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Blame it on Hirakud?

Blame it on Hirakud?

Man-made floods due to the release of a huge quantity of water from Hirakud dam have come back to haunt Odisha. The Controller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in its recent audit on the 'schemes for flood control and flood forecasting', has rapped the Odisha government for not keeping water levels in check and failing to prevent flooding in downstream areas.

The CAG declared in its findings in the audit that non-maintenance of water level in Hirakud dam as per the Rule Curve, and simultaneous opening of many gates caused heavy discharge of water, resulting in flooding in downstream areas. The CAG has given examples of both 2011 and 2014 floods. In fact, what the CAG could not report—or perhaps was not given information about—is the fact that 'water to industries', which has been added to the dam's list of water allocation priorities, can be considered as the main reason for this mismanagement. Moreover, the dam's original design, though aimed at flood control, has failed to factor in real flood control measures. The reservoir does not have a specific 'flood cushioning limit' earmarked.
The Odisha Water Policy, as the CAG points out, mentions that flood control would be given overriding consideration in the reservoir regulation policy even at the cost of sacrificing some irrigation or power benefits. This is perhaps because the officials of the state have given the CAG an impression that they have violated the Rule Curve by maintaining the water level of the reservoir at a much higher level against the prescribed limit to meet irrigation and power needs. But the reality is something different, as we have been observing in the ground. The commitment to supply water 24X7 to industries for 365 days was added as a priority in the early 90s—almost four decades after the dam was built. However, it actually goes against the very design of the dam. The lack of long-term accurate weather forecasting forces the dam operators to assume the volume of future rainfall. As a result, they have developed this practice of violating the Rule Curve to be able to keep sufficient water in the reservoir.
As per the existing Rule Curve, the minimum water level of the reservoir should be 595ft by July 1, 590ft by August 1,605-615ft by August 11, 610-622ft by August 21, 619-627ft by September 1, 624-629ft by September 11, 629.5-630ft by September 21 and 630ft by October 1. But the authorities–year after year—are keeping the water level almost over 15ft higher than this limit and then finding it difficult to release the water instantly when there is heavy rainfall upstream. This is the precursor which caused the floods downstream in 2011 and 2014.
Now that Odisha is engaged in an inter-state river water dispute with Chhattisgarh over Mahanadi River, this CAG report must be taken into serious consideration. In our several letters to the Odisha government in the wake of 2008, 2011 and 2014 floods, we urged the government to change the Rule Curve that was framed in 1988 by a high-level expert committee. This Rule Curve has been outsmarted by the change in rainfall patterns due to climate change and more recently, due to the building of a number of dams and barrages upstream by Chhattisgarh.
We have, for over a decade, been asking both the Odisha and Chhattisgarh governments to improve the flood forecasting and management methods as well as coordination. However, the governments have not only been in a refusal mode but have also not found any pressing reason to work out a new Rule Curve that would factor in latest problems and technologies.
The CAG audit report was presented in the Parliament on July 21, but the Chief Engineer of the Hirakud Dam seemed to have no information about it on July 23 when he was interviewed by media persons on the problems with regard to the Rule Curve. Thus, he said, 'All is well with the system.' On June 28 this year, while the Chief Minister of Odisha was launching the real-time flood forecasting model for the Mahanadi basin, he said that it would help getting flood-related information from Chhattisgarh 72 hours in advance. Ironically, on the same day, water department officials alleged that Chhattisgarh was not sharing information of flood water discharge from its dams.
Hirakud, an ageing dam, has been facing several other challenges, including its safety. Resorting to an old Rule Curve and lack of coordination between the two states would further deteriorate situations. The dam is already causing more flood-affected areas than it was supposed to prevent. Any further complacency will not only make the dam more ineffective but also aggravate the problem of flooding as well as inter-state conflict.
(The author is an environmental activist. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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