Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dams: Public Safety versus Development Needs

Mullapperiyar Raises Serious Questions About Dam Safety

The recent bursting of a 116-year-old dam in Rajasthan has sent shock waves down south, in Kerala where a heated debate is going on about the safety of Mullapperiyar hydro-electric dam which is 112 years old and situated in a sensitive seismic zone. The Government of Kerala has been arguing that the dam built by Tamil Nadu in 1895 on the Periyar river is a fragile system as it was built with lime stone and other materials. The dispute between Tamil and Kerala over the safety of Mullapperiyar dam, now a matter of grave emotional impact in both states, has been raging in the Supreme Court for a long time with no amicable solution in sight. With a series of dam bursts in recent years, it is high-time the nation took stock of the threats posed by old dams which are still in operation, thanks to economic and political pressures.

The history of Mullapperiyar dam goes back to the second d half of the 19th century when the British Government of Madras Presidency and the Maharajah of Travancore entered into an agreement for the lease of 8000 acres of forest land in the Periyar river area to Madras to build a dam for irrigating the farmlands of Madurai and adjoining districts. The lease deed which was signed on October 29, 1886, was effective for 999 years while most of the other long-term agreements made by British rulers were for a period of 99 years. As the Maharajah handed over the forest land, the Government of Madras completed the dam in 1895 with a reservoir level of 155 ft. But the water level has been maintained at a maximum of 136 ft. owing to safety concerns.

In 1970 a further agreement was reached between the two states, that allowed Tamil Nadu to generate electricity from the reservoir in addition to the earlier agreement on irrigation.

The current disputes started with Tamil Nadu raising a demand for increasing the water level to 142 ft, in order to meet its growing irrigation and power generation requirements. The Supreme Court in its important order dated February 27, 2006, allowed the Tamil Nadu Government to increase the water level despite stiff resistance from the Government of Kerala. The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the rise in water level would pose a threat to the lives and properties of the people living downstream in the Kerala districts of Idukky, Kottayam and Ernakulam. The Supreme Court allowed Tamil Nadu to strengthen the dam in order to take full advantage of the storage capacity at the dam, as recommended by the Central Water Commission. An appeal filed by the Government of Krala on the above order was also rejected by the Spreme Curt in July last year.

But Kerala Government argues that the Supreme Court had not applied its mind to the recent experiences and fresh evidence which included the seismic activity in the region. Since these points carried weight, the Union Minister for Water Resources, Saifuddin Soz, convened a meeting of the chief ministers and water resources ministers of both states in Delhi earlier this year to sort out the dispute. Mr N K Premachandran, the Kerala Water Resources Minister, pointed out that the serious nature of the leaks in the dam must be taken into account while increasing the reservoir level. He pointed out that there has been acute water seepage from the old dam which has developed leaks in many parts. In the last summer season when water level went down, it exposed the seriousness of the situation as there were heavy leaks in a number of places.

The surprising fact is that even Tamil Nadu does not dispute that there are leaks and that the dam’s safety is to be ensured. The differences are about what steps need to be taken to strengthen the dam. Tamil Nadu says repairs and maintenance work is sufficient to keep the dam safe and strong and it is of the opinion that the reservoir could hold water level up to 155 ft after due repairs.

The Government of Kerala strongly disagrees. The State has been arguing that there has not been any major repairs in the dam except some grouting done in 1930 and again in 1960 to prevent leaks. The normal age of any modern dam is considered to be around 50 to 60 years and Mullapperiyar built with indigenous technology around 120 years ago could not withstand the increasing pressures. Added to the heavy monsoon, there are concerns about the problems of deforestation, land mining and silting in recent years which could make the entire region ecologically fragile.

In the Delhi discussions, Kerala argued that it is absolutely necessary to build a new dam in the region to replace the old one. The new dam could supply water to Tamil Nadu and undertake all other conditions in the 1886 and 1970 agreements. It demanded that the governments of Tamil Nadu and the Centre should bear part of the cost as the State of Kerala, while honouring its agreement with its neighbour, cannot compromise on the safety of its citizens.

Tamil Nadu Government has not responded positively to this demand. In fact, after the Delhi discussions, the talks have broken down as Tamil Nadu refused to send its emissaries to the next round of talks. Its point of view is that as per the 2006 Supreme Court verdict, it has every right to carry out the repairs on the leaking dam. But the problem is that the dam is situated in an area within Kerala borders and no repair work can be done without its consent.

Meanwhile, this month’s torrential monsoon, which took the reservoir level to almost 136 ft, has intensified the concerns in Kerala. The fear is that if the dam gives way, it could deluge the entire Periyar valley region, falling in three districts. This week, Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan declared in the State Assembly that even if the Centre and Tamil Nadu did not help financially, the State would go ahead with its plan for a new dam at Mullapperiyar. That would mean another major battle for the scare resource of water in the deep-south.

No comments: