After a tourist lost his life at Ittiany in the Chalakudy River in Kerala on 15 October, a number of people - including the victim's friends and family - mounted a search for the body the following day. The Kerala State Electricity Board had been requested by the Forest Department to shut down the operations of Poringalkuthu Hydel Power Plant, which is 8 kilometres upstream, while the search was on.

The river was calm until the afternoon. Then, however, the afternoon rains in the catchment led to a sudden increase in the water level in the reservoir, and KSEB opened the shutters without any warning or prior information. The 60 year old Poringalkuthu reservoir, one of the oldest dams in Kerala, is a small one with limited storage capacity, and therefore had to be opened, or else the dam may itself have been in danger. Suddenly, for the searchers as well as the 50-odd tourists taking a bath further downstream of Ittiany near the Athirappilly waterfalls, the KSEB's decision to release the dam waters posed a great risk, as the looming death-wall of water rushed from the dam.

Fortunately, memebers of the Vana Samrakshana Samithi, working under the Forest Department of Kerala for keeping the tourism area plastic free and protecting the forests, were alert to the risk of flash flooding, and they scrambled to ensure the safety of the unsuspecting bathers and searchers. But for this, a few dozen lives may have been lost senselessly.

KSEB officials' fear of the dam being structurally unfit to hold back rising waters illustrates a risk that is constant in countless dam operations in the country. The dams are ageing, cracking, and becoming increasingly unable to perform the functions for which they were erected. As a result, their management is driven by fear as much as anything else, and this in turn causes other risks, such as the near-disaster in the Chalakudy.

Electricity Board officials acting without a broader sense of the potential impact of their actions is not a new phenomenon, either. Earlier this year, the opening of the Kallarkutty dam's shutters to drain out the water so that new penstock pipes could be constructed had created similar problems downstream on the Periyar river. The entire river remained muddy with silt and sediments from the reservoir for around two months, clogging the drinking water schemes and canals kilometres downstream, and severely affecting the water supply to Kochi Corporation and even causing fish kills. Here again the KSEB did not give any prior warning to the downstream population.

Inattentive and unprofessional

Near-miss events and actual disasters from routine operations, however, have become inevitable as the management of many dams is simply not up to the mark in thwarting even preventable problems. On 24 September this year, The Statesman reported that multiple cracks were seen at Rengali dam, situated on the Brahmani river in Orissa. It quoted an inspection report by a technical team from Water Resources Dept that had studied the cracks. As per the report, cracks were found in several places - on the masonry non-flow section, the gallery, the irrigation sluice and piers - and on the downstream side, water was seeping through the cracks.

The condition of the dam is not new. A report on Dam Safety Status prepared and published by Orissa State Dam Safety Organisation in May 2007 had found various deficiencies - including cracks, and inability to operate some gates. Dam authorities, however, have dismissed these cracks as common, and dismissed any apprehension that the structure might collapse, leading to a catastrophic event. The Assistant Chief Engineer, Gunadhar Mishra, told The Statesman, "Had there been any danger, we would not keep the water level to a point of 123.5 metres today, against the maximum water level of 124.5 metres".

In many cases, dam authorities dismiss cracks as common, and reject any apprehension that the structures might collapse, leading to catastrophic events.

 •  Here a breach, there a breach
 •  The other side of the dam
 •  The dams balance sheet

A week prior to the report, on 17 September, one of the two penstock pipes carrying water from Ponmudi dam in Kerala to Panniyar power house burst, killing eight persons. Nearly 15 houses were damaged, around 150 acres of nearby crops were washed away in the ensuing flash flood. When the minister came on his ritual consoling visit, he was too quick to announce compensation and quantify the losses (Rs.15 crores), but remained non-committal on the question of fixing responsibility, even as the local people staged a protest against the officials, blaming them for negligence. The protestors said that the leak had been evident for a long time - the penstock pipe had breached once earlier too, in 2005 - and they had brought it to the attention of officials. The maintenance work on the pipes was also not done properly, they added.

Kerala Electricity Employees Confederation General Secretary, M S Rawther is of the view that Kerala State Electricity Board should be held responsible for the Panniyar tragedy, as it had closed dam safety maintenance offices owing to financial constraints. He pointed out that many dams in the state were in a state of disrepair, and the condition of penstock pipes in Chenkulam, Pallivasal and the Kakkayam Pazhayam powerhouse is poor. The intake gate of the inter-connecting tunnel of the Pampa Reservoir to Kakki Reservoir has not been functional for the last 12 years, and losses to the tune of crores of rupees were occurring owing to the spillage of water.

While the trade union is blaming KSEB for neglecting dam safety aspects, experts who had access to the power station before and after the accident point to an unintentional blunder committed by the engineer staff on duty, who did not follow the proper sequence of events for a shut-down, leading to an exponential rise in the pressure inside the pipe.

Dam safety mechanisms and procedures

The cracks being reported at Rengali, and the accident at Panniyar renew questions that have been raised about the precarious state of affairs in dam safety. On paper at least, India should have an elaborate dam safety mechanism in place, starting from the resolution adopted at the first conference of state ministers for irrigation held at New Delhi as far back as July 1975, and a series of steps then taken. Consider these:

  • The Central Water Commission constituted the Dam Safety Organisation to assist state governments in various aspects of dam safety in May 1979.

  • In order to put the Dam Safety Assurance Program on a sound footing and to implement the recommendations of the Government of India, "CWC guidelines for Safety inspection of Dams 1987" and " Dam safety procedures, 1986" were issued for implementation.

  • In the early 1980s, twelve states [Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnatake, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamilnadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal] constituted state-level Dam Safety Units as well.

  • In October 1987, the National Committee on Dam safety was constituted. The Dam Safety Assurance and Rehabilitation Project (DSARP), which cost Rs.423 crores and was supported by the World Bank, began in 1991 and was completed in September 1999; this project was intended to help the CWC as well as the participating states of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Tamilnadu.

  • In January 1999, a Canadian company BC Hydro was awarded a contract by Central Water Commission to deliver a workshop and training on dam safety and risk analysis, and to develop guidelines on dam safety (see here).

  • DSARP has now been renamed and split into the Dam Safety Assurance, Rehabilitation and Disaster Management Project (DSRADMP) and the Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Project (DRIP). As recently as two years ago, a workshop on DRIP was organised by World Bank at New Delhi to appraise the conditions and criteria for World Bank assistance in dam safety projects.

Thus, there has clearly been no shorage of programmes and projects to focus on dam safety. But the reality is that even the most recent efforts are rendered deeply flawed by one simple truth - the water resources establishment needs to first re-define what it understands by dam safety, before there can be any expectation of improved safety. Latha Anantha, an activist with River Research Centre, Kerala says, "The recent cases of dam operations creating disastrous accidents for downstream habitats highlight the need to take the purview of dam safety beyond physical structures. Unsafe dam operations leading to disastrous accidents and impacts on downstream (or surrounding) habitats and environment should come under the scanner."

Such incidents raise the need for consultative reservoir operations strategy whereby dam releases and flow fluctuations do not compromise, subsidise or jeopardise various other needs downstream. At present, bureaucratic control of river flow by a single agency is responsible for recurring disasters. For instance, in Manipur there have been incidents when even though Irrigation and Flood Control Department of state communicated its concerns to National Hydroelectric Power Corporation - which operates central sector Loktak Hydroproject - the latter overlooked these and continued to pursue its power generation agenda that was in conflict with flood control concerns.

At a meeting convened by the District Collector of Thrissur following the incident on the Chalakudy River, the KSEB came under heavy criticism from different agencies. The Board has now been instructed to provide prior information on the opening of the dams to the nearest forest, police and fire stations. Even this is only a partial solution; what is really needed is for all the different agencies to look at a river basin as a single hydrological unit while planning and designing projects rather than the compartmentalised manner presently followed.