We are in an important phase of assessing and planning for safety of dams. On the one hand new legislation on this subject is under consideration, on the other hand a serious disaster implicating two or more hydel projects in the Himalayan region has re-emphasized the need for a much stronger system of dam safety that can also take into consideration the more unpredictable conditions of times of climate change.
While there have been several cases of dam failures in India, by and large the responsibility could not be fixed properly, even in cases where mortality was high, as in the case of the Morvi disaster in Gujarat. Hence we have not been able to learn adequately even from costly mistakes. So while the overall system will hopefully be strengthened in some ways with new legislation, several questions will continue to trouble us regarding the extent to which unbiased assessment has been ensured.
After all, once an unsafe structure has been created, there are limits to what some safety precautions and systems can achieve. As the tragic story of the clearance of Tehri Dam Project revealed, ( readers may kindly refer to my article dated February 9 in Countercurrents.org on the clearance of this project) even the strongest objections by officially constituted top-level committees were over-ruled and the opinion of top experts was even misrepresented to get the clearance for a project which has been called one of the biggest safety risks and which can potentially lead to very great loss of life, as testified by experts of official committees, not to mention many independent experts who gave a similar opinion.
The entire sad story of how the clearance for such a high hazard dam was arranged reveals the working of a system in which projects are cleared on other considerations, corruption is rampant and then data on various social and environmental aspects including safety is somehow tailored to fit in with the clearance. This system must change. For this a system of unbiased assessment of all new and pending projects is needed. The safety aspects as well social and environmental aspects must be valuated properly and comprehensively and only then a decision on the desirability of a project can be taken .
What is more it is important to take a wider perspective from several points of view. Firstly, if a chain of dams is planned, then it should be possible to take an integrated view of the impact of these projects taken together on the region. Technically, in the context of factors like reservoir induced seismicity, this is clearly needed. Secondly, we have to look at the assessment also in the context of the kind of disasters that can be expected in these times of climate change, as is increasingly indicated by recent events.
Thirdly, we are not just looking at the possibility of dam failure, but also at other dam related distress events such as release of sudden release of very vast amounts of water unleashing very destructive flash floods.
In order to be effective the system of dam safety should incorporate all these concerns.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.