Possibility of Dam Failures and Collapses Deserves More Attention to Avoid Huge Disasters

nova kakhovka dam failure

The collapse of the Nova Kakhovka  dam on the Dnipro river is a matter of deep concern as it exposes a large number of people to severe dangers, hardships and hurried evacuation to escape from drowning houses and settlements, apart from the longer-term harm to farming and other related livelihoods. A large number of people can be exposed for some time to shortage of clean drinking water which can lead to spread of disease.

However the biggest danger in the present context can potentially be to the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as this dam had earlier been providing the huge water requirements of meeting the cooling needs of this nuclear plant. There may not be a very immediate danger because of water stocks being available, according to reports, but certainly the safety conditions here have been adversely affected, at a time when these have been already stressed due to the ongoing conflict.

In wartime conditions predictably both sides have blamed each other with the Ukrainian President speaking in the most belligerent voice. However there is no reason to believe, no conclusive evidence yet that the dam was definitely harmed intentionally by either side. It is a sign of wartime suspicions and hostility that both sides rushed to blaming each other for causing damage intentionally without according at least equal possibility to the dam collapsing without intentional damage being caused. This possibility should have received attention considering that people and animals of both sides have been harmed in various ways. Economic costs have been caused to both sides.    Instead of giving equal importance to this, allegations of war crimes have been made too quickly and too arbitrarily, something that will only add to bitterness and hence should have been avoided.

After all, dam collapses are hardly a rarity. Even if we look only at the more significant and bigger dam collapses, there were nearly 200 of these in the world in the first decade of this century. If we include some of the smaller dam failures, this number can increase a lot. In the USA, there have been several hundred dam failures. In the USA from 2005 to 2013 alone 173 dam failures were recorded, or about 19 per year. In addition to this 587 ‘incidents’ were recorded, referring to situations where the possibility of dam harm or collapse had appeared but was checked by timely remedial actions.

This data also shows how important proper monitoring and maintenance is for ensuring safety of dams. In wartime such proper maintenance and timely remedial actions are much more likely to get neglected as the attention is heavily concentrated on war-related activities. What is more, there is the possibility of parts of dam structure and its surroundings relevant to safety being hit and harmed in the exchange of fire, particularly when highly destructive weapons and ammunition are being used.

Hence the possibility of unintentional collapse of dam should receive at least equal attention and any allegation of war crimes not backed by evidence should not be allowed to increase bitterness and hostility. Instead possibilities of cooperation by both sides to reduce distress of people on both sides should be considered.

In addition at a wider level there is clearly need to give more attention at world level to reduce possibilities of dam collapse and dam distress.  As the number of dams particular ageing dams has increased greatly there should be increasing worldwide concern regarding the safety of dams and the serious risks that go with it. However this concern will result in most useful action only if this is extended to include the safety and viability of under construction and under consideration dam projects.

After all, if we are concerned about the risks we face today from dams constructed in the past, we should be equally concerned about the risks we may leave behind for future generations from the dams that are being commissioned or approved today. If the risks we face arose from the less than adequate pre-construction careful evaluation of all aspects, then should we not strive to obtain much better, more credible pre-construction evaluation now to ensure better protection in future years and for future generations?

But the problem in several countries including India is precisely this that while the knowledge base on several adverse aspects of dam construction has certainly increased and improved, the conditions in which decisions on dams are taken and the overall political economy of dam construction is such as to render it likely that the adverse social, ecological and safety aspects will get the due attention and acknowledgment and a comprehensive, unbiased evaluation will take place. In the conditions obtaining today in too many cases there is in an inevitable, implicit bias in favor of going ahead with the projects regardless of the adverse impacts involved.

In many cases approval is granted even as a controversy razes, ignoring also the protests of displaced or other adversely affected people, and after a few years the fact that so much money has already been spent becomes an additional argument for going ahead further. Some high risk projects, such as the highly controversial Tehri dam project, have been completed in the middle of such repeated protests, adverse criticism by reputed experts and even very serious objections raised by officially constituted committees.

These issues become more complex in the context of projects with impacts extending to more than one country, particularly when the countries have not enjoyed friendly relations in the past. The projects being implemented by China in the Tibet reach of Brahmaputra river are widely believed to have very adverse consequences downstream for India and Bangladesh, but will China give the due attention to the concerns of these countries? Will India and Bangladesh be given access to all the data and information which China has in this context? These concerns would be there even in conditions of normal times, but what will happen in conditions if hostility increases? While concerns exist even if dam operation involves no hostility, concerns can increase manifold if dam management assumes hostile forms.

On the other hand, we can also visualize an entirely different situation in which all the involved countries give up such controversial and high risk projects and instead increase cooperation with each other for improving energy, irrigation, local livelihoods, water conservation and disaster prevention and management in ways which are to the benefit of all the countries , and also protect river ecology.

Above all improved, comprehensive and unbiased evaluation of dam projects will contribute much to avoiding high risk and wasteful projects, preventing avoidable displacement and environmental harm and ensuring better use of limited resources.

Bharat Dogra is a senior journalist and author. His latest books Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and a Day in 2071.

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