Ageing dams or ticking time bombs?

More and more dams are nearing the end of their life spans, creating severe risks. Policymakers, however, are yet to consider their monitoring and decommissioning

Amoolya Rajappa | November 21, 2018


#Kerala floods   #Mullaperiyar dam   #decommission dam   #dam safety   #dams   #Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Project  
Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat (Photo: Wikimedia CC)
Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat (Photo: Wikimedia CC)

As of 2018, India has 209 dams that are a century old or more. Raging debates have also contested how a few of these British-built dams have surpassed their life span by developing leaks and fissures. Case in point, the 123-year-old Mullaperiyar dam (MPD) built on the Periyar river in Kerala. This masonry gravity dam is being operated by the state of Tamil Nadu following a 999-year indenture lease signed between the Maharaja of Travancore and Secretary of State for India for the Periyar Irrigation Works in 1886. Needless to say, Mullaperiyar is one of the longest standing water disputes of independent India, still spewing animosity between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over operational issues. The sudden release of water from MPD during the recent Kerala floods (though dismissed in the Centre for Water Commission – CWC – report, which cited it as gradual) was also a bone of contention that rekindled concerns on the safety of the dam that could jeopardise over three million lives. 
 
Addressing these apprehensions, a high-ranking official at the CWC says, “The safety of MPD has been assessed by an empowered committee appointed by the supreme court before delivering its judgment in May 2014. The empowered committee comprising of retired justices and eminent water resource engineers examined and investigated the MPD in very holistic manner and found it hydrologically, structurally and seismically safe.” 
 
Several requests from Kerala, which has repeatedly argued in favour of limiting the water storage level at MPD to a safety mark (130 feet) have also been struck down. The apex court has also constituted a supervisory committee to supervise restoration of full reservoir level (FRL) up to 142 feet and to allay the apprehension of Kerala about safety of MPD. 
 
“The construction of dams is not a fancy idea of an individual or a government. It is a calibrated diligence for ensuring water security for drinking, agriculture and industrial sector for a particular water-scarce area. It involves huge public investment in terms of finance, time and effort and this investment is justified by various agencies involved in planning, construction and design of dams based on cost-benefit analysis,” reminds the CWC official when questioned about decommissioning of old dams. “It is purely a utility based decision. If utility of a dam is over, it may be decommissioned,” he adds. 
 

Interview

Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, SANDRP

“Credible review of the safety of all large dams is essential”

Central support for funding of 398 sanctioned and partially completed JnNURM projects

Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, SANDRPWhat are the most common reasons of dam failure and how effective do you think is decommissioning (both complete dismantling and partial decommissioning) as a proposed solution to the threat of ageing dams?
There are many types of structural failure, including foundation failure, overtopping, leakage/seepage, among others. Additionally there is operational failure as well.

Credible review of the safety of all large dams periodically is essential to ensure its safety and reduction in possibilities of disaster. Such reviews can then also throw up the possibility that it may be socio-economically more beneficial to dismantle/decommission the dam.

Do you think there is unwillingness among our policymakers when it comes to decommissioning large dams in the interest of the environment? If yes, what do you think are the possible reasons for the same?
It’s not just in the interest of environment, but there seems to be an ideological opposition to any proposal of including decommissioning as part of the policy/programme and practices. The pro-dam ideological mindset that is afraid that decommissioning means end of the era of dam building could be a reason. The water resource establishment of the country is best suited to answer that question.

What are some of the most important lessons we can learn from the US, which has pioneered the dam removal movement?
It’s not just on dam removal and not just from USA, but there is a lot we can learn from other countries in terms of how to deal with our dams, rivers and people more prudently, more democratically, as if people and environment matter. Specifically on dam removal, including in terms of dam management, disaster management, flood management and river management, there is a lot we can learn from USA including in terms of legal, institutional set up and also regulatory practices and governance.

This includes credible periodic assessment of the state of dams, their hazard potential, disaster potential and costs and benefits, how this process is transparent and participatory and how the institutions and governance ensures this. The readiness and ability of the organisations there to learn new aspects and include them in governance is remarkable.

Some of the most evolved economies of the west like the US and Europe have almost ceased to construct large dams. However, India is gearing up to dam many Himalayan rivers. What could be the long-term ecological implications of such projects?

The trouble is we are not even doing credible impact assessments, so we do not even know the full impact of all that we are doing in terms of dams and development and their impact on rivers. But there is no doubt that the impacts will be massive – not only in terms of social, environmental and livelihood impacts, but also in terms of disaster potential increasing many fold and also reducing society’s capacity to deal with the increasing climate change impacts.

The Dam Safety Bill is intended to develop uniform, countrywide procedures for ensuring the safety of dams in India. What is your opinion about the proposed policy?

The latest version of the bill is not yet in public domain, but the earlier (2010) version of the bill did not inspire confidence as it did not have provisions for operational safety of the dam, role for independent people in dam safety committees and mechanisms, provisions for holding the dam operators accountable for mismanagement or neglect or wrong operations, provision for compensation to the victims who suffer due to such wrong operations, among others.

The MPD is a major source serving drinking, irrigation and industrial water to water-stressed western districts of Tamil Nadu such as Madurai, Theni, Sivkasi and Dindigul. That is precisely why Tamil Nadu has also raised objections to the Dam Safety Bill 2018, a clause of which allows the National Dam Safety Authority (NSDA) to inspect dams situated across intra-state rivers, violating its rights over maintenance and operations of some dams in Kerala. 
 
According to figures quoted by the CWC official, there are 68 dams in India which are older than MPD. He further notes how “all these dams are functioning well without facing any safety and ageing related legal hurdles”. Apart from MPD, campaigns have also ensued to decommission the Dumbur dam in Tripura and the Panshet dam in Maharashtra. 
 
Especially in case of Dumbur (where utility of the reservoir is contested since 2007 after a severe drop in water level due to siltation), decommissioning if considered, thoroughly analysed and carried out could free up to 46.34 sq km of prime agrarian zone where tribal landless communities could be productively resettled. However, why is there no urgency to make these utility based decisions? How long will it take before we learn from previous incidents of dam failure? And what are the biggest barriers and challenges hindering decommissioning of century-old dams, which are potential time bombs waiting to inflict their wrath on people living downstream? 
 
Lessons not learnt
According to Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), “It is the mindset of our water resources establishment in general and CWC in particular.” He feels that there is a lack of visionary political leadership that can overcome hurdles. “Our institutions seem unwilling or incapable of learning, they seem bound in their self-imposed ideologies and would rather perpetuate the non-transparent, unaccountable governance rather have any participatory governance. CWC is not only full of contradictory mandates, it is absolutely against any attempt at restructuring.”
 
Urmi Bhattacharjee, a journalist from northeast India, has authored the International Rivers Report titled ‘Dam Planning under the Spotlight: A Guide to Dam Sanctioning in India’. Pointing to the example of the US, which according to an International Rivers Report has removed 1,492 dams from 1912 through 2017, she says, “Unlike India, the USA has understood the value of what they have lost. They are driven because they know the value of eco-friendly living.” A 2010 report by American Rivers also lists the enormous benefits the US has reaped due to partial or complete decommissioning of some of its redundant dams, including revitalised riverine ecosystems and enhanced economic profits for downstream communities. 
 
However, such policy decisions and measures cannot be feasible in a country like India, which as per the CWC official, is not in a condition to tackle two consecutive droughts. “Currently, per capita water availability of our country has been reduced to around 1,300 cubic metres from 5,100 cubic metres in 1951 and thus it has become water-stressed country. The only option for water policy makers is to increase storage by constructing more dams,” says the official.
 
He is also of the opinion that the economy and employment status of countries like the US is not so water dependent like India, which is majorly an agrarian economy. “So in order to sustain huge population and employment, it is necessary to increase water use efficiency and storage,” he substantiates. 
 
However, the notion that constructing dams could be the only option is speculative. It is certainly not the most sustainable and affordable way out when India is slowly picking up and investing on solar and wind energy. Recently, India also won an impressive accolade of being the fourth largest wind power producer in the world. 
 
As far as the administrative and bureaucratic setup of dam safety is concerned, it is the dam owners, who are mostly state government water resource departments (WRDs), public health departments, municipalities, public sector enterprises and private companies who maintain ageing dams as per their resources and priorities. The role of central government (CWC, ministry of water resources, and river development & Ganga rejuvenation) is limited to providing technical assistance and advisory as per request of dam owner. 
 
In order to oversee the safety of all dams in the country, the government of India constituted a standing committee known as National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS), mandated to deliberate on dam safety and evolve unified dam safety procedures. However, as the CWC officer explains, “In the meetings of the NCDS, many state WRDs have raised the issue of non-availability of funds for maintenance.” 
 
Additionally, the track record of implementation of several projects under the Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Project (DRIP), which aimed to improve the safety and operational performance of selected dams in India through rehabilitation, has been rather shoddy. The World Bank Review Report on DRIP dated May 28, 2015, notes the overall progress as being “moderately unsatisfactory”.
 
Launched in 2012 with an initial investment of '2,100 crore, the project was supposed to wind up in six years ending on June 30, 2018. However, a PIB release dated September 19, 2018 announced a revised cost of '3,466 crore being approved to DRIP by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. The committee also gave ex-facto approval for a two-year extension to DRIP which will target 198 dams over seven states. 
 
When enough money is being spent on rehabilitating and maintaining old dams, the question on why plausible options, at least like partial decommissioning some dams, are largely ignored is likely to resurface every now and then. “In fact the thought of decommissioning dams should be considered and planned well in advance, right from the planning stages of dam construction. Overconfidence in these cases may prove costly to our policy akers, most of who perceive dams as permanent structures,” cautions Bhattacharjee. 
 
The 2010 version of the Dam Safety Bill which intended to develop uniform, countrywide procedures for ensuring the safety of dams in India has already being criticised as stressing more on structural issues than operational aspects. Though, the latest draft of the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 has been cleared by the cabinet, it is yet to be placed in parliament and hence cannot be commented upon. Nonetheless, how far will this policy help? Will it provide comprehensive and foolproof solutions to various issues concerning dam safety in India? 
 
Only time can tell. 
 
feedback@governancenow.com
(The article appears in November 30, 2018 edition)

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