These dams rarely get filled because Maharashtra will release water only after its dams, including the Koyna in the Krishna basin and the Ujjani in the Bhima basin—which is part of the Krishna basin—are full. Karnataka will release water only after dams in the Upper Krishna are full. [The Upper Krishna Project is an irrigation project in Karnataka that comprises two dams and a network of canals on the Krishna River.] That should not be the case. Water should be released from the beginning of monsoon itself, so that all the dams are simultaneously filled up across the state.

Suppose, there is rainfall deficit in Telangana and Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, but, the dams are more than halfway through in Maharashtra and Karnataka. Then that water could be put into use for agriculture in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Sitting in Maharashtra and Karnataka, it is not being useful. If it is available, it will be useful for everyone. Then, if those dams are full and during monsoon they are releasing water suddenly, it will reach Telangana and Andhra Pradesh [only] when the crop season is over. This needs to be done in all states.

This interview has been edited and condensed.