Above: Google Map showing relevant locations (Map by Bhim Singh Rawat of SANDRP)
Several media reports have alleged that sudden water releases from Kurichu Dam in Bhutan has led to floods in Beki and Manas rivers in Assam on Oct 13, 2016 (Thursday), affecting thousands of people in Barpeta district & also reportedly Baksa district. This is not the first time that Kurichu water releases have led to this kind of situation, it has happened in the past including in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009 (150 villages affected[i]), among other instances. The Indo Bhutan joint mechanism, established in 2004-05, following the July 2004 floods, has clearly failed to effectively address this issue.
Assam’s newspaper Pratidin[ii] has reported: “Bhutan opens its sluice gates of Kurichu dam, water from its foothills flow into downstream affecting Manas National Park. Heavy rain for few days in the foothills of the Himalayan kingdom had sparked fears of fresh flooding in Manas National Park.”
The Times of India reported[iii] more details, narrating far reaching impacts, “unannounced release of water from a dam by Bhutan on Wednesday inundated large tracts of land in two districts of Assam bordering the Himalayan nation, affecting more than 24,000 population… Authorities of the two districts, Barpeta and Baksa said that there was no prior warning by Bhutan before releasing the water from its Kurichu dam, which flooded Manas and Beki rivers, the two principle tributaries of Brahmaputra river in lower Assam. Large portion of Manas National Park, a UNESCO heritage site, were inundated on Wednesday night after an embankment breached. Baksa district deputy commissioner Sanjeeb Kumar Gogoi said, “The release of the water by Bhutan was unannounced and together with the incessant rains here, Manas National Park was inundated. The water has receded today morning and no animal has been affected.” According to state disaster management authority, 12 villages in Kalgachia revenue circle in Barpeta districts were inundated by the sudden rise in water level of Beki river. Barepta district additional deputy commissioner of Tankeswar Das said that the Bordanga-Ramarpar road has been breached. A lower primary school at Bordanga has also been inundated.”
Assam Times reported on Oct 15, 2016 [x]: “Dhruva Nath, a local youth, lamented that this sudden surge has washed away the dreams of many like him who were engaged in pisciculture. Fisheries in many villages—Gyatigaon, Raghabeel, Chunbari, Kaalpani and Narayanguri received a setback as the gushing waters of Beki and Manas devastated the ponds and tanks in the districts bordering the Himalayan nation.”
Bhutan’s main English daily newspaper, Kuensel hinted about this when it said in a report dated Oct 13, 2016[iv]: “Intense low pressure developed in the Bay of Bengal causing heavy rainfall throughout the country for the past two days leading to numerous roadblocks.”
Central Water Commission’s flood forecasting site[v] reported on Oct 14, 2014, that Beki river at Beki NHC crossing was flowing at 45.25 m, above the warning level of 44.1 m and danger level of 45.1 m.
Assam has been consistently raising issues about impacts of Bhutan hydropower projects. When Prime Minister of India went to Bhutan in July 2014 to lay foundation stone for a hydropower project there, Assam Chief Minister and communities[vi] promptly wrote a letter raising concerns of Assam about impacts of these projects. However, till date there has been no downstream impact assessment of Bhutan hydropower projects on India.
Kurichu Dam: Salient features Kurichu is a 60 MW hydropower project involving a 55 m high concrete gravity dam[vii]. Its spillway has discharge capacity of 12200 cubic meters per second, which can have massive downstream impacts if the downstream area is already facing high rainfall and floods.
Worst flooding: 2004 In 2004[viii], the artificial landslide-dammed Tsatichu lake (which was formed 30 km upstream of the Kurichu Hydel Project in Bhutan) burst, and water from the reservoir flowed into two tributaries of the Brahmaputra – the Manas and the Beki – spelling disaster for the people downstream. The Kurichu Hydropower Corporation authorities opened the reservoir gates to avoid major destruction to the dam and other casualties. A significant amount of Manas’s landmass and forest cover has already been washed away following excess water release from Kurichu dam… But, the high point of the conflict was the raging flood due to the Kurichu landslide dam breakage, which caused extensive inundation, widespread devastation to standing crops, homestead, life and property, disruption of road and rail communication, public utilities, water supply installations, irrigation structures and flood control structures downstream. The Manas biosphere reserve was also affected. Highways were inundated and bridges collapsed. This was an instance of how water allowed to pass through a reservoir can lead to severe destruction in downstream areas.”
The repercussions of July 2004 floods were experienced for years[ix]. So in Nov 2004 a Joint Group of Experts (JGE) meeting on flood management between India and Bhutan was held in Bhutan (a Joint Technical Team constituted between the two countries). In April, 2005, the first meeting of the Joint Technical Team on flood management was held between the two countries. In 2007, there was a breach in Beki embankment due to choking of Manas and Hakua channels. In 2008, Report of Joint Technical Team evaluated at second JGE meeting, JTT was reconstituted.
The 2004 floods have permanently changed the situation in downstream Manas and Beki river basins as can be seen from the report of the Manas forest officials in Feb 2011, see a small excerpt below.
Why is Indian government callous on this issue? It seems that in spite of repeated floods that India has faced due to sudden water releases from Bhutan, there is still no mechanism in place to provide advance information about such water releases from Bhutan dams, to the concerned local administration and communities. Such advance information can be hugely useful to prepare the downstream people and also can help reduce the possible damages. Nor is there a mechanism to compensate the people for losses that they suffer due to such water releases. It is high time Indian government wakes up to this reality and take necessary steps. After all, if we cannot achieve this with a friendly neighbor like Bhutan, what hopes there is for achieving this in case of other upstream countries?