Old ‘Temples of Modern India’: Can India decommission ageing dams it has been warned about?

Dams have affected new ways of land use and life so much that many societies cannot think of a life beyond them anymore

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Friday 07 April 2023
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water red-flagged dam safety issues in a report on March 20, but there was poor response from people. Photo: iStock

Dams, especially the large ones, are highly controversial in India. But the dependence of urban communities on embankments makes it challenging to decommission the ones that have aged or might cause more damage

Dams have destroyed vast swathes of natural forests, displaced millions of people, fuelled inter-state conflicts, are methane-emitting culprits and so on. But they have also changed the world order for Indian civilisations by evolving new ways of farming, urbanisation and industrialisation. 

Read more: How have dams increased disasters in the Himalayas?

They have played an essential role in power generation. In fact, many reservoirs of these dams have also emerged as important human-made wetlands. In short, dams have affected new ways of land use and life so much that many societies in the country cannot think of a life beyond them anymore. 

To many urbanites — as I have already written in this space earlier — dams are the rivers, and therefore, indispensable. 

This is the reason for the poor response from people when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water red-flagged dam safety issues in a report on March 20. The common people don’t respond to dam issues unless one of these giant infrastructures causes inconvenience to them. 

We react when the dams flood or reservoirs dry up because the new world order — fuelled by embankments in our vicinity — gets inconvenienced. The human society, in general, is reactionary.

We have developed our character and capabilities to respond to disasters rather than creating an ecosystem that can help us prevent most of the disasters. 

Dam safety issues haunt most of these giant structures and floods have been a menace all along — many caused by the dams and their operational mismanagement. Still, we hardly remember once the short-term goals of relief are achieved and the floodwater has receded.

The perception that concrete structures save us from all menaces and are the panacea to all our water woes helps us continue our daily lives at ease as soon as a disaster gets over.  

The Parliamentary Committee has raised concerns over the safety of ageing dams that are more than 100 years old. Of the 5,745 large dams in the country, 5,334 are operational, as per sources, reported the central government television channel Sansad TV. 

Read more: Death of the Nile? Mega dams have killed the river’s ability to flush carcinogens, slowly killing its delta

Of these operational embankments, 234 have outlived their lifespan of 100 years. Some are even older than 300 years. One could argue that our strong civil engineering marvels have made this possible. But the threats due to the dams remain

The same panel flagged several dam disasters. Reports point to 36 such disasters so far. The worst has been the 1979 Machhu dam disaster in Morbi, Gujarat, in which about 2,000 people died and 12,000 houses were destroyed. But the damages go beyond just the bursts — they have ecological consequences too. 

Rivers are fundamentally ecologically commons. They support many freshwater species essential for maintaining the health of the rivers as well as related ecosystems and societies. But dams fragment freshwater species’ habitats, alter rivers’ hydrology and affect freshwater ecosystems by inundation

Dams obstruct migration routes of fishes that are essential for spawning or feeding. This limits dispersal. These damages to the ecology cannot be ignored any further.

The world is concerned about the serious degradation of ecosystems and is looking to reconnect and live in harmony with nature. These connections can help human civilisations and ecosystems be climate resilient. 

The Committee has flagged issues regarding the safety of dams and has asked for charting paths for decommissioning of ageing and unsafe dams.

We have seen thousands of dams being decommissioned in the United States and Europe aimed at restoring riverine ecosystems and tackling the fragmentation problem. 

I have personally witnessed how the locals have counted several benefits due to decommissioning of the Pak Mun Dam on the Mun river in Rasi Salai, Thailand. 

But these examples may not help us build an argument in favour of dam decommissioning in India. First, humans don’t want to go back to the old ways of living from a life order that has already been shaped over several decades. 

For most of the people in India, dams are the new normal and what matters is the benefits they draw, no matter what happens to the ecological health of a river and that of other species dependent on it. 

Dams have already altered the local ecology, societies, economies and even micro-climatic conditions. Decommissioning them will not be easy as this might create new conflict zones. And the benefits to ecology may not come at once. It will be gradual and slow. 

Read more: Floods in Nigeria: Building dams and planting trees among steps that should be taken to curb the damage

We certainly don’t have the patience, as we are a raging race aspiring for fast-paced economic growth models. But if we decide to pause a bit, as was advised during the COVID-19 pandemic, we would realise that decommissioning is not bad.

It does not necessarily have to be at the cost of all the benefits the existing structures have brought for societies dependent on the dams. 

If we can find ways to let the river flow and restore its ecological health even while not compromising much with the existing other benefits to humans, we can find pathways to live in harmony with nature and achieve sustainable goals.

It is time to make a beginning with extensive dialogues with communities, experts and all others who can contribute to charting such pathways.

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