Dams blamed for fuelling Indian floods
By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI — The sudden release of large quantities of water from several large dams has contributed to devastating floods in India which have killed over 350 people, and authorities must take some of the blame, critics said on Friday.
Over four million people have been left homeless across western, central and southern parts of the country.
The flooding has been caused by the annual June-September monsoon rains — key for the country’s agriculture-driven economy — but were made worse after authorities opened gates of dams and reservoirs brimming with water, activists say.
"The water levels in dams were actually too high prior to the monsoons so, when the rains came, vast amounts of water were suddenly released," said Himanshu Thakker of the New Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
"If you look at the evidence before us, it is clear that the dam authorities are guilty of criminal negligence."
Hundreds of villages and some towns in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh and the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat have been submerged, leaving thousands of people marooned, some on rooftops, others perched in trees without food or water.
Petroleum, gas and power plants have also been flooded and crops over a huge swathe of agricultural land devastated.
Thakker said 13 dams in south, west and central India were between 20 percent and 77 percent full prior to the rains, when their capacity levels should have been between five and 10 percent.
The monsoon downpours had left authorities no option but to open the dam gates, to avoid the far greater devastation if dam walls had burst.
But the crisis might have been alleviated by better planning and management of the reservoirs, critics say.
DIAMOND CENTER DROWNED
In Maharashtra, as many as 10 dams released water in the space of just 24 hours, the Hindu newspaper reported, bringing "into question the efficacy of dams which are built ostensibly to control floods and alleviate drought."
In neighboring Gujarat, officials said they had miscalculated the volume of water in the Ukai dam which is 60 km (40 miles) south of the diamond and textile center of Surat, a city of 3 million people.
The sudden release of water from the dam this week caused flood waters to submerge around 80 percent of Surat, cutting power and leaving thousands homeless.
The city’s traders cut and polish almost 50 percent of India’s diamonds and employ at least 200,000 workers, said Sanjay Kothari, marketing head of India’s Gem & Jewelry Export Promotion Council.
India’s overseas sales of gems and jewelry represent the country’s second-largest export industry, after computer software, and the trade relies heavily on Surat for a major chunk of its diamonds.
Traders say it might take weeks for business in Surat to return to normal.
"The timely release of water could have prevented the flooding in downstream areas of the rivers," admitted a senior government officer who declined to be named.
Officials in Andhra Pradesh said water levels were above normal in two dams in the state but said they had needed to store drinking water because of delayed monsoon rains.
"Had we released the water in the reservoirs, we would have faced acute drinking water shortages in 12 of the 23 districts," said an official from the state’s irrigation department, who did not want to be identified.
Some experts said critics were ignoring the benefits which dams brought in regulating water flows and controlling floods.
"People who raise questions on the importance of dams should understand if we did not construct them, cities and villages would be wiped out completely," said Jaynarayan Vyas, water management expert and former Gujarat water resources minister.
($1 = 46.4 rupees)
(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain Nair in AHMEDABAD; S. Radha Kumar in HYDERABAD)