On 23 August a Himachal Pradesh-based citizen journalism website Him Vani reported that the whole of Spiti valley had plunged into darkness following the collapse of a dam at the Rangtang Hydropower project. The dam had been rebuilt just three years ago, after an earlier round of being washed away. This news marked the fourth such incident this monsoon, and follows closely on the heels of similar news reported by the Deccan Herald.

On the evening of 14 August, the ill-maintained 21-metre-high Chigali dam located near Hubli city in Mundgod taluk in Uttara Kannada district was breached, inundating 500 acres of paddy. This 29-year-old dam on the Bedthi river was filled up to its brim at the time when the dam wall gave way, and over 8 million cubic metres (MCM) of water gushed out. A minor crack had already appeared in the dam, the channel through which excess water should flow was also not working properly. Three years ago, a gate of this dam was stolen and another was damaged as per news reported in The Hindu in April 2006.

Close on the heels of Chigalli reservoir breach, a local web site Sahil Online reported on 17 August that three other reservoirs of Mundgod taluk were witnessing water leakage. It said, "The left and right and canal gates of Ramapur reservoir were damaged, while three gates of Nyasaragi reservoir also witnessed cracks. The bunds have witnessed cracks at Sanavanni reservoir. If water gushes out of those reservoirs, thousands of acres of agricultural lands would be inundated, causing heavy loss to farmers. Thus, officials of the Minor Irrigation Department have already been instructed by tehsildar R G Nadager to repair the bunds and gates of the reservoirs immediately."

This season's incidents are much like the ones we have become accustomed to from the last few years.

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On the afternoon of 8 August, a release from United News of India broke the news about a breach in the dam on the river Tapi near Chandora village, 70 km from Betul in Madhya Pradesh. The dam is on the list of 168 distressed dams in the state that are in need of repairs and rehabilitation. Following the breach, a high alert was sounded in a hundred villages downstream, and six villages were evacuated after a 100-metre portion of this 2043-metre-long earthen dam caved in. The dam was filled up to its brim at 684 metres, although half the monsoon season still remained.

There have been other cases of dam-induced-disaster this monsoon. Just two days before this breach, large tracts of paddy fields were damaged in seaside villages of Rajanagar block in Kendrapada district of Orissa, when a sluice gate collapsed near Chaurakola village. Here too, the damaged gate was said to be on the verge of collapse for the last six months, but officials of the irrigation department failed to pay heed to repeated complaints by local villagers. The hundred-year-old Jaswant Sagar Dam in Rajasthan also collapsed in July, inundating numerous villages downstream. On 19 July, when the waters of Maniyar dam on the Pampa river near Pathanamthitta village in Kerala overflowed for the third time during this monsoon over its non-functioning shutters, it posed a serious threat to thousands of people living downstream.

This season's incidents are much like the ones we have become accustomed to from the last few years. There have been a number of other cases, with various kinds of breakdowns in dams, that have repeatedly raised questions of dam safety in the country.

  • On 4 September 2005 an underground labyrinth pipe in unit IV at the 1500 MW Nathpa Jhakri hydropower project in Himachal Pradesh burst. The bursting of the pipe led to backflow of water from the tail pool submerging the lower portion of the powerhouse. Two storeys of the seven-storey cavern housing the powerhouse were submerged. The engineers could not do anything, as the pumping machinery installed at the bottom was first to be submerged. It took officials 14 days to pump out the water and silt from the plant.

  • On 6 October 2005 gate number 5 of the Narayanpur dam, located between Bachihal Siddapur in Bijapur district and Hirejavur in Raichur district in Karnataka cracked open with a loud bang around 10:30 in the morning. Five fishermen who were fishing nearby had a miraculous escape after being swept away for nearly a kilometre by the sudden gush of water. The fishermen clung on to a rock in the middle of the river and later swam to safety. Within minutes the entire gate was ripped out and the inspection gantry was partially damaged by the torrent of water. No senior official was present at the dam when the accident occurred. Repeated attempts to lower the emergency stop log gate of the damaged gate number 5 failed because of the strong current. Although authorities had opened 13 gates of the dam to bring down the water level and facilitate early lowering of the emergency stop log gate, releases from the upstream Almatti dam continued, and worsened the situation further. Water leakage from the dam due to this accident was estimated at 19 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft). Earlier too, in 1992, two gates at Narayanpur Dam had developed similar leaks.

  • On 4 December 2005 Chittoor irrigation authorities had to cut open the reservoir bund for about 20 metres to release water out of the swollen Aarniar dam near Pichchatur on the Tirupati-Chennai highway, after failing in their prolonged struggle to open the jammed gates of the dam that had remained dry for nearly a decade. Twenty three villages located downstream in Tiruvallur district of Tamilnadu were inundated. By the next day, the 20-metre breach created by the authorities had become 50 metres wide, thanks to rapid soil and bund erosion by the gushing waters. The storage level dropped to half within 24 hours. After nearly a fortnight and amid media and public outcry against the government, the Minister for Major Irrigation of Andhra Pradesh, Ponnalla Lakshmaiah visited the dam site and interacted with affected villagers and senior officials. As several villages in neighboring Tamilnadu were also inundated, the government there took serious exception to the callous attitude of Andhra authorities.

  • Four labourers were killed and three injured after an iron rod foundation of a de-silting chamber constructed by AFCON, a private company, collapsed at the Kol dam in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh on 6 March 2006.

  • Eight persons working at a private hydel power generation project at the Krishnaraja Sagar Reservoir in Karnataka had a narrow escape after more than 2000 cusecs water gushed into the power generation room following a wall collapse on the morning of 28 July 2006. To the misfortune of the employees who were struggling to contain the inflow of water from the reservoir, one of the two gates that had been opened to allow the water into the power generating station could not be operated as the heavy gates were electronically operated, and the water had inundated the powerhouse and the power pack room. According to official sources, the protection wall of the plant (located next to the two huge crest gates) had developed 'minor' cracks a week ago and the water was leaking from it. Experts from Bangalore had tried in vain to seal the cracks with water-resistant glue. It was also alleged that officials of the Water Resources Department were not informed about the efforts made to seal the cracks.

  • Hundreds of people living downstream of the Taraka Dam in H D Kote taluk in Mysore district fled their homes after one of the three crest gates collapsed around 11:30 pm on 7 October 2006. There had been no sign of the impending disaster, and it was attributed to 'mechanical failure'. The steel rope holding the crest gate snapped and water gushed out washing away the gate, leaving a yawning gap in the reservoir wall. Water flowed out of the reservoir at the rate of 20,000 cusecs and soon sugarcane and paddy fields in the region were flooded. Many irrigation pump-sets, a pair of bullocks and several poultry fowls were washed away. The standing crops in Heggadapura, Naganahalli, Harahalli, Kothanahalli, Machanayakahalli and other villages have been extensively damaged. At the time, the dam was filled to its brim for the first time since its commissioning in 1983.

While much has been written and spoken in the course of the debate over large dams and their potential for development or displacement, continuing accidents induced by dams and the issue of dam safety have not been accorded similar attention. Non-functioning sluice/crest gates, some that collapsed, breaches in dam walls, and accidents while tunnel boring at hydropower projects have all occurred with alarming frequency during the last three monsoons. But, apart from handing out compensation cheques to farmers in a few cases and instituting probes in fewer still, the various state administrations and the Central government have uniformly failed to undertake a thorough introspection on the issue of dam safety by examining these accidents collectively.

The country's water resources establishment maintains an ad-hoc attitude, responding to each disaster as it unfolds, often to little effect. Shortcomings in Disaster Management legislation also worsen this scenario. The Centre's law on disaster management, enacted in 2005, lays down the structure for instituting Disaster Management Authorities at various levels of governance, and calls upon each level to prepare Disaster Management Plans. A specially trained Disaster Response Force and a National Institute of Disaster Management emanated from the provisions of this law. But in the language of legislation, 'disaster management' is nothing more than attending to helpless victims in need of immediate attention and relief. As a result, the law fails to lay down clearly defined and easily understandable norms of institutional and official accountability in the event of a serious lapse. It also continues to grant immunity to officials working with Disaster Management Authorities at all levels by making a government sanction mandatory prior to any legal proceeding against officials who fail to discharge their duties.

Chigalli Dam is 29 years old and is among the 109 dams that were put under Safety Review as per a Karnataka Government Order (GO) dated 9 July 1999 (see here for more). A Dam Safety Panel was reconstituted as per another GO of Karnataka dated 13 September 2000, but the efficacy of such steps lies in thwarting disasters, and on that score they can only be said to have failed.

"Instead of removing defects (at Jaswant Sagar Dam), the department incurred expenditure of Rs 27.61 lakh on 6 [other] works", noted a CAG report on Rajasthan.

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Similarly, Chandora Dam is 21 years old and is one of 168 dams in Madhya Pradesh that are listed as distressed, meaning they are unsafe and require repair. It was said to be 'under rehabilitation' as per a contributing paper to the World Commission on Dams. While compared to these dams Jaswant Sagar Dam in Rajasthan was clearly ageing at 118 years, but what is truly shocking is that for the avowed purpose of dam safety, Rajasthan had received funds under the Dam Safety Assurance and Rehabilitation Project commenced with World Bank assistance. The project, after incurring a huge expenditure of Rs.110 crores, has defaulted squarely on the purposes which it was designed to serve.

The Comptroller and Auditors General's report for Rajasthan (Civil) in 2001 noted, "instead of removing defects (at Jaswant Sagar Dam), department incurred expenditure of Rs 27.61 lakh on 6 works, viz. renovation of existing road in bituminous road (Rs 9.88 lakh), construction of foot bridge on overflow (Rs 7.19 lakh), providing sodium lights (Rs 4.06 lakh), purchase of generating set and diesel engine (Rs 1.25 lakh), purchase of wooden planks (Rs 4.50 lakh) and other petty items (Rs 0.73 lakh) under basic safety facilities component of Dam Safety Project. These works did not increase the utility of the dam and resulted in avoidable expenditure out of interest bearing loan assistance funds of World Bank." Jaswant Sagar Dam also had a history of getting washed away in past (in 1979 and earlier), but clearly this was overlooked, even as it was filling up rapidly very early on in the monsoon season. When it was breached, dam authorities watched the havoc it created in downstream villages, and as soon as the floods subsided started working on the repairs without examining any of the underlying problems.

Himanshu Thakkar, director, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People and editor of monthly magazine Dams, Rivers & People states, "Four dams getting breached in a monsoon in sequence should serve as a wake up call." Quoting the report of the Working Group on Water Resources Development for the 11th Five Year Plan which says, "although dam safety procedures are more or less well defined, there is no dam safety legislation", Thakkar asks, how one can possibly decipher such a sentence in the backdrop of a totally unaccountable water resources establishment and Central Water Commission whose past performances have remained dismal.