[op-ed snap] Kerala floods highlight India’s poor dam management

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Mains Paper 3: Disaster Management | Disaster & disaster management

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Importance of dams in averting floods & need for better usage strategy of dams in India


Context

Dam management in India

  1. In India’s quest to control water, dams have always loomed large
  2. Under relentless downpours, poor dam management may have aggravated the floods, raising questions about the role of dams in Kerala and other states

Motive behind the construction of dams

  1. Dams can manage rivers, storing their water, adjusting flows and redirecting channels
  2. India is home to more than 5,000 large dams (over 15 meters high), the third largest number in the world, behind the US and China
  3. Only a handful of these dams (28) are built explicitly for flood control

What happened in Kerela?

  1. Kerala is home to 53 large dams with a collective capacity of nearly 7 trillion litres
  2. The Idukki and Idamalayar dams (the two biggest) together have stored 21.3% of the Periyar’s (Kerala’s longest river) annual flow, greatly limiting the flood’s damage
  3. As rain poured and rivers overflowed, these dams should have served as a bulwark
  4. For dams to truly tame floods, dam reservoirs need to be relatively empty before the onset of rains but this was not the case in Kerala
  5. The Idukki dam was already near full capacity by July-end even as rains were relatively weak (below normal levels) during that period
  6. When the downpours arrived in August, the near full-capacity Idukki was forced to release water into already flooded areas

Lack of vision in dam operations

  1. A lack of foresight is common in India’s dam management and has worsened floods across the country
  2. Several of India’s floods, such as Bihar in 2016 and Surat in 2006, were exacerbated by poor dam management
  3. In the 2015 Chennai floods, which claimed 295 lives, violation of dam safety norms was a critical factor, a CAG report found
  4. More than half of Kerala’s dams (57%) are hydroelectric projects operated by the Kerala State Electricity Board; the rest are operated by the irrigation department
  5. For both entities, the amount of water to store is motivated by the demand for electricity and irrigation, rather than flood control measures

A big issue: Inter-state dam management

  1. Like many dams in India, the Mullaperiyar is located in one state (Kerala) but operated by another (Tamil Nadu)
  2. Both state governments have been in constant conflict over the dam’s water level
  3. In the current crisis, the Supreme Court had to intervene

Warning Ignored

  1. The 2011 Western Ghats ecology expert panel (the Madhav Gadgil Committee report) had labelled areas of the state as extremely ecologically-sensitive where no developmental activities should take place
  2. According to Gadgil, unchecked quarrying and construction in these areas caused these floods
  3. Now, data from the state’s disaster management control room shows that flood casualties and injuries are widespread, but there is some concentration in the few ecologically sensitive areas
  4. The Gadgil report was sceptical about dams, warning against their construction in the Western Ghats
  5. But most of Gadgil’s recommendations were rejected as too impractical, highlighting the tension between dams and development

Other issues

  1. Other man-made issues, such as urban development and quarrying have also been a factor in Kerela floods
  2. In Kerala, much of which sits on the Western Ghats, development activity can increase the chances of landslides—the biggest source of fatalities in floods
Disasters and Disaster Management – Sendai Framework, Floods, Cyclones, etc.
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