Dams and disasters in the Himalayas

This post was first published as an op-ed by Mint on July 9, 2013. The original article can be accessed here


Relief operations in disaster-ravaged Uttarakhand have ended and the time seems ripe to take account of the institutional frailties that have contributed to the ongoing human disaster in the state. Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna has been blamed for inaction when the disaster first struck and has also admitted that the state did not meet the norms for national disaster management. The Union government is also mulling changes to the Disaster Management Act, 2005, to make national disaster response more effective.

Dig a little deeper, and the story, however, indicates multiple institutional failures. In short, the story is not of one or two agencies failing to act. Various factors point to a disturbing lack of clear prioritization, capacity, coordination across multiple government agencies.
In 2012, a paper published by Maharaj Pandit and Edward Grumbine in the journal Conservation Biology highlighted that there were 292 dams proposed and under construction all over the Himalayas. If all of them were to be completed, the dam density in the region would be the highest in the world (an average of 1 dam for every 32km of river channel). Figuring out the impact of such large-scale construction on human settlements in ecologically sensitive areas is going to be difficult even if it is not exactly rocket science. This becomes disturbing when one considers the functioning of the expert appraisal committees (EAC) of the Union ministry of environment and forests that clears river valley projects. In one report (http://bit.ly/18agNGy ), the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP) noted that:

“The Union ministry of environment and forests’ (MoEF) expert appraisal committee (EAC) on river valley and hydroelectric projects (RVP) has considered a total of 262 hydropower and irrigation projects in close to six years since April 2007 when the new committee was set up to its latest, 63rd meeting in December 2012. It has not rejected any project in this period.” (Page 3 of the report).

If you are not sufficiently bothered yet, consider this. According to SANDRP the Central Water Commission (CWC), which publishes the National Register of Large Dams (NRLD) apparently, does not contain an exhaustive record of large dams. In response to applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, filed by SANDRP, CWC replied that it only relies on information given to it by state governments. Consequently, according to SANDRP, for 2,687 out of 5,187 large dams listed in NRLD, there is no mention of the name of the river on which these projects stand.
SANDRP’s analysis is not an isolated instance. This year, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India issued a report on disaster preparedness in India (http://bit.ly/12aPXZt ). The report is scathing with respect to the preparedness and functioning of both the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Uttarakhand disaster management authority. The report, for example, highlights that 653 lives have been lost in the past five years to landslides, hailstorms, excessive rain, earthquakes, cloud bursts, avalanches and fire accidents. Yet, the chief minister stated there is no way the state could have been prepared for cloud bursts. Additionally, the state disaster management plan was not prepared, the state disaster management authority never met since it was created and there was no state plan for early warnings. However, and perhaps revealing the skewed sense of priorities, 71,474 government and non-government personnel had been trained through 546 workshops.
CAG also notes that NDMA and the governments at the Union and state levels have performed abysmally with respect to communications systems, capacity building and planning for specific disasters. For example, to address the problem of communications systems being disrupted during national disasters, NDMA was to set up the National Disaster Communication Network. The concept paper for this purpose was developed in October 2007, but the Union ministry of home affairs had not finalized the project by December 2012.
These examples serve to highlight the vast inefficiencies in existing government design and their cumulative potential to exacerbate natural calamities into man-made disasters. While accountability for lapses at various levels should be fixed, it is also important to get right the design, capacity and incentives of public agencies and officials. We may be able to create a more balanced system of ecological preservation and development by a nuts-and-bolts analysis of what goes wrong within existing government agencies, rather than raise the promise of newer, stronger and better legislation to cure all administrative failures. Focusing on issues of capacity, coordination and creating clear, transparent objectives for different agencies may help government in general be more pro-active rather than reactive in matters such as disaster management. Plugging leaks in this case, may therefore be better than building dams.
Anirudh Burman works on law and governance issues with the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.
He can be reached at aburman@llm12.law.harvard.edu.

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