Floods and Dam Management - RSTV: The Big Picture


Anchor: Vishal Dahiya
Speakers: – Dr. P. S. N Rao, Director, School of Planning & Architecture; Prof. Arun Kansal, Dean, School of Advanced Studies, TERI; N. K. Mathur, Member, D&R, Central Water Commission; R. L. Negi, Head of Projects, SJVN

Why in the news?

  • Dams are considered to be a vital element for the economic and energy growth. In our country over the years dams have played a lay role in fostering rapid and sustained agricultural and rural growth and a substantial investment has been done in building dams and related infrastructure.
  • India has more than 5000 large dams. 75 percent of these are more than 25 years old and about 164 dams are more than 100 years old. A poorly maintained, unsafe dam can be a hazard to both human life and environment. This has been proved through 36 dam failures in the past.
  • In June this year the Central Government had approved the proposal for introduction of the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 that aims to develop uniform countrywide procedures for ensuring the safety of dams.
  • Kerala which witnessed its worst floods since 1924 is home to 53 large dams.
  • As rain poured unabated and rivers overflowed at least 35 of these dams were thrown open releasing water on to the already flooded areas downstream. This doubled the impact of the deluge.
  • Is Kerala the victim of poor dam management? And if yes, then what are the reasons and ways to tackle the challenges in ensuring the safety of our dams? These issues will be discussed here.

Analysis by the Experts:

If we look at the situation in Kerala and the way that the floods have wreaked havoc in the state and the way the dams have been operated during this entire period, is there a correlation between the way the dams were being managed before the flood began and during this period?

Dr. P. S. N Rao, Director, School of Planning & Architecture, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • In the state of Kerala, we have what is known as an urban-rural continuum. Essentially, where the city ends and where the city begins in Kerala is very difficult to decipher. Thus, when you have an urban-rural continuum, a linear state and too much of water, which dams cannot hold on to beyond a point, there is no way but for the authorities concerned to release the water from the dams.
  • Thus, as a natural process, over a period of time, there is a lot of silt accumulation that happens. If the rivers are not de-silted, then we find that the amount of water that the rivers can hold will get reduced. Thus, obviously, it will start overflowing to the nearby settlements. Thus, it is a very serious issue.
  • Overall, we need to take a look at the integrated management of human settlements and rural settlements, dam management and flood control together as one. Currently, we are looking at them in isolation and as individual entities. It is true that there are different ministries that are operating on these things, but what is needed in an integrated approach because when you have too much of water being released, it creates a problem.

There appears to be a correlation between dams and flood management. How can we pin point the faults and try and find a solution, keeping in mind the devastation in Kerala?

  1. K. Mathur, Member, D&R, Central Water Commission, weighed in with his arguments here.


  • First of all, we need to understand the Kerala floods in terms of a meteorological event. There was one spell of heavy rainfall on 8th It was recorded in one particular station towards being around 400mm. This means around 40cm, i.e. more than one feet. At this point of time, the rain was welcome, as Kerala was facing a deficit of rainfall over the past 3-4 years and the rainfall was considered as a boon. Another spell of rain was recorded on 15th August, this event was a widespread event that covered almost 13 of the 14 districts in Kerala. Rainfall received was of the order of magnitude such as 200mm, 300mm, and 400mm. This went on for about 3-4 days.
  • Now, surely a dam cannot hold so much water in its belly. The point to note is that dams or no dams, this event would have been catastrophic.

If we look at the present instance as well as past intances, where around 36 dams have failed in the past. There must be some rules and procedures by which the management of dams is governed?

  1. L. Negi, Head of Projects, SJVN, weighed in with his arguments here.
  • It is important to note that dam management is a system. Unless and until we don’t have a system in place, it is very difficult for us to cope up with the issues of the dam cycles.
  • There is a system in dam management and there are levels in a dam which indicate the zones of danger. It is important to cater to contingencies in the event of a flood. We have organizations such as the Dam Safety Organisation, Nashik, Maharashtra which checks the safety of dams.

How do you see the situation in Kerala (which is the latest one), and past incidents as well.

  1. Is there a strong correlation between the two?
  2. How can we pinpoint the problem areas here?

Prof. Arun Kansal, Dean, School of Advanced Studies, TERI weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Well, dams are there to control floods and at the same time, dams are also responsible for increasing the frequency of floods. Thus, when we look at any region and we observe what happens after rainfall over a particular area, well, a part of the rainfall infiltrates into the ground, and a major part of it is taken up by the plants, and the remaining part flows as a surface run-off.
  • Thus, what happens is that by creating a very large reservoir and dam, we have actually increased the surface run-off by removing the plants and the grasslands that stood before the dam came up there, thus, the velocity of the water, coupled with the silt, increases. Thus dams amplify the situation more severely. 
  • Thus, in the case of extreme meteorological events, dams amplify the situation for the worse. Thus, dams are regulators of water in terms of minor fluctuations, but dams amplify problems when there is an extreme event.
  • There are several factors that have contributed to the amplified run-off flow. These include: increase in built up area, mining and the depletion of forest cover in the Western Ghats area.

Recently, there was a cabinet decision wherein, the Dam Safety Bill 2018 was approved to be introduced in the Parliament and it clearly detailed the entire infrastructural system which has to be put in place with the National Committee on Dam Safety to be constituted to ensure that the dam management is regulated through those policies. Thus, how can this bill go ahead and ensure that the institutional mechanism which has to be put in place can be put in place there, and also what is it that is lacking right now?

  1. K. Mathur, Member, D&R, Central Water Commission, weighed in with his arguments here.
  • India has been aware of dam safety issues right from the 80’s. One of the major tragedies was the Morbi disaster, which was a dam-related flood disaster that occurred on 11 August 1979, in India.
  • Post this disaster, one started getting aware of the dam safety related issues and various institutions of dam safety were then framed.
  • All the institutions which are prescribed in the Dam Safety Bill, 2018, are already existing. We are only giving them the legal backing which at present is not there because the dam owners are mostly state governments and the state governments say that they would like to deal with it on their own. Thus, one is aiming to ensure that a uniform policy comes up and that it is implemented in a uniform manner. Thus, the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 is only to give a legal platform to these policies.
  • The recent floods in Kerala don’t have a direct relation to dam safety itself. This is because dam safety is a peacetime exercise- either a dam is assured for safety or it has got some issues which we deal with. The current flood situation might have some relationship with the operation of the dam. Thus, in the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 one is trying to ensure that there is a robust mechanism of operation manuals of all the reservoirs. Many of the dams have got some operation manuals; existing practices would need to be codified and put in the public domain.

Where would we be lacking as far as efficient operationalization is concerned which has a lot of role to play when it comes to the correlation between floods and dam management?

  1. L. Negi, Head of Projects, SJVN, weighed in with his arguments here.
  • Unless and until we don’t have the manuals to operate the dam system, we cannot stand anywhere. Manual guidelines can ensure that failure doesn’t occur. In order to alert the public, one should use methods such as social media (where WhatsApp can be used), village public meetings, information boards should be displayed all along the roads along the danger points.
  • Thus, one should have a proper manual to run the system.

One of the things we look at when we observe dams is that they are directly linked to economic growth, as well as growth in terms of the agriculture sector and several rural areas as well. Thus, a) What is the significance of building dams, and b) How do they correlate with growth?

Dr. P. S. N Rao, Director, School of Planning & Architecture, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • We are looking at dams in isolation and human settlements in isolation. Currently, human settlements are growing sporadically. Particularly, in Kerala, we have a very scattered skeleton structure. Some dams have manuals and some don’t. The manuals guide people in so far as knowing which are the safe areas, when to release the water and how much of water is to be released?
    But who would study the data and give it to him. In Kerala, large tracts of land are below the sea level. Thus, flooding is a very serious problem even otherwise.  We must undertake city planning and town planning.
  • Further, one can’t shift people overnight. Because of the fact that the lower intensity floods being absorbed in the dam. If one has a robust system of information. One can figure out the downstream conditions of the river or reservoir.  We can’t look at dam management itself in isolation.
  • We would have to take a look at the dam architecture, dam safety as well as the habitation process and the entire idea of town planning as well. In an effort so that rivers can carry more water, river dredging is a process worth attempting. But then, the issue of sand mining can crop up as a consequence to this. However, we would need to somehow strike a balance. If we are in a position to simulate what might happen, then one can take the necessary precautions. This is because loosing lives is something that we just can’t afford.

The Way Ahead:

  • Short term and long term solutions consist mainly of the properly laid down protocols of the release from dams, and getting information about the inflows. But coming to the Kerala floods, it is important to note that the entire state of Kerala is a linear state, and all the rivers are draining towards the west. Further, in short stretches of the rivers, there is a drop in almost 2000 metres, thus the slope of these rivers are very high. Thus, the speed with which the water drains out is enormous. Thus, the devastation, if and when it happens, is naturally more amplified than what we see in the other areas. Further, this recent phenomenon was very extensive as it covered 13 of the 14 districts. There are some rivers which are dammed, and some rivers which are not dammed. Inspite of this, the devastation was so extensive.
  • Short term planning should be binding and time bound. Long term plans can be handled easily. Further, if projects are working in cascades, i.e. one is working upstream and one is working downstream, then we would need to understand the culture of both the projects.
  • This is to ensure good control over possible floods and the operation units as well.
    In conclusion, while the people of Kerala are trying their level best to bring back their life back to normalcy, after the devastating floods, it is time that we learn our lessons and not look at all these issues in isolation, but also understand the correlation between the issue of time management, dam safety and floods. Further, one must make advance preparations for any untoward incidents, should they happen.

Further Reading:
The issue of the recent floods in Kerala has raised many questions on dam management and about the ecological sensitivity of the Western Ghats as well. In fact, ecological expert, Madhav Gadgil stated that the Kerala tragedy is partly man made. In the wake of this, it naturally becomes important for aspirants to revisit the Gadgil report. Further, it is also important to read about the Dam Safety Bill, 2018.

Read more Gist of Rajya Sabha TV to help you ace current affairs in the IAS exam.

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