Why we need a pol­icy to de­com­mis­sion age­ing dams

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

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Amoolya Ra­jappa

as of 2018, in­dia has 209 dams that are a cen­tury old or more. rag­ing de­bates have also con­tested how a few of these Bri­tish­built 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.

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

There are 68 dams in In­dia which are older than Mul­laperi­yar. But they are func­tion­ing well with­out fac­ing any safety and age­ing re­lated le­gal hur­dles, says a CWC of­fi­cial.

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 self­im­posed 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

A 2010 re­port by Amer­i­can Rivers 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.

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.

Wiki­me­dia cc

Sar­dar Sarovar dam in Gu­jarat

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