Union Water Resources Minister Shri Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has recently said that the snow this year on Himalayan peaks is the highest in 50 years, and reservoirs like Bhakra, Pong, Ranjit Sagar, Ramganga, Tehri, etc will receive very high water inflow from snowmelt during summer and SW Monsoon.[i] This is in fact the third warning this year on this issue. Earlier on Feb 27, 2020 and then again on May 4, 2020, the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) provided the same warning to its partner states. However, neither the Union Minister & BBMB, nor the partner states seem ready or doing anything to prepare for the unprecedented situation that the dams and rivers may bring in ongoing summer and coming SW monsoon.
In fact the situation is similar to the one that happened twice at Bhakra-Pong-Ranjit Sagar Dams last year[ii]. Even then not only there were massive floods, but the water flowed away to Pakistan, totally against the declared pronouncements and policy of Indian Government leaders including the Prime Minister.
Unprecedented situation On May 5, 2020, The Tribune reported[iii]: According to BBMB sources, the average depth of snow cover in Bhakra’s catchment area at present is 480 mm as compared to 230 mm last year. This translates to fresh water equivalent of 19-20 Billion Cubic Metres (BCM). About a third of the catchment area lies in Himachal Pradesh and the remaining in Tibet along the course of the Sutlej.”
Earlier The Tribune had reported on Feb 28, 2020[iv]: “The average snowfall across the catchment area of Sutlej and Beas rivers that lies across Himachal Pradesh and adjoining parts of Tibet, has been 540 mm so far this season as compared to 245 mm last year,” a senior BBMB official said. “Consequently, we are looking at frozen reserves equivalent to 22 BCM. Out of this, we expect a melt-off of 35 to 50 per cent, depending upon the weather and temperature variations,” he added. This implies that the snow-melt could produce up to 11 BCM of fresh water. Last year, the melt-off was 7 BCM till July. The BBMB has also recommended that the Punjab Government strengthen the embankments along rivers and seasonal rivulets to mitigate the risk of flooding.
In 2019 there was so much inflow into the Bhakra, Pong and Ranjit Sagar Dams that twice flood situation was created in Punjab[v]. This year the snowmelt contribution is likely to be about 56% higher than last year. This is now also collaborated by the statement of Union Jal Shakti Minister.
Water use advise from BBMB States are being advised to draw additional water and fill up their canals and drains so that reservoir levels are depleted appropriately to cater for the expected inflows. “We are stressing that the states use canal water to the maximum extent possible and also use this for recharging ground water,” the official said.
Dam Water Levels As per the latest weekly reservoir bulletin from Central Water Commission, as on May 6, 2020[vi], Bhakra Dam had 1.966 BCM water in live storage, which is 32% of live storage capacity and is higher than the average of last ten years, which was 28%. In case of Pong dam, the water storage was much higher at 3.472 BCM, 56% of live storage, which was 45% last year and 27% as an average over last ten years. In case of Ranjit Sagar Dam (managed not by BBMB but by Punjab Govt), the live storage was huge 1.263 BCM, 54% of the live storage capacity. Here it may be added that the filling period of these dams start on May 21, so by this time the water storage must have been lower that the current storage level, particularly when BBMB itself has been warning about the unprecedented inflows from snow melt.
In fact, the live storage water in Ranjit Sagar has increased massively in last two months from March 5 at 0.866 BCM to now 1.263 BCM on May 6, so Punjab government seems even less prepared for the impending inflows.
BBMB power generation confirms ill preparedness BBMB has total hydropower installed capacity of 2920.3 MW, which produced in March 2020, as per the figures of Central Electricity Authority (CEA), 670.45 Million Units (MU), much lower than 839.84 MU in the same month in 2019. This when the water level was so high in the Bhakra dams and it needed to release water to create space for the heavy inflows that BBMB itself has been warning the partner states about. Even in April 2020, BBMB hydro capacity produced lower power than what it did in April 2019, going by BBMB figures (CEA power generation figures for April 2020 are still not out). BBMB could have easily increased its power generation during March and April 2020, which would have helped increased hydro generation replacing the thermal power and also helped reduce the reservoir water level.
Similarly, the 600 MW Ranjit Sagar Dam hydropower station produced just 108.53 MU in March 2020, compared to 178.05 MU in March 2019, again showing the callousness of the Punjab government.
In Conclusion The Bhakra, Pong and Ranjit Sagar reservoirs are situated on Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers respectively, all three rivers allocated to India under the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan. These projects are situated in region where there is excessive groundwater use happening since early 1970s and the groundwater aquifers are massively depleted over the decades. The availability of additional water last year could have been a boon, if we were ready to use it for recharging groundwater, which would have provided long term benefits. We are again confronted by similar situation this year, going by the pronouncements of BBMB and Union Jal Shakti Minister. Union Jal Shakti Ministry, BBMB and the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and even Delhi (beneficiary of the Bhakra water) need to prepare to recharge maximum of the available water to the groundwater through existing local tanks, ponds, lakes, wetlands, canals, streams and also creating artificial groundwater recharge mechanism. BBMB and Punjab Govt also need to optimize the power generation from this expected bounty of water so that thermal power generation is minimized in this period and also there is minimum release of water from the dam without power generation, unlike the situation in 2019 when in Aug-Sept, water flowed down the dams several times without generation of power and also flowed away to Pakistan. Hope we are able to use the bounty from nature to the maximum extent for the greater good of maximum number of people in terms of long term benefits.
In fact, all the Himalayan originating rivers and dams on such rivers also face the prospects of extra flows in the ongoing summer and coming SW monsoon. So what is applicable to Sutlej, Beas and Ravi is also applicable to all the other Himalayan rivers and dams on such rivers.