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