The timing of the opening of dams is being questioned in Kerala where shutters of 35 of 39 dams were open at around the same time.
The scale of the natural disaster in Kerala boggles the mind. A deluge of biblical proportions has taken more than 300 lives while the lives of more than two three lakh people staying in relief camps has been upended with normalcy seemingly ages away. The southwest monsoon has taken close to 1,000 lives in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Assam and Nagaland. A country dependent on the monsoons to sustain life and livelihood is staggeringly ill-prepared to handle nature’s bounty. The environmental degradation caused by the living infrastructure needs of an expanding population, the fragile ecology of the hills and valleys and the exasperating demands of water management in rivers through dams and reservoirs serving drinking water needs, agriculture and flood control are proving to be challenges sorely testing human ingenuity.
The timing of the opening of dams is being questioned in Kerala where shutters of 35 of 39 dams were open at around the same time. A reason for the high number of deaths from landslides is being blamed on widespread and uncontrolled quarrying, besides river sand mining. The simultaneous discharge from Cheruthoni’s five sluices that has led to disastrous consequences downstream in Aluva and Kochi is being questioned now. The arguments over Mullaperiyar dam, operated by Tamil Nadu as it draws water eastwards through tunnels for irrigation in an ingenious innovation by a British engineer, are gaining a deadly dimension. It is not the fear of the 142-feet level of water storage as much as the urgent need for wisdom in nuanced water management that is causing heartaches. A reduction in storage would mean more water woes for Kerala that is soaked already but it may have to be done to boost the confidence.
The lessons learnt from previous experiences in Odisha and Chennai floods my not have been put to use. The balance between storage for hydropower and drinking water needs and sustained release to preclude flooding by huge water releases at one go may be hard. However, greed for storage should not be allowed to determine water release. There are countries deciding to build no more dams while some dams are being removed in western US. That may be an extreme example, but it makes the point about management of water resources. Importantly, flood control is the key when the monsoons are bounteous. Dams help in that respect provided engineers and planners do not wait for optimum storage levels before water release. The Prime Minister’s aerial inspection may lead to the Centre coming to know of the extent of the problem. Cash relief of Rs 500 crore more has been promised but the damage to the economy, largely dependent on tourism and growing natural products, has been blown to bits with estimated losses in excess of Rs 10,000 crore. This is Kerala’s most catastrophic hour of need and the nation must respond in empathetic manner.