Why water surges are killing people in India

Indian rescue personnel gather on the banks of the Beas River during a search operation in Kullu Image copyright AP
Image caption A group of students were swept away by a sudden surge of water in Himachal Pradesh state earlier in June

Have India's hydropower dams become death traps?

Many feel that demand-driven production of electricity makes these dams release huge quantities of water in rivers without warning, regularly endangering the lives of those downstream.

Earlier this month more than 20 students on a college trip were swept away by a massive release of water by the Larji hydropower project on the Beas river in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

Barely two weeks later, 10 men were marooned for more than 12 hours by a similar surge of water in the Damodar river in the eastern state of Jharkhand before they were rescued by local villagers.

The men were taking a bath in the middle of a trickling summer river after a cricket match when water released from the Tenughat dam 55km (34 miles) upstream sent them scampering onto a platform constructed to break the water flow.

One of them managed to swim across and alert villagers while the rest hung on in the swirling waters till help reached them late in the night.

Spate of incidents

Few have been as lucky.

The Beas tragedy was the 10th such incident in the last decade, and sixth since 2011.

  • On 18 April, three girls bathing in Teesta river at Bardang in Sikkim were swept away by water released from a hydropower project reservoir. While two were rescued, an 11-year-old was never found.
  • On 27 March 2013, five members of a family were drowned in a surge of water in the Bhavani river near Uppupalam in Tamil Nadu, caused by the release of around 6,000 cusec [cubic feet per second] of water from the Pilloor dam, 20km (12 miles) upstream. Water was only knee-deep when they entered the river, claimed a lone survivor.
  • In two incidents on 8 January, 2012, nine people drowned in the Cauvery river in Erode, Tamil Nadu, when 8,000 cusec of water was released from the Vendipalayam Bhavani Kattalai hydro project barrage.
  • Three men drowned in Netravati river on 6 December 2011 following a sudden surge from the Shambhoor hydropower project near Bantwal in Karnataka. Local protesters claimed that erratic water releases from the power project had killed eight others since 2009.
  • The Maneri Bhali hydel project on Uttarakhand's Bhagirathi river has been blamed for at least five deaths, in 2006, 2007 and 2011, every time due to release of water without warning.
  • On 1 October 2006, at least 57 pilgrims were washed away while walking across the Sind River in Datia district of Madhya Pradesh as the Manikheda dam upstream opened the sluice gates in Shivpuri district.
  • On 7 April 2005, more than 70 pilgrims drowned at Dharaji in Madhya Pradesh when the Narmada swelled with 690 cusec of water released from the Indira Sagar power project. The victims were among thousands who had gathered by the river for an annual religious fair.
Image copyright Press trust of india
Image caption Ten men were marooned for more than 12 hours by a surge of water in the Damodar river

On each occasion, huge volumes of water were released to meet the power demand that typically peaks during evening hours but can also soar anytime in the day, depending on the load on the power grids.

Without an effective warning system, this practice runs the daily risk of catching people off guard as trickling rivers come to spate within minutes.


With millions of Indians dependent on rivers for their livelihood and daily chores, it is a minor miracle that only so many lives have been lost so far, say experts.

Authorities appear to be indifferent to the problem. India's federal ministry of power did not respond to phone calls or emails from this correspondent.

After the 2011 Bantwal tragedy in Karnataka, dam officials said they had nothing to do with the deaths, refused to pay compensation and maintained that a warning system would be put in place only if the district administration instructed them to do so.

After dozens of cattle were washed away due to sudden discharges by the Ranganadi hydel project in the north-eastern state of Assam, project authorities issued a circular in June 2006, saying, "The gates of Ranganadi diversion dam may require opening from time to time… The corporation will not take any responsibility for any loss of life of human, pet animals and property damage."

But critics say the hydropower companies must take responsibility.

"Every hydropower project must put out a well-defined operating procedure in the public domain, taking into account how a series of projects on the same river influence one another," says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

"Hourly water data should be released every day. Possible timings of release and corresponding water levels need to be marked on the river banks. Authorities should inform the administration before release and install sirens and hooters to warn people."

Image copyright other
Image caption The Ganges river near Haridwar after release of dam water upstream

"Saving lives is the least hydropower projects can do," says biologist Lakhi Prasad Hazarika, "given that the random water flow fluctuations destroy livelihoods such as fisheries, agriculture, grazing, driftwood collection and sand and gravel mining almost irreversibly."

And that is not to mention the ecological damage. "These daily floods affect ground-nesting birds, amphibians and even mammals that use the riverine islands," says Mr Hazarika.

Such disasters, points out Mr Thakkar, should be anticipated at the planning stage.

"Power projects should be restricted to locations such as deep mountain gorges and must not be permitted where rivers enter floodplains or biodiversity-rich stretches," he says.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist who writes for publications in India and abroad.

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