Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD) operators are operating the dam callously, almost cruelly, without consideration of the impact of the operation in the downstream area. Till Saturday-Aug 29, 2020 early hours, they were not releasing any water from the spillway gates of the dam, in spite of sufficient actionably information at least since Aug 26 that rainfall is hugely increasing in upstream Narmada basin. They were not even operating powerhouses even though the dam was close to 70% full. Suddenly, by Aug 29 night they started releasing upto ten lakh cusecs – Cubic Feet Per Second (28320 cumecs or Cubic Meters per second) of water[i]. Three days later, in the evening of Tuesday, Sept 1, they closed most of the spillway gates, thus reducing releases from spillway to less than a tenth of the earlier figure. During these 3-4 days (Aug 29-Sept 1), massive quantities were released, upto 30 000 cumecs through spillways, and almost nothing before or after! It created massive flood disaster all along the downstream from Gaudeshwar to Chandod to Bharuch, but the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) authorities or the Gujarat government seem least bothered. It is high time people of Gujarat wake up and hold the SSP operators accountable for this man made disaster.
It’s in fact double disaster: it created avoidable flood disaster. The second disaster was basically in terms of the loss as it also meant that the water that could have been released into the river over longer period, could not be used for that purpose.
Could they have avoided this kind of massive, disastrous flood flow for the downstream area for 3-4 days and instead staggered the releases over longer period, which, in stead of of creating a disaster, could have helped the downstream river and area over a longer period? Was there actionable information available with SSP authorities to take such advance releases of lower quantum? Did they use that information? Who are responsible? What action can and should be taken?
The downstream disaster The releases were so heavy on Aug 29 that TOI reported: “About 21 villages located close to the embankment of Narmada river in Jhagadia, Bharuch and Ankleshwar talukas in Bharuch district have been put on alert… A team of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) too has been put on stand-by in the district for rescue and relief work following the flood alert issued by the Bharuch district administration on Saturday… District collector of Bharuch, Dr MD Modiya said, “People in low-lying areas in Jhagadia, Bharuch and Ankleshwar have been advised not to venture near the river and stay alert. The administration is fully prepared to meet any eventuality.””
On Monday, ANI reported on Monday, Aug 31, 2020[ii]: “10 lakh cusecs of water has been released from the Sardar Sarovar Dam today. It has impacted at least 30 villages near the dam. We have shifted 4977 people who were affected by the flood like situation. MD Modiya, the district magistrate, Bharuch said currently the water level of the Golden Bridge is at 32.68 ft.”
According to another set of Gujarati reports[iii], (following opening of 23 of the 30 spillway gates of SSD), for the 7th time in last 50 years, water level crossed 34 feet and reached 35.17 feet (10.72 m). Livelihoods of tens of thousand is affected, at least 6595 people had to be shifted for safety. Boats were plying in Old Bharuch city streets. Water has entered at least 4000 shops, leading to massive damages. Crops over at least 20 000 ha have been destroyed. Narmadeshwar temple at Garudeshwar got washed away in the floods.
The Video from The Times of India shows how Bharuch areas are flooded.[iv]
CWC also tweeted how SSP releases lead to floods in downstream areas: https://twitter.com/CWCOfficial_FF/status/1300786574376996864
How did SSP authorities operated the dam? From the information available from CWC (Central Water Commission) Flood Forecasting[v], NCA (Narmada Control Authority) daily bulletins[vi] and other available information, we can understand how SSD was operated during this episode. There are contradictory informations in some instances between these sources, in which case we have gone by what CWC FF hydrographs as that is more detailed information compared to NCA bulletins, which give only daily average figures.
As per following hydrograph of SSD from CWC, no water was released from the spillways of the SSD till around 0000 hrs of Aug 29.
The NCA bulletin of Aug 28 also reported zero releases from SSD spillways. NCA bulletin of Aug 29 reported (applicable for 0800 hours that day) spillway release of 3231.4 cumecs and when we add the RBPH (River Bed Power House) releases of 1114.6 cumecs, we have total release to river of 4346 cumecs, this is possibly the average figure for the 24 hrs ending at 0800 hrs on Aug 29. Similarly releases to river for Aug 30, Aug 31, Sept 1 and Sept 2 are reported as: 17343 cumecs, 25726 cumecs, 29887 cumecs and 23410 cumecs respectively.
The following SSD hydrograph gives the latest situation starting from Aug 30 to Sept 2.
The NCA bulletins also tell us that the SSP power houses were producing NO power on Aug 25, paltry 0.509 MU on Aug 26, 10 MU on Aug 27 and produced peak of 26.91 Million Units on Sept 2, when power houses released maximum 1552 cumecs. This again shows under utilization of the power stations, if they had operated them optimally before Aug 29, it would have helped reduce water level. Average water release from SSD (including spillways, power houses and Head Regulator) on Aug 25, 26, 27 and 28 were just 4.4 cumecs, 117 cumecs, 688 cumecs and 1114 cumecs, which shows that SSP was just hoarding water during these and earlier days. If the dam had released regular greater quantity of water, that would not only helped the people, river and ecosystem, but also would have helped avoid the disaster.
The following two hydrographs of Narmada River at Garudeshwar show that water level started climbing from around 22 m around 1600 hrs on Aug 29, went above the warning level of 30.48 m around 1900 hrs on Aug 30. Reached a peak of 33.1 m at 1500 hrs on Sept 1, started falling and then came down below the warning level by around 0000 hrs on Sept 2.
The following two hydrographs of Narmada river at Bharuch show that water level was at 4.85 m till 2000 hours on Aug 29 when it started climbing and reached 10.6 m by 0300 hours on Sept 1. And that since Sept 1 evening, water level has started dropping and has dropped from peak of 10.72 m on Sept 1 evening to 8.7 m on Sept 2 evening.
Information that SSP authorities could have used to take advance action The IMD provides daily district wise rainfall figures for the 24 hrs ending at 0830 hours everyday. If we see these figures for Aug 27 ( figures of rainfall happening on Aug 26), the rainfall in some of the Narmada Valley districts were: Dindori: 416% above normal; Jabalpur: 315% above normal; Mandla: 254% above normal; Katni: 147% above normal and Seoni: 135% above normal. So this rainfall on Aug 26, the information about which should clearly be monitored by SSP authorities since that rainfall would ultimately result in inflows in SSP, was clear, actionable information.
Similarly, rainfall in some of the Narmada valley districts in MP reported by IMD Aug 28 morning (these are figures of rainfall on Aug 27) was even bigger warning: Narshimapura: 152.6 mm; Raisen: 110.5 mm; Hoshangabad: 81.8 mm; Balaghat: 83 mm; Chhindwara: 68.5 mm; Dindori: 49.8 mm; Jabalpur: 58.9 mm; Mandla 74.2 mm; Seoni: 67.4 mm. Thus the rainfall of Aug 27 was another major warning.
Rainfall reported by IMD on Aug 29 morning (rainfall on Aug 28) in some of the Narmada Valley districts went up further: Betul: 142.4 mm; Harda: 111.1 mm; Hoshangabad: 191.1 mm; Raisen: 114.5 mm; Sehore: 87 mm; Balaghat: 90.7 mm; Chhindwara: 250.6 mm; Nrsimhapur: 138.4 mm; Seioni: 139.7 mm. Such heavy rainfall on Aug 28 was yet another major warning for SSP operators.
These figures are for actual rainfall. In fact, IMD forecasts for rainfall were available even earlier that these respective dates. That would be another actionable information, since the short term forecasts are quite accurate.
CWC also provided warning and advisories that SSP authorities clearly ignored CWC’s daily flood reports and advisories provided warnings in a number of way, some important aspects are noted below.
26.08.20 Rainfall warning for SSP/ SSP/ Tawa/ Barna: NO
26.08.20 Inflow forecast for ISP and OSP falling inflows.
27.08.20: Inflow forecast: For ISP and OSP: Steady; For Bargi: Rising
27.08.20 CWC advisories included: “Rivers …Narmada …, East Madhya Pradesh… are expected to rise rapidly due to forecasted extreme rainfall in next 2 days. … Bargi Dam… in Madhya Pradesh … are expected to get heavy inflows. Close watch is to be maintained in Districts Shahdole, Balaghat, Jabalpur, Mandla, Seoni, Chhindwara, Betul in Madhya Pradesh”. Flood alerted districts included districts along Narmada.
Rainfall warning reservoirs included: Bargi, ISP, Tawa, Barna: Yes. SSP: No.
28.08.20 Inflow forecast: ISP 3200 cumecs (Rising); OSP 4900 cumecs (Rising); Bargi 4000 cumecs (Rising); Tawa 6000 cumecs (rising);
28.08.20 CWC advisories included: “Rivers Narmada, … in Madhya Pradesh, …are expected to rise rapidly due to forecasted very heavy rainfall in next 2-3 days. … Bargi Dam, Barna Dam, Tawa Dam, Indira Sagar Dam, Omkareshwar Dam, … in Madhya Pradesh, … are expected to get heavy inflows. Close watch is to be maintained in Districts Shahdole, Balaghat, Jabalpur, Mandla, Seoni, Chhindwara, Betul, Narasimhapur, Raisen, East & West Nimar, Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, …”
“Rivers Narmada, … in Gujarat, … are expected to rise due to forecasted heavy to very heavy rainfall in the next 3 days. … Sardar Sarovar Dam … in Gujarat are expected to get increased inflows.”
Rainfall warning for dams: Barna, Bargi, ISP, Tawa YES (RED), SSP: Yes (Orange).
While the CWC forecasts and advisories could have been much more clearer, sharper and better, these were another set of information that SSP authorities could have used for advance releases from SSD. I am NOT going into a critique of CWC warning and advisories here since that is a different issue. Key issue here is that there were warnings, some explicit, others implicit in these advisories that SSP authorities could have used, but clearly did not.
How advance action would have avoided the disaster It needs to be noted that every dam when not operated properly, can be a source of disaster, while it also has the potential to be flood moderator when operated properly. This is even more relevant for a massive dam like SSD. SSNNL and other responsible Gujarat govt officials must act responsibly to ensure that the dam does operate properly and does not create avoidable disaster. They can use every available information, including rainfall forecasts in the catchments, information of actual rainfall, information about situation of river flows and upstream dam and their outflows and also CWC flood forecasting, NCA bulletins. But at the end of the day, they cannot pass the buck to others, they have to be held accountable for the operation of the dam when they create disaster like they have done in this case.
It is clear from above that SSP authorities had sufficient information to take advance action and start releasing water from the dam at least from Aug 26 evening, if not earlier. If they had gradually started water releases and built up to say 4 lakh cusecs (11300 cumecs, this figure need to be decided taking the river carrying capacity in the downstream), they could have continued to release this relatively moderate quantity of water for the next say 10 days starting from Aug 26 and that would have taken care of all the flows that SSD received during Aug 29-Sept 1. The water level at SSP may have fallen initially from Aug 26-29 and then risen a bit temporarily till Sept 2 and then again fallen back to what it is now. This would have meant no flood disaster in the downstream area. And in stead, the 4 lakh cusecs water released over prolonged period that would have flown in this 160 km stretch of river downstream of SSD would have benefited the river, groundwater and eco system in large number of ways.
The concerned SSP authorities and Gujarat govt officials must be held accountable. There is also a need to change the monitoring and standard operating procedure of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the downstream river. The Rule Curve and decision making SOPs of the SSD should be in public domain. One hopes the Gujarat Government, NCA, CWC, National Disaster Management Authority, media and judiciary take note of this and take action to hold the dam operators accountable.
Himanshu Thakkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For Gujarati translation of this article, see: https://tinyurl.com/y5naz3sp.
[iii] https://watchgujarat.com/india/gujarat/bharuch/gujarat-narmada-sardar-sarovar-dam-water-storage-capacity-6-25-crore-gujarati/, https://watchgujarat.com/india/gujarat/bharuch/watchgujarat-bharuch-flooded-people-rescued-water-logged/, https://watchgujarat.com/india/gujarat/bharuch/gujarat-narmada-garudeshwar-mahadev-temple-drwan-into-narmada-river-live-video/