Hydropeaking · Rivers

River bank failure due to sudden water flow changes

Can land, trees, structures, farms, pipes, poles, pumps etc, along a river bank several kilometers downstream collapse if water flow in the river is suddenly reduced or stopped? Yes, reduced/ stopped, not increased? This kind of river bank slump or collapse or failure is not easily understood, but it does happen. Let us see how. Continue reading “River bank failure due to sudden water flow changes”

Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP News Bulletin 02 Jan 2017 (Corruption in Nepal’s Hydro Power Projects)

The latest report of Transparency International reveals that lack of dependable hydrological data, authentic study, action plans giving dual meaning, lack of transparency in the power purchase agreement and a failure to increase the risk-bearing capacity among power developers have remained major hindrances towards the development of hydropower sector in Nepal.

As per the report, the irregularities start from the stages of project selection and identification and this tendency further flourished in the period of a survey and the project implementation, the report states, highlighting a responsible role from the government level to control this practice.

The report also points out that environment standard violations, inadequate compensation in regard to land acquisition, false claims, unreasonable local demands, unwarranted contract variations, bias in selection of top officials like board members and CEOs during the construction, procurement, and implementation phases are working as a catalyst to bring the hydro sector under the grip of corruption.

Continue reading “DRP News Bulletin 02 Jan 2017 (Corruption in Nepal’s Hydro Power Projects)”

Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP News Bulletin 11 Oct 2016 (Is there any justification for DESTRUCTION of Panna Tiger Reserve?)

Is there any justification for DESTRUCTION of Panna Tiger Reserve? Can we save our Natural Heritage like the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) from being destroyed in the name of baseless, questionable, non transparent, undemocratic and manipulated projects like Ken Betwa inter linking ? It will facilitate export of water from Bundelkhand to OUTSIDE Bundelkhand. Whatever little benefits are claimed, some of them are already available and much more can become available at much lower costs, faster and without destroying the Forests and Tiger Reserve. The project will actually lead to destruction of Ken catchment and hence the Ken River itself. Watch this FASCINATING, AWESOME story of tigers of PTR. This BBC film where Raghu Chandawat is the story teller and Pradip Kishen is lending his voice, tells the story of Tigers of Panna till 2003, it seems. Please watch and let us all try to save it from destruction that is now writ large in terms of Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP). One more short film by wildlife biologist Koustubh Sharma illustrates how the Daudhan Dam under KBLP will submerge and destroy the PTR.

Meanwhile, a new analysis of rainfall data reveals that monsoon shortages are growing in river basins with surplus water and falling in those with scarcities, raising questions about India’s Rs 11 lakh crore plan to transfer water from “surplus” to “deficit” basins. According to Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP river basin interlinking should be considered only after exhausting the local potential for harvesting rain, recharging groundwater, watershed development, introducing better cropping patterns (non water-intensive crops) and methods (such as rice intensification), improving the soil moisture-holding capacity and saving and storing water. Raising alarm over significant increase in ground water use, increasing reliance and fast declining ground water table, he warns that inter-basin links would actually reduce groundwater recharge because forests would be destroyed, the river flow stopped and the local systems neglected.

Continue reading “DRP News Bulletin 11 Oct 2016 (Is there any justification for DESTRUCTION of Panna Tiger Reserve?)”


Celebrating our Rivers on the World Rivers Day, 2016!

Above: Parshuram Kund on River Lohit, Arunachal Pradesh

Since 2005, last Sunday of every September is celebrated as the World Rivers Day. The tradition started in 1980s in British Columbia when some river activists came together for their rivers. Its only grown since then.

All through the year we hear about water conflicts, river pollution, degrading freshwater biodiversity, damming of living rivers, mismanagment, concretisation and encroachment on Indian Rivers. As I write this, Cauvery Water Conflict and simmering, serious discontent over the Indus Water Treaty governing 6 rivers between India and Pakistan is mounting. A simple google search on Indian Rivers throws up images of filth, pollution, droughts and floods. Lest we forget, thats not the whole picture. We are still the custodians of an amazing legacy. India still holds some of the most beautiful, healthy and life giving rivers in the world. There are people and communities nurturing their rivers and protecting them. All is not lost and this is a battle worth fighting, full of positive energy. Continue reading “Celebrating our Rivers on the World Rivers Day, 2016!”

Dams · DRP News Bulletin

DRP News Bulletin 25 July 2016 (Tawang residents protest against unfulfilled promises)

Arunachal Tawang residents protest against unfulfilled promises Hundreds of residents on July 22 marched through the streets of Tawang, the home district of newly elected CM Pema Khandu, in protest against non-fulfillment of their demand for jobs to kith and kins of two anti-dam activists killed in police firing on May 2. During the protest march they also led a signature campaign against large dams planned in Tawang, where the predominantly Buddhist Monpa tribe feared that many of the proposed hydro-power projects would damage sacred Buddhist sites in the district. At least 13 large hydro-power projects have been planned in the district, which shares border with China’s Tibet region. On June 21 the Lamas-led Save Mon Region Federation had issued six-point charter of demand to the state government for fulfillment in 30 days. Arunachal comprises a fragile, rich parcel of wildlife and ecosystem, among the richest ecosystems in India. But planning & building of hydro projects has been and will cause irreversible environmental damage. Perhaps it’s time for an aggressive freeze on all the un-built projects and an evaluation of other models of energy. Mr Prema Khandu must consider why Arunachal should become India’s mitochondria-the country’s energy provider, while losing its own enormous wealth. But contrary to this new while addressing a press conference, the new CM, on July 18 said that the govt would find ways to tap the petroleum resources & harness the hydropower potential which could be a money spinner for the state. On the 2000Mw Lower Subanisiri HEP at Gerukamukh, Mr Khandu has emphatically said he would discuss the issue with the Assam govt as well as the Centre for a solution. He said that in all the hydropower projects the affected people should be taken into confidence by both the executing agencies as well as the state govt. The new CM elected from Tawang, seeing the hydropower projects as money spinner does not sound very encouraging. Let us see how far he actually goes to take people into confidence as promised by him. 

Continue reading “DRP News Bulletin 25 July 2016 (Tawang residents protest against unfulfilled promises)”

Dams · Rivers

Bhatiyali: The Eternal Song of the River

ओ रे माँझी, ओ रे माँझी

मेरे साजन हैं उस पार, मैं मन मार , हूँ इस पार

ओ मेरे माँझी अब की बार ले चल पार, ले चल पार

Everything about this song: its words, its music, its picturisation and Sachin Deo (SD) Burman’s evocative voice mesmerizes me (I’m one of many others, I’m sure). I loved this song’s connect with rivers and used to repeat it over and over, till my (visibly exasperated) husband told me, “But did you not know? Rivers have influenced SD’s music a lot. He has talked about his lone ramblings on the Gumti in Tripura, listening to folk music based on rivers many times”. I did not know that. Continue reading “Bhatiyali: The Eternal Song of the River”


Know our rivers: A beginners guide to river classification 

Who has not seen a river? And who has then, not been moved by a fierce emotion? The common man sees its life granting blessed form, the government or CWC engineer sees in it as a potential dam project, the hydropower developers a site for hydro project, a farmer his crop vitality, fisher folk, boatspeople and river bed cultivators a source of livelihood, the industry & urban water utilities view it as their personal  waste basket, the real estate developer as a potential land grab site, a sand miner as a source of sand and the distraught villager his lifeline. In earlier days, film makers used to see it as site for filming some memorable songs, but these days even that has become a rarity.[1]

Nadi Naare na jaao from Film Mujhe Jeene do
Song “Nadi Naare na jaao” from Film Mujhe Jeene do

Rivers truly are a complex entity that invoke varied emotions and responses!

Leh_Indus river

A river shifts in colour, shape, size, flow pattern of water, silt, nutrients and biota, in fact all its variables seem to change with time and space. The perceptions differ as one moves from mountains to plains to the deltas. The same stream displays a wide variance of characteristics that depend upon the land it flows through and the micro climate along its banks. Rivers many a times seem to mirror the local flavour of the land they flow through. Or is it the local flavour that changes with river flow? Clearly both are interdependent.

Today, as we talk of rivers, their rejuvenation and try to figure out their ecological flow and their health quotient , a good beginning  to understand the existing rivers would be their classification modules. What defines a river? Which factors are used for their classification? How do we actually classify our rivers?

As far as the first of these questions is concerned, none of the official agencies have tried to define a river!

Possiby, the first post independence classification of river basins was attempted in 1949 by precuser institute of current Central Water Commission (CWC). Since then various organisations have followed their own methodology and criteria for basin classification and arrived at different numbers.

Basin Map of Rivers by Central Water Commission
Basin Map of Rivers by Central Water Commission

NIH (National Institute of Hydrology), Roorkee organises our 7 major rivers, that is the Brahmaputra (apparently this includes the Ganga and the Meghna), Godavri, Krishna & Mahanadi (that flow into the Bay of Bengal), and the Indus, Narmada & Tapi (which drain into the Arabian Sea) , along with their tributaries to make up the entire river system in our country.[2] This is clearly problematic and chaotic, since it leaves out vast areas of the country and the rivers that flow through them.

A quick look at the classification based on these 3 aspects –origin, topography and the basin they form.

  • Based on Origin or Source

Depending on the origin or where they begin their journey from, there are the Himalayan (perennial) rivers that rise from the Himalayas and the  Peninsular rivers that originate from the Indian plateau. The Himalayan rivers include the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra river systems along with their tributaries, which are fed throughout the year by melting ice and rainfall. They are swift, have great erosion capacity and carry huge amounts of silt & sand. They meander along the flat land, create large fertile flood plains in their wake and their banks are dotted by major towns and cities.

The peninsular rivers, on the other hand are more or less dependent on rain. These are gentler in their flow, follow a relatively straighter path, have comparatively less  gradient and include Narmada, Tapi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauveri and Mahanadi rivers, among many others.

  • Based on topography

The Himalayan Rivers flow throughout the year, are prone to flooding and include Indus and the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna.

The Deccan Rivers include the Narmada and Tapi rivers that flow westwards into the Arabian Sea, and the Brahmani, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar & Cauvery that fall into the Bay of Bengal.

The Coastal Rivers are comparatively small in size and numerous in number, with nearly 600 flowing on the west coast itself.

Rivers of the Inland Drainage Basin are centered in western Rajasthan, parts of Kutch in Gujarat and mostly disappear before they reach the sea as the rainfall here is scarce. Some of them drain into salt lakes or simply get lost in the vast desert sands.

Island Rivers Rivers of our islands: A&N islands & Lakshadip group of islands

  • Based on basin formed

On the basis of the basin formed, our rivers are distributed into 7 river systems. The Indus River System originates in Kailash range in Tibet, and includes Zanskar,  Shyok, Nubra ,Hunza (in Kashmir) along with Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej as its principal tributaries. In the Brahmaputra River System, it was earlier assumed that the Mansarovar lake is the source of the Brahmaputra river, however, now it is confirmed that Angsi Glacier is the main source (see: See: http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-maps-brahmaputra-indus/article2384885.ece). Most of the course of the river lies outside the country. In India it flows through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, where it is joined by several tributaries. For more information on this river, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/brahmaputra-the-beautiful-river-or-the-battleground/.

Mighty Brahmaputra in  Assam
Mighty Brahmaputra in Assam

The Narmada River System comprises of the Narmada River that represents the traditional boundary between North & South India and which empties into the Arabian Sea in Bharuch district of Gujarat. Tapi river of the Tapi River System rises in the eastern Satpura Range of Madhya Pradesh and then empties into the Gulf of Cambay of the Arabian Sea, Gujarat. Its major tributaries are Purna, Girna , Panzara , Waghur , Bori  and Aner rivers.

Also called the Vriddh (Old) Ganga or the Dakshin (South) Ganga,  Godavari of the Godavari River System, originates at Trambakeshwar, Maharashtra and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Summers find the river dry, while monsoons widen the river course. Its major tributaries include Indravati, Pranahita, Manjira, Bindusara and Sabari rivers.

The Krishna River System includes Krishna river, one of the longest rivers of the country,that originates at Mahabaleswar, Maharashtra, and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal at Hamasaladeevi, Andhra Pradesh. Tungabhadra River, formed by Tunga and Bhadra rivers, is one of its principal tributary. Others are  Koyna, Bhima, Mallaprabha, Ghataprabha, Yerla, Warna, Dindi, Musi and Dudhganga rivers.

The Kaveri River System has the Kaveri (or Cauvery) river whose source is Talakaveri in the Western Ghats and it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It has many tributaries including Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavathy, Kapila, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and Amaravati. The Mahanadi of the Mahanadi River System,  a river of eastern India rises in the Satpura Range and flows east into the Bay of Bengal.

Broader definition: Catchment area size

River basins are widely recognized as a practical hydrological unit. And these can also be grouped, based on the size of their catchment areas (CA). This easy to understand river system classification divides them into the following categories as tabulated below:

River basin CA  in sq km No. of river basins CA in million sq. Km % area % Run off % population
Major river basin CA > 20,000 14 2.58 83 85 80
Medium 20,000<CA<2,000 44 0.24 8 7 20
Minor (Coastal areas) CA< 2,000 Many 0.20 9 8
Desert rivers Flow is uncertain & most lost in desert 0.1
Drainage System of Indian Rivers
Drainage System of Indian Rivers

Major river basins include the perennial Himalayan rivers- Indus, Ganga & Brahmaputra, the 7 river systems of central India, the Sabarmati, the Mahi, Narmada & Tapi on the west coast and the Subarnekha, Brahmani & the Mahanadi on the east coast and the 4 river basins of Godavri, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery, which takes the total to 14. The medium river basins include 23 east flowing rivers such as Baitarni, Matai & Palar.  A few important west flowing rivers are Shetrunji, Bhadra, Vaitarna & Kalinadi. The minor river basins  include the numerous, but essentially small streams that flow in the coastal areas. In the East coast, the land width between the sea and the mountains is about 100 km, while in the West coast, it ranges between 10 to 40 km. The desert rivers flow for a distance and then disappear in the desert of Rajasthan or Rann of Kutch, generally without meeting the sea.[3]

A need for details

Under India-WRIS (Water Resources Information System) project too, the river basin has been taken as the basic hydrological unit, but the country has been divided into 6 water resource regions, 25 basins and 101 sub basins, which are an extension of the earlier 20 basins delineated by CWC, as detailed in the ‘River basin Atlas of India’. [4] The details of the individual catchment area of these 20 river basins is tabulated here:

S No River Basin CA (Sq. Km) Major river River Length, km
1 Indus (Upto border) 321289 Indus(India) 1114
2 Ganga- Brahmaputra-Meghna
a Ganga 861452 Ganga 2525
b Brahmaputra 194413 Brahmaputra (India) 916
c Barak & others 41723 Barak 564
3 Godavari 312812 Godavari 1465
4 Krishna 258948 Krishna 1400
5 Cauvery 81155 Cauvery 800
6 Subernarekha 29169 Subernarekha 395
Burhabalang 164
7 Brahmani & Baitarni 51822 Brahmani 799
Baitarni 355
8 Mahanadi 141589 Mahanadi 851
9 Pennar 55213 Pennar 597
10 Mahi 34842 Mahi 583
11 Sabarmati 21674 Sabarmati 371
12 Narmada 98796 Narmada 1312
13 Tapi 65145 Tapi 724
14 West flowing rivers from Tapi to Tadri 55940 Many independent rivers
15 West flowing rivers from Tadri to Kanyakumari 56177
16 East flowing rivers Between Mahanadi & pennar 86643
17 East flowing rivers Between Pennar & Kanyakumari 100139
18 W flowing rivers of Kutch & Saurashtra includes Luni 321851 Luni 511
19 Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan 60269 Many independent rivers
20 Minor rivers draining into Myanmar & Bangladesh 36202 Many independent rivers

Note: 1. River Length is only for the main stem of the river, does not include tributaries, etc.

  1. Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan is not given in this reference, it has been arrived at by inference.
  2. Indus basin is constibuted by six main rivers: Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum and Indus itself. Some tributaries of this system form independent catchment in India (e.g. Tawi river in Chenab basin) as these confluence with the main river only in downstream of the border.

Of course these methods only classify rivers based on their physical & geographical attributes, their drainage area, river length, volume of water carried and tributary details. For a detailed study of a river, what is also needed is its ecological assessment.  The methods for river classification may be varied and still evolving, but this information is fundamental to better understand and map the rivers that criss cross across the country.

And definitely a first step to try and understand our rivers!

Sabita Kaushal, SANDRP  (sabikaushal06@gmail.com)


[1] This blog is part of a series of blogs we plan to put up in view of the India Rivers Week being held during Nov 24-27, 2014, see for details: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/press-release-india-rivers-week-from-24-27-nov-2014-first-irw-event-to-be-held-in-delhi/

[2] Rivers of India: National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee


[3] India’s Water Wealth: KL Rao, Orient Longman, 1975

[4] River basin atlas of India, 2012: A report by Central Water Commission and Indian Space Research Organisation: http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/river-basin-atlas-india-report-central-water-commission-and-indian-space-research

Himalayas · Hydropower

Himalayas cannot take this Hydro onslaught



It is close to a year after the worst ever Himalayan flood disaster that Uttarakhand or possibly the entire Indian Himalayas experienced in June 2013[1]. While there is no doubt that the trigger for this disaster was the untimely and unseasonal rain, the way in which this rain translated  into a massive disaster had a lot to do with how we have been treating the Himalayas in recent years and today. It’s a pity that we still do not have a comprehensive report of this biggest tragedy to tell us what happened during this period, who played what role and what lessons we can learn from this experience.

Floods in Uttarakhand Courtesy: Times of India
Floods in Uttarakhand Courtesy: Times of India

One of the relatively positive steps in the aftermath of the disaster came from the Supreme Court of India, when on Aug 13, 2013, a bench of the apex court directed Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)[2] to set up a committee to investigate into the role of under-construction and completed hydropower projects. One would have expected our regulatory system to automatically initiate such investigations, which alas is not the case. Knowing this, some us wrote to MoEF on July 20, 2013[3], to exactly do such an investigation, but again MoEF played deaf and blind to such letters.

The SC mandated committee was set up through an MoEF order dated Oct 16 2013[4] and MoEF submitted the report on April 16, 2014.

5 MW Motigad Project in Pithorgarh District destroyed by the floods. Photo: Emmanuel Theophilus, Himal Prakriti
5 MW Motigad Project in Pithorgarh District destroyed by the floods. Photo: Emmanuel Theophilus, Himal Prakriti

The committee report, signed by 11 members[5], makes it clear that construction and operation of hydropower projects played a significant role in the disaster. The committee has made detailed recommendations, which includes recommendation to drop at least 23 hydropower projects, to change parameters of some others. The committee also recommended how the post disaster rehabilitation should happen, today we have no policy or regulation about it. While the Supreme Court of India is looking into the recommendations of the committee, the MoEF, instead of setting up a credible body to ensure timely and proper implementation of recommendations of the committee has asked the Court to appoint another committee on the flimsy ground that CWC-CEA have submitted a separate report advocating more hydropower projects! The functioning of the MoEF continues to strengthen the impression that it is working like a lobby for projects rather than an independent environmental regulator. We hope the apex court see through this.

Boulders devouring the Vishnuprayag Project. 26th June 2013 Photo: Matu jan Sangathan
Boulders devouring the Vishnuprayag Project. 26th June 2013 Photo: Matu jan Sangathan

Let us turn our attention to hydropower projects in Himalayas[6]. Indian Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand[7], Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and rest of North East) already has operating large hydropower capacity of 17561 MW. This capacity has leaped by 68% in last decade, the growth rate of National Hydro capacity was much lower at 40%. If you look at Central Electricity Authority’s (CEA is Government of India’s premier technical organisation in power sector) list of under construction hydropower projects in India, you will find that 90% of projects and 95% of under construction capacity is from the Himalayan region. Already 14210 MW hydropower capacity is under construction. In fact CEA has now planned to add unbelievable 65000 MW capacity in 10 years (2017 to 2027) between 13th and 14th Five Year Plans.

Meanwhile, the Expert Appraisal Committee of Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on River Valley Projects has been clearing projects at a break-neck speed with almost zero rejection rate. Between April 2007 and Dec 2013[8], this committee recommended final environment clearance to 18030.5 MW capacity, most of which has not entered the implementation stage. Moreover, this committee has recommended 1st stage Environment clearance (what is technically called Terms of Reference Clearance) for a capacity of unimaginable 57702 MW in the same period. This is indicative of the onslaught of hydropower projects which we are likely to see in the coming years. Here again an overwhelming majority of these cleared projects are in Himalayan region.

Agitation Against Lower Subansiri Dam in Assam Source: SANDRP
Agitation Against Lower Subansiri Dam in Assam
Source: SANDRP

What does all this mean for the Himalayas, the people, the rivers, the forests, the biodiversity rich area? We have not even fully studied the biodiversity of the area. The Himalayas is also very landslide prone, flood prone, geologically fragile and seismically active area. It is also the water tower of much of India (& Asia). We could be putting that water security also at risk, increasing the flood risks for the plains. The Uttarakhand disaster and changing climate have added new unknowns to this equation.

We all know how poor are our project-specific and river basin-wise cumulative social and environmental impact assessments. We know how compromised and flawed our appraisals and regulations are. We know how non-existent is our compliance system. The increasing judicial interventions are indicators of these failures. But court orders cannot replace institutions or make our governance more democratic or accountable. The polity needs to fundamentally change, and we are still far away from that change.

Peoples protests against Large dams on Ganga. Photo: Matu Jansangathan
Peoples protests against Large dams on Ganga. Photo: Matu Jansangathan

The government that is likely to take over post 2014 parliamentary elections has an opportunity to start afresh, but available indicators do not provide such hope. While UPA’s failure is visible in what happened before, during and after the Uttarakhand disaster, the main political opposition that is predicted to take over has not shown any different approach. In fact NDA’s prime ministerial candidate has said that North East India is the heaven for hydropower development. He seems to have no idea about the brewing anger over such projects in Assam and other North Eastern states. That anger is manifest most clearly in the fact that India’s largest capacity under-construction hydropower project, namely the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri HEP has remained stalled for the last 29 months after spending over Rs 5000 crores. The NDA’s PM candidate also has Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR) on agenda. Perhaps we have forgotten as to why the NDA lost the 2004 Parliamentary elections.  The arrogant and mindless pursuit of projects like ILR and launching of 50 000 MW hydropower campaign by the then NDA government had played a role in sowing the seeds of people’s anger with that government.

In this context we also need to understand what benefits these hydropower projects are actually providing, as against what the promises and propaganda are telling us. In fact our analysis shows that the benefits are far below the claims and impacts and costs are far higher than the projections. The disaster shows that hydropower projects are also at huge risk in these regions. Due to the June 2013 flood disaster large no of hydropower projects were damaged and generation from the large hydro projects alone dropped by 3730 million units. In monetary terms this would mean just the generation loss at Rs 1119 crores assuming conservative tariff of Rs 3 per unit. The loss in subsequent year and from small hydro would be additional.

It is nobody’s case that no hydropower projects be built in Himalayas or that no roads, townships, tourism and other infrastructure be built in the Himalayan states. But we need to study the impact of these massive interventions (along with all other available options in a participatory way) in what is already a hugely vulnerable area, made worse by what we have done so far in these regions and what climate change is threatening to unleash. In such a situation, such onslaught of hydropower projects on Himalayas is likely to be an invitation to even greater disasters across the Himalayas. Himalayas cannot sustain this onslaught.

It is in this context, that the ongoing Supreme Court case on Uttarakhand provides a glimmer of hope. It is not just hydropower projects or other infrastructure projects in Uttarakhand, or for that matter in other Himalayan states that will need to take guidance from the outcome of this case, but it could provide guidance for all kinds of interventions all across Indian Himalayas. Our Himalayan neighbors can also learn from this process. Let us end on that hopeful note here!

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)


[1] For SANDRP blogs on Uttarakhand disaster of June 2013, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/?s=Uttarakhand

[2] For details of Supreme Court order, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/uttarakhand-flood-disaster-supreme-courts-directions-on-uttarakhand-hydropower-projects/

[3] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/uttarakhand-disaster-moef-should-suspect-clearances-to-hydropower-projects-and-institute-enquiry-in-the-role-of-heps/

[4] For Details of MoEF order, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/expert-committee-following-sc-order-of-13-aug-13-on-uttarakhand-needs-full-mandate-and-trimming-down/

[5] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/report-of-expert-committee-on-uttarakhand-flood-disaster-role-of-heps-welcome-recommendations/

[6] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/massive-hydropower-capacity-being-developed-by-india-himalayas-cannot-take-this-onslought/

[7] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/uttarakhand-existing-under-construction-and-proposed-hydropower-projects-how-do-they-add-to-the-disaster-potential-in-uttarakhand/

[8] For details of projects cleared during April 2007 to Dec 2012, see: https://sandrp.in/env_governance/TOR_and_EC_Clearance_status_all_India_Overview_Feb2013.pdf and https://sandrp.in/env_governance/EAC_meetings_Decisions_All_India_Apr_2007_to_Dec_2012.pdf

[9] An edited version of this published in June 2014 issue of CIVIL SOCIETY: http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/pages/Details.aspx?551

Assam · brahmaputra · Embankments · Floods

Matmora (Assam) Geo-tube Embankment on Brahmaputra: State Glorifies, but No End to Peoples’ Sufferings after Three Years of Construction

The state of Assam in the northeastern India annually bears the brunt of floods and where embankment construction and repairing seems like permanent affair. Displacement of people living on the banks of rivers due to river bank erosion is another major issue here. The braiding and meandering river Brahmaputra and its tributaries continue to erode the banks rapidly. The Brahmaputra is well known for the rate in which it erodes. Among the places in the path of the river where the brunt of erosion has been felt severely include the following:

–        Rohmoria and Dibrugarh town in Dibrugarh district,
–        Matmora in Dhakukhana subdivsion of Lakhimpur district,
–        Majuli and Nimati Ghat in Jorhat district,
–        Lahorighat in Morigaon district and
–        Palashbari and Gumi in Kamrup district.

Map of areas taken up for erosion protection in Assam (Source– Assam 2011, A Development Perspective, published by Planning and Development Dept., Govt. of Assam)
Map of areas taken up for erosion protection in Assam. Source– Assam 2011, A Development Perspective, published by Planning and Development Dept., Govt. of Assam

SANDRP recently traveled to Matmora and Nimati ghat, two of these areas.

Bearing the Brunt of Erosion Silently Once a large village now only the name Matmora remains. Locals show us towards the middle of the river, to indicate where the village used to be. The rate of erosion is such that the Brahmaputra dyke from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta (popularly known as Sissi-Tekeliphuta dyke/embankment) takes the shape of a bow for nearly five kilometers at this place. From 2010, Matmora became very significant in the embankment history of India since country’s first embankment using geo-textile technology was constructed here. This was constructed at the bow shaped eroded line using geotextiles tubes. These tubes were filled up using water and sand from the banks of the river. This five kilometer embankment became a part of the Brahmaputra dyke from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta which is 13.9 km long. For the state government and Water Resources Department (WRD) of Assam, Matmora geotube embankment is a story of success of preventing floods and erosion. But what we saw in Matmora presents a different picture.

At Nimati Ghat, the river Brahmaputra is eroding its banks ferociously and people are intimidated by the river. A local person whose village used to be nearly two kilometers from the present bank line, told me, “Nothing can stop Baba Brahmaputra from claiming what he wants”. At Nimati Ghat, the Water Resources Department (WRD) is doing anti erosion work using geo-bags.

Funding for Embankments in Assam The total length of embankments in Assam is 4448 km as stated in a debate in the Legislative Assembly of Assam in 1998. Even though the present length of embankments is not known, it is very clear that the state of Assam continues to construct of newer embankments. In a recent analysis by SANDRP, it was found that the funds continue to increase for construction of embankments in the state. In five years from January 2009 to December 2013, the Advisory Committee in the Union Ministry of Water Resources for consideration of techno-economic viability of Irrigation, Flood Control and Multi-Purpose Project Proposals (TAC in short) had given clearance to projects worth Rs 1762.72 crores. A detailed list of these sanctioned projects can be found in Annexure 1 below.

Matmora Geo-tube embankment after its construction in 2010. Source– Assam 2011, A Development Perspective, published by Planning and Development Dept., Govt. of Assam.
Matmora Geo-tube embankment after its construction in 2010. Source– Assam 2011, A Development Perspective, published by Planning and Development Dept., Govt. of Assam.

Has Geo-tube been helpful for the people   Between January 2009 to December 2013, the Brahmaputra dyke from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta, was considered twice by the TAC. The committee in its 95th meeting on 20th January 2009 accepted the project titled “Raising and Strengthening to Brahmaputra dyke from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta including closing of breach by retirement and anti-erosion measures (to protect Majuli and Dhakukhana areas against flood devastation by the Brahmaputra, Lakhimpur district, Assam). The estimated cost of this project was Rs 142.42 crore and its project proposal envisaged – (i) Raising and strengthening of embankment for a length of 13.9 km, (ii) Construction of retirement bund with geo-textile tubes of length 5000 m. (iii) Construction of 2700 m long pilot channel.

Geo-tube embankment in Matmora, three years after construction. Photo: SANDRP.
Geo-tube embankment in Matmora, three years after construction. Photo: SANDRP.

Protection work of the same dyke was considered in the 117th meeting held on 21st March 2013 under the proposal for “Protection of Brahmaputra dyke from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta at different reaches from Lotasur to Tekeliphuta from the erosion of river Brahmaputra Assam.” The estimated cost of this project was Rs 155.87 crore. According to the minutes of 117th TAC meeting, the scheme envisaged “restoration of existing embankment in a length of 15300m at upstream and downstream of existing geo-tube dyke, Sand filled mattress in a length of 15604 m at river side slope, geo-tube apron length of 7204 m and Reinforced concrete porcupines as pro-siltation device at different reaches to prevent floods and erosion in Dhakukhana Civil sub-division of Lakhimpur district and Majuli sub-division of Jorhat district.” In the same minutes,while referring to the previous project proposal of 95th meeting the minutes stated that, it “was taken up primarily for closure of breach in the existing embankment including raising of embankment around the breach area only. The proposed works in the present scheme were in the same river reach and these would be required to protect the bank from further erosion and provide flood protection.”

This clearly shows that the geo-tube embankment in Matmora cannot be called a success. Government documents which showed that major part of the Brahmaputra dyke from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta remained vulnerable even after the construction of the geo-tube embankment. In fact submitting a proposal for the whole Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment at first and later saying that the money was spent in constructing a smaller part of the embankment also raise questions. The time gap between the two proposals also raises questions. If the whole money from first proposal was to be spent in constructing only a part of the embankment, why was it not stated clearly in the first proposal? In fact, this was not stated in the first proposal and second proposal reflects that the first project failed to achieve the objectives. If the first proposal was indeed only for part of the embankment, why the proposal to strengthen the larger part of the embankment took 5 years to appear before the committee? The latter proposal also did not mention about the breach which swept away a large part of the Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment from Jonmichuk to Amgiri Tapit under Sissikalghar and Jorkata village panchayat. According to the local people this breach occurred in the morning hours of 25th June 2012. The photo below shows the breach happened at the Jonmichuk end.

The breached area of 2012. This photo is taken from the new embankment and the lake formed at this spot can also be seen. Photo - SANDRP
The breached area of 2012. This photo is taken from the new embankment and the lake formed at this spot can also be seen. Photo – SANDRP

Jonminchuk area is nearly 15 km upstream of the geotube embankment in Matmora and part of the Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment. A new embankment of nearly four kilometer long is being constructed at this place but the remnants of the old embankment still exist. The embankment was breached for nearly 3 kms and the water which entered the fields during that time could no longer go out and a large lake has been formed at this place, see the photo. It was surprising to see people living in the patches of the old embankment.

In the downstream, right from the point where the geo-tube embankment ends, the condition of the Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment is pathetic. There were cracks in the embankment and water seepage has almost shattered the embankment. The embankment was in need of urgent repairs.

Condition of the Sissi-Tekelphuta embankment at the end point of the geo-tube embankment towards the village side. Photo - SANDRP
Condition of the Sissi-Tekelphuta embankment at the end point of the geo-tube embankment towards the village side. Photo – SANDRP
Sissi-Tekelphuta embankment at the same spot mentioned above towards the river side.  Photo - SANDRP
Sissi-Tekelphuta embankment at the same spot mentioned above towards the river side. Photo – SANDRP

Besides, one does not have to travel far to find erosion in the downstream of the geo-tube embankment. After travelling, less than three kilometers from the end point of the geo-tube embankment, rapid erosion was observed at the place where the Matmora and Tekeliphuta ghats join, due to low water level. This joint ghat is more than a kilometer from the toe line of Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment but seeing the rapidity of the erosion the locals opine that the river would reach the toe of the embankment within this monsoon. It was difficult to believe that the river can erode so fast, until a young man pointed towards a black line in the middle of the river and said that that area which now seemed to be char/sand bar used to be his village three years back. He with his family now live beside the embankment. In this ghat we also witnessed that spurs constructed from the embankment inside the river, mainly to divert the flow of water, have been eroded as well.

The Spur has also been eroded. Photo - SANDRP
The Spur has also been eroded. Photo – SANDRP
Erosion at Matmora-Tekeliphuta Ghat. Photo - SANDRP
Erosion at Matmora-Tekeliphuta Ghat. Photo – SANDRP

It is also important to note that protection of Majuli from floods was one of the main aims of the geo-tube embankment project, but there were reports of devastating floods affecting Majuli in 2012 & 2013.

After geo-tube comes geo bags With the construction of geo-tube embankments being hailed as a success by the state government, construction of embankments using geo-bags followed. Geo-bags are smaller than geo-tubes and come at a cheaper cost. Embankments on many rivers were constructed using geo-bags which were also used for erosion protection. But effectiveness of the geo-bags as protective measure to flood and erosion, still remains disputed. A news report titled “ADB, river engineers differ on geo-bags” published in Assam Tribune on 9th September 2010 reported about the difference of opinion among the water resource engineers of Assam and powerful lobby of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for the use of geo-bags to resist Brahmaputra erosion in Palasbari-Gumi and Dibrugarh. Referring to the engineers the news report stated “They have alleged that the ADB provided 23,000 geo-bags for an experiment. They were dumped in the month of September 2009 at a 150-metre-long selected erosion-prone reach at Gumi for testing their efficacy. But, a diving observation made in the month of December 2009, suggested that the bags were not launched uniformly in a single layer as it was claimed. They were found lying in a haphazard manner in staggered heaps with gaps in between and the total distance they covered was only about 8 metres, against the claimed and required 35 metres…..The ADB then carried out another diving observation at Gumi in May last (2010) and found no bag at the site. The State WRD did not get any feedback from the ADB on this issue.”

Work of piling up the geo-bags is going on in Nimati Ghat. Photo - SANDRP
Work of piling up the geo-bags is going on in Nimati Ghat. Photo – SANDRP
Status of the geo-bags put last year. Photo - SANDRP
Status of the geo-bags put last year. Photo – SANDRP
The spot where not a single Geo-bag was seen.  Photo - SANDRP
The spot where not a single Geo-bag was seen. Photo – SANDRP

Nimati Ghat was the other place which SANDRP visited to find out the effectiveness of geo-bags. The work of piling up the geo-bags for erosion protection was going on when SANDRP visited the area in the second week of April 2014. The bags which were used previously for the same purpose were seen to be mostly lying in water in shattered condition. Locals told us that majority of the bags are now under water. In the eroded bank line, these geo-bags were lying without any order and in a way suggesting how the river has dealt or to say played with these jumbo bags. In this bank line, there was a stretch of nearly five meters where the river has eroded more than the other parts. At this stretch none of the geo-bags were to be seen.

There were also contradictions regarding when the present erosion protection work at Nimati ghat had started. Some of the shopkeepers of the ghat said that the work of putting up geo-bags started in February 2014. But according to the contractor in charge of the work, the work started in November 2013. Construction or repairing of embankment just few months before the advent of monsoons is one of the constant criticisms, leveled against the Water Resources department of the state and in Nimati too we heard the same complaint.

Is Geo-tube really a ‘permanent solution’ to floods? In the present discourse of floods in Assam this has become a very significant question. The local people have been fed with various information about geo-tube and most of which are wrong. The life of embankment constructed using geo-tube is of 100 years, we were told by the locals when we travelled to the upstream areas of Matmora geo-tube. This is absolutely not true. In fact, for Prof Chandan Mahanta of IIT Guwahati the scouring[1] done by the river Brahmaputra will be the major cause of concern for geo-tube embankments in the long run.

The geo-tube embankment has already faced threat of scouring right after its construction in the monsoons of 2011. It was on the morning of 14th July, 2011 when two of the apron tubes at the tail of the embankment, were launched due to increase force of water. The apron tubes were laid at the toe of the geo-tube embankment and with the increased force of water scoured at the bottom by the embankment toe line. WRD engineers flung into action and immediate repairing work was taken up at the site. According to WRD engineers this had happened because the trees which were  left outside the  embankment  had  obstructed  and  increased  the  force  of  water and they were immediately cut down. Concrete porcupines were also thrown into the water. Asomiya Pratidin, a regional newspaper reported this on that day but thereafter no report on this could be found. The incident was almost forgotten. When we visited the geo-tube embankment, it was observed that along the toe-line of the embankment a scour line runs for substantial length of the embankment. This clearly shows that scouring by the river has increased in this area. The news report published in Assam Tribune [2]also points out a significant problem associated with geo-bags – “The lobby is mounting pressure for use of geo-bags in the form of bank revetment. Bank revetment is generally not adopted in Brahmaputra because of many reasons. Most important of them is – it produces a permanent deep channel along the existing riverbank.”

On the issue of lobbying behind geo-tube, an interesting perspective was provided by activist-researcher Keshoba Krishna Chatradhara who coordinates ‘Peoples’ Movement for Subansiri and Brahmaputra Valley (PMSBV)’. He opines that the construction of geo-tube embankment in Matmora was an experiment, done to see whether such embankments can withstand the flood and erosion of Brahmaputra. The reason for choosing Matmora first and not other severe erosion affected places like Dibrugarh or Rohmoria, was because even if the embankment fails it won’t be as significant loss for the state compared to those places. Dibrugarh is one of the most important towns of upper Assam with a glorious history whereas Rohmoria became important for the state when Oil India Limited found oil deposits in Khagorijan[3]. Infact several local people and activists also opined that the Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment which is on the north bank of the river was cut several times, to save the areas in the upstream south bank, mainly the Dibrugarh town. They said that in the past, before the geo-tube embankment came, whenever there was any news of water rising in Dibrugarh, there would soon be a breach in Sissi-tekeliphuta embankment. In fact considering these breaches in the larger Sissi-tekeliphuta embankment, Mr. Chatradhara opined that even if the geo-tube embankment survives the flood, erosion and breaches in future, it might become a small island in midst of a submerged land as there will surely be breaches in the rest of the Sissi-Tekeliphuta embankment.

ADB loan for Geo-textile Embankments in Assam After the construction of the geo-tube embankment at Matmora, the state government is leaving no stone unturned to make it sound like a glorious success. But it is surprising to know that, even before the Matmora embankment was commissioned in December 2010, the state government have filed proposal for two more embankment project where geo-textile would be used for construction and got it cleared. The two subprojects of Assam Integrated Flood River Bank Erosion Risk Management Project (AIFRERM) in Dibrugarh and Palashbari were cleared in the 106th meeting of TAC held on 16th September 2010. It is important to note that for the total AIFRERM project ADB is giving a loan of $56.9 million. The cost of Dibrugarh and Palashbari subprojects are Rs 61.33 crore and Rs 129.49 crore respectively. But these investments have been cleared without even doing a post-construction impact assessment of Matmora geo-textile embankment. The Palashbari subproject also included erosion protection for Gumi area through the use of geo-bags but the Assam Tribune report quoted above already mentioned about how geo-bags scheme has failed in that area.

It is important to note here that, the first geo-tube embankment has been constructed only three years back and it would be premature to give any verdict of success, on the contrary there are many signs of failure. But the state government of Assam and the Assam Water Resources department are claiming it as success without really any credible basis and than have used that self certification to go on building more embankments using geo-textile and in several occasions these plans have failed. They first should have done a detailed impact assessment of the embankment at Matmora before going on building more embankments of the same nature.

It seems the Assam government, ADB and CWC are pushing these projects to deflect attention from the failure of embankments in flood management. Such attempts won’t succeed, but it is possibly a ploy to prolong the use of embankments as a flood management technique.

Parag Jyoti Saikia (meandering1800@gmail.com)

Annexure 1

Flood and Erosion Projects approved for Assam – 2009 to 2013

TAC meeting no & date Project Appr. year River/ Basin L of Emba. (m) Original (revised) Cost-CrRs Benefitting area (Ha) Decision
95th -20.01.2009 Protection of Sialmari Area from the erosion of Brahmputra 2002 Brahmaputra NA 14.29 (25.73) NA Accepted
Protection of Bhojaikhati, Doligaon and Ulubari area from the erosion 2002 Brahmaputra NA 14.52 (27.92) NA Accepted
Raising & strengthening Brahmputra Dyke from from Sissikalghar to Tekeliphuta including closing of breach by retirement and anti erosion measures New Brahmaputra NA 142.42 NA Accepted
96th -16.02.2009 Flood protection of Majuli Island from Flood and Erosion Ph-II & III New Brahmaputra NA 115.03 NA Accepted
Restoration of Dibang & Lohit rivers to their original courses at Dholla Hattiguli New Brahmaputra NA 23.32 (53.11) NA Accepted partly & suggested that proposal of coffer dam, pilot channel, etc. to be put up for expert opinion
101st -30.11.2009 Raising and strengthening to Puthimari embankment New Brahmaputra NA 30.23 15000 Accepted
Anti Erosion measures to protect Brahmputra Dyke on left bank New Brahmaputra NA 27.97 5000 Accepted
Protection of Gakhirkhitee & adjoining areas from erosion New Brahmaputra NA 19.06 20,000 Accepted
102 -28.1.’10 Emergent measures for protection of Rohmoria in Dibrugarh District New Brahmaputra NA 59.91 18,000 Accepted
106th -16.09.2010 Raising and strengthening of tributary dyke along both banks of Kopili River New Kopilli/ Brahmputra NA 110.72 NA Accepted
Assam Integrated Flood River Bank Erosion Risk Management Project New Brahmaputra NA 61.33 NA Accepted
Assam Integrated Flood River Bank Erosion Risk Management Project New Brahmaputra NA 129.49 NA Accepted
110th – 20.07.2011 Protection of Majuli from Flood and Erosion Ph II & III 2011 Brahmaputra 115.03 Accepted
Restoration fo rivers Dibang & Lohit to their original courses at Dholla Hatighuli 2011 Brahmaputra 54.43 Accepted
111th – 17.08.2011 Protection of Biswanath Panpur including areas of upstream Silamari and Far downstream Bhumuraguri to Borgaon against erosion New Brahmaputra 167.09 Accepted
117 – 21.3.’13 Protecion of Sissi-Tekeliphuta dyke from erosion – Lotasur to Tekeliphuta New Brahmaputra 153000 m 155.87 153000 m Accepted
118th – 30.07.2013 Flood management of Dikrong along with river training works on both banks embankment New Dikrong/Brahmaputra 105.96 Accepted
Flood management of Ranganadi along with river training works on both bank embankments New Ranganadi/Brahmaputra 361.42 Accepted

[1] Scour can be termed as a specific form of the more general term erosion. In case of geo-tube embankments Scour is the removal of sediment from the bottom of the geo-tubes. Scour, caused by swiftly moving water, can scoop out scour holes, compromising the integrity of a structure.

[2] ADB, river engineers differ on geo-bags – http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/detailsnew.asp?id=jun2410/at08

[3] See ‘Rohmoria’s Challenge: Natural Disasters, Popular Protests and State Apathy’ published in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVI NO 2, Janurary 8, 2011.