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Integrated Management of River Resources in India
By M. Gopalakrishnan
As time passes by, even terrible disasters like the recent tragedy in Uttarakhand floods, due to a cloud burst, coupled with a lake burst that sent down volumes of water downstream, will fade in human memory. At the time of the turmoil, the tragic impact of the high floods in the Ganga was in the minds of everyone in India. Time has now come to ponder over the reasons behind such instances that are not uncommon in India. How does one prevent such repeated calamities?

Soon after the devastating floods and the disaster that struck the Uttarakhand holy rivers, the focal point of discussions was better river management. Managing our rivers and more so, river-centric development, became the issue. Dams and other hydro projects are now being questioned for their relevance. Also under scrutiny is the development of infrastructure for tourism in the fragile Himalayan hill systems, such as the building of roads and ill-engineered construction for the hotel industry and even people’s homes.

Developmental Challenges in Hill Areas

In recent times, with increased affordability among our people, there has been a growth in leisure and adventure tourism, along with the age-old religious tourism in this region. There is enormous pressure on the hills during the monsoon months when the religious shrines in the Himalayas are open for pilgrimage. It has been a challenge for the local authorities to meet the ever increasing demands of tourism within the limited space of the rolling, unstable hill slopes that are prone to landslides. In recent times, the region has seen haphazard growth with poor management of its natural features. What we saw in Uttarakhand recently is the unfortunate result of such unplanned growth.

Water is life. Precipitation in different forms like rainfall, snow, and ice ultimately drain into the river systems. Well managed river basins are important for a region’s sustainability. After all, all civilizations have centered around rivers and flourished.

Changing times, however, have imposed a challenge in water management. With per capita water availability decreasing, an integrated water management approach becomes an absolute necessity. Poor management of river resources and climate change subject us to more risks and disasters such as floods and droughts.

Floods in rivers, particularly in its upper reaches, could to some extent be managed by dams with large storage space. We must look at moderated release of water that takes care of the interests of different stakeholders such as people living in different states along the river, the local authorities, and organizations that build and manage the dam.

How the Tehri Dam Helped During the Uttarakhand Crisis

Let us revisit the Uttarakhand floods of June 2013. Tehri is the only reservoir of its kind in the Bhagirathi stem of the Ganga with a live storage of nearly 2,615 million cubic meters. The Tehri reservoir helped manage the Bhagirathi flood water to a significant extent. The water inflow into the dam from the Bhagirathi and its tributaries reached about 7,000 cubic meters per second (2.5 lakh cubic feet per second). This was a rate unknown in human memory in Tehri. But only about 7 per cent of the Bhagirathi water was released during the flood. The Tehri reservoir also contained the Bhilangana stem of the other river that joins the Bhagirathi. This saved the cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar that served as the nerve centers for flood relief operations.

This efficient management of floods in the Bhagirathi stem of the Ganga helped control flood levels in Deoprayag, the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, and saved the Deoprayag settlements. Moreover, the flood wave gushing down the Ganga along with all the Bhagirathi flows could have caused a substantial rise in the water levels downstream, wrecking a worse havoc along the Ganga. Without this flood management, the Ganga at Rishikesh which was flowing two meters above the danger level could have been as high as five meters. In Haridwar, the Ganga was flowing 1.5 meters above the danger level and could have been about 3 meters but for the Tehri dam flood control measures. It’s an important lesson for the country’s planners, project architects, project managers, environmentalists fighting dam constructions, and the general public. The fact that the Tehri reservoir has saved millions in a single flood season and averted disaster related damages and reconstruction expenses has gone unacknowledged.

While a single large storage helped in controlling risks and damage in the downstream reaches, several small storage facilities collapsed in both the river valleys of Alaknanda and Mandakini. Only the power plants in Tehri and Koteshwar continued to generate power at the time of distress when power supply was crucial for rescue and relief operations. Questions before all of us now, particularly those who are vociferous against waterrelated infrastructure creation, such as large dams: Can we not look at large dams with huge storage facilities as important flood controlling features in the upper reaches of river basins that are prone to catastrophic floods? Is so much aversion to dams, particularly high dams and large storages, justifiable? Can we factor in all these concerns and build dams and large storages to cater to water, food, energy security, and to avert flood related damage? Should project planning and designing factor in flood control as an important element of the project scope for large dams? The last question pertains to large projects such as in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra where project planning has succumbed to pressures from the anti-dam lobby and now only small, run off plants are being conceived for hydro power without factoring in flood control.

Lessons to Learn from the Recent Crisis

Large dams with sizeable storage provide water to insure against droughts and floods. However, a key factor that is of concern to those against dams is the issue of rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) of the population that loses land as a result of dam construction. The affected people must be better off with the area’s development. The onus of handling the sensitive issue of R&R is a real challenge where the stakeholders’ involvement and expert managerial roles assume great significance. Why should India fail in tackling this challenge when it could address so many other societal challenges satisfactorily? Is ‘no development’ an option when food, energy, and water stress is increasing?

When it comes to the sacrifice of a few for a larger cause, as is the case with R&R, one has to approach the issue in a credible and sensitive manner. As a nation, we have stood together for national security. Water stress must be treated as a threat similar to that associated with physical aggression in wars. Incentives and disincentives for noncooperation have to be explored as fully as possible. Water wars can then be won with a new spirit.

Resettlement can lead to better conservation and development for the region. Thanks to the Tehri dam, the entire population of Old Tehri town and others, who were beneficiaries of the resettlement, were saved in the recent flood and are well off living in Upper Tehri Town. This town has developed greatly with a university and is benefiting from tourism, riding over other hill resorts in the vicinity.

The key to approaching water-related projects development in the country lies in effective stakeholder participation. The strategy around these projects must best reflect not only the broader national and state interests but also the interests of the local communities. There must be participation of civil society and social organizations working with local communities with knowledge of local issues at the project initiation stage. Such a project reflects the interests of all these stakeholders who may otherwise feel marginalized. While this could sometimes result in roadblocks when the project is launched, it may be rewarding to help create a better understanding and mitigate project risks at a later stage. Management can be successful only when we engage and manage the various stakeholders involved and give them a sense of belonging to the project. Overall, the necessities for development of infrastructure while caring for and preserving the ecosystem to the maximum extent, can work well. There will then be fewer chances of projects getting scuttled or delayed, as is seen in many places.

The country is at the crossroads. The dire need for more food, energy, and a cleaner environment need the engagement of governments, private developers, and local people with a positive spirit.

(Mr. M. Gopalakrishnan has nearly five decades of experience in water resources planning & design, development, and management. He is a member of the Technical Advisory Committee helping World Water Development Reports and president of the New Delhi Centre of World Water Council. He served as the secretary general of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage and president of the Indian Water Resources Society. He is a recipient of the Life Time Achievement Award from the American Academy of Water Resources Engineers with the conferment of the Honarary Diplomate Status in the Academy in 2010.)

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