Dams are supposed to stop and store excess water at times of heavy rains, thereby providing protection from floods. This stored water can then be used during the dry season or when rains fail, thereby providing protection from the adverse impacts of drought. However, it has been seen time and again that the real experience can differ significantly from stated benefits.

The latest examples of such possible aggravation have been reported from West Bengal and Maharashtra. The former suffered serious floods recently while the latter state is in the midst of a serious drought situation.

However before taking up these cases in greater detail, it should be stated that this situation needs to be examined carefully with the focus only on welfare of people and the need to minimize sufferings of all forms of life. The tendency of only trying to blame or defend some action without considering the factual situation needs to be given up. Only then it will be possible to implement genuine reforms so that very costly mistakes can be avoided in future.

Coming to specific cases, floods in West Bengal have already been discussed widely and questions have been raised whether and to what extent these were man-made. At its peak, in early August, over 5 million people in 13 districts of West Bengal were affected by floods while crops spread over 5 lakh hectare suffered adverse impacts.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at that time “the flooding had worsened … because DVC (Damodar Valley Corporation) released water from its dams.”

Himanshu Thakkar, one of the best known water project analysts in India, has said on the basis of a detailed analysis of the floods and water-release data that the Chief Minister was right. Thakkar has written, “Available information and the statements of the DVC officials leave no doubt that DVC dams indeed released water into the rivers and these releases worsened the flood situation in South Bengal. If DVC had held back the water while cyclone Komen was active in the region, bringing heavy rains, then the flood intensity, its impact area and the flood duration could have been reduced. The DVC operators should also have kept in mind that this was high tide period when the rivers’ capacity to drain out the water was significantly lower in the delta area. The DVC dams had sufficient storage capacity to hold this water during the period. However, instead, DVC increased water releases from the dams during the flood disaster.”

The DVC authorities have justified their action stating that, “the combined release (of these two days) on August 3 was 95,000 cusecs, which is lower than the safe downstream channel carrying capacity of the Damodar river which is 1,10,000 cusecs.”

The response of Himanshu Thakkar to this defence is, “The DVC operators knew that downstream areas were facing heavy rainfall during August 1-4, 2015 under the influence of Komen and that this was also the high tide period. The river needed space to drain out the excess rainwater. And yet DVC released water equal to 86 per cent capacity of the river as per their admission.

“They need not have released this water as Panchet Hill and Maithon dams had sufficient capacity to store this water which could have been released at a later date. On Aug 5, 2015, Maithon dam water level was 148.68 m, way below its flood cushion level of 150.88 m and MWL of 151.79 m. Panchet Hill dam had water level of 128.28 m on Aug 5, 2015, when its flood cushion level is 132.5 m.”

“DVC increased the releases during floods. The power generation at Maithon and Panchet Hill dams went up from 1.81 Million Units on July 31, 2015 to 2.64 MU on Aug 3, 2015, – a 46% increase! Instead of stopping water releases, DVC dams actually INCREASED the water outflow by about 40% during floods in the downstream area. This was avoidable and this must have hugely contributed to the floods in downstream W. Bengal areas.”

At the same time, there are also reports that some dams in Maharashtra are aggravating the serious drought situation by transferring water from water deficit areas to areas of good rainfall. This has been pointed out in a recent lead report in the journal – ‘Dams, Rivers and People’- wherein it is stated that “large parts of Krishna basin spanning Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana are facing massive rainfall deficits, drought-like conditions and crop failures…..Shockingly, in this very period from July 1 to Sept 1, Maharashtra has diverted more than 461.5 Million Cubic Meters of water (at most conservative estimates) from this very Krishna and Bhima basins to the high rainfall area of Konkan (this region already had monsoon rainfall this year of 1760.6 mm by Sept 4, almost seven times more than the rainfall of Marathawada) and down to the sea!”

While this may have increased power generation in some dam projects, the high costs in terms of aggravation of water crisis in some of the worst drought affected areas cannot be justified. All aspects of such disturbing situations should be carefully considered with the focus only on reducing distress and suffering of the people.

The writer is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.