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

02 September 2019
Courtesy Rainer Hoerig/ Himanshu Thakkar
Courtesy Rainer Hoerig/ Himanshu Thakkar

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.

Nileena MS is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. 

Keywords: Flood Disaster Management dams Kerala floods Maharashtra Karnataka
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