How safe are India’s dams?

Context: Jal Shakti Minister recently told the Rajya Sabha that since 1979, there were 42 instances of dam failures, the latest being the Annamayya reservoir in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh that led to the death of at least 20 people in November 2021.

India has the 3rd largest number of dams in the world at 5,745, following China with 23,842 and the US with 9,261.
What are the issues with the dam infrastructure in India?

80% of the dams are more than 25 years old, and with the accumulated burden of deferred maintenance, many have huge associated risks.

6% are more than 100 years old and 18% are 50-100 years old.

What are the factors on which long-term safety of a dam depends?

The long-term safety of a dam depends on:

the extent of degradation of its materials,

weakening of the foundations

seismological threats.

What efforts have been taken at ensuring dam safety in India?

The Dam Safety Organisation (DSO) was established in the Central Water Commission (CWC) in May 1979 to convince the states about dam safety. Issues related to dam safety have often been cited in reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The efficacy of the DSO has also been questioned in such reports.

The first major programme initiated was the Dam Safety Assurance and Rehabilitation Project implemented with support from the World Bank from 1991 to 1999 in four states (Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu).

The second programme was the World Bank funded Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Project (DRIP), from April 2012 to March 2021 with a much larger budget outlay.

This scheme has rehabilitated 223 dams located in seven states — Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand.

Based on the success of DRIP, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has initiated DRIP Phase II and Phase III. These new schemes have 19 states, and three central agencies (Bhakra Beas Management Board, CWC and Damodar Valley Corporation) on board.

The Dam Safety Bill, 2019, was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 2, 2019. This legislation provides for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams by the establishment of a National Committee on Dam Safety, National Dam Safety Authority, State Committee on Dam Safety, and the State Dam Safety Organization.

This new Act and associated rehabilitation programmes thus usher in a new era of professional management of India’s dams and related safety issues.

What needs to be done?

The physical rehabilitation of dams involves two clear streams of activity:

The first is “de-siltation” — to restore the original reservoir capacity.

The second is “safety” — encompassing, structural safety, hydrologic safety and operational safety

The issue of dam decommissioning also needs to be brought into the action-agenda. Demands for decommissioning have already been raised for the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala, Dumbur dam over the Gumti river in Tripura and Jayakwadi dam in Maharashtra.

Source: This post is based on the article “How safe are India’s dams?” published in Business Standard on 4th May 22.

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