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Behind 'avoidable' flood disaster in Narmada from Aug 29 to Sept 1 in South Gujarat

Counterview Desk
Himanshu Thakkar, who is with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), has alleged that the Sardar Sarovar Dam authorities failed to foresee that massive rainfall in the upstream areas in Madhya Pradesh, which led to an “avoidable flood disaster” in Bharuch in South Gujarat between August 29 and September 1.
In a detailed analysis based on official data, Thakkar, who is a well-known environmentalist, says that the authorities had “sufficient information” to take advance action and start releasing water from the dam starting on August 26 evening, if not earlier. If they had gradually started water releases and continued release moderate quantity for 10 days starting on August 26, floods could have been avoided.
In fact, gradual release of water along the 160 km stretch of the river downstream of the dam would have benefited the river, groundwater and the eco-system in large number of ways, he underlines.

Excerpts:

The Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD) operators are operating the dam callously, almost cruelly, without consideration of the impact of the operation in the downstream area. Till Saturday, August 29, 2020 early, they were not releasing any water from the spillway gates of the dam, in spite of sufficient actionably information at least since August 26 that rainfall is hugely increasing in upstream Narmada basin.
By August 29 night they were releasing up to 10 lakh cusecs (cubic feet per second) or 28,320 cumecs (cubic meters per second) of water. Three days later, in the evening of Tuesday, September 1, they closed the spillway gates, thus stopping all releases from spillway.
During these 3-4 days, massive quantities were released, up to 30 000 cumecs through spillways, and nothing before or after that! It created massive flood disaster all along the downstream from Gaudeshwar to Bharuch, but the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) authorities, Gujarat government, seem least bothered.
It’s in fact double disaster: It created avoidable flood disaster. The second disaster was basically in terms of the loss as it also meant that the water that could have been released into the river over longer period, could not be used for that purpose.
Could they have avoided this kind of massive, disastrous flood flow for the downstream area for 3-4 days and instead staggered the releases over longer period, which, instead of creating a disaster, could have helped the downstream river and area over a longer period?
Was there actionable information available with SSP authorities to take such advance releases of lower quantum? Did they use that information? Who are responsible? What action can and should be taken?

Downstream disaster

The releases were so heavy on August 29 that the “Times of India” reported:
“About 21 villages located close to the embankment of Narmada river in Jhagadia, Bharuch and Ankleshwar talukas in Bharuch district have been put on alert… A team of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) too has been put on stand-by in the district for rescue and relief work following the flood alert issued by the Bharuch district administration on Saturday… District collector of Bharuch, Dr MD Modiya said, ‘People in low-lying areas in Jhagadia, Bharuch and Ankleshwar have been advised not to venture near the river and stay alert. The administration is fully prepared to meet any eventuality’.”
ANI reported on August 31, 2020:
“10 lakh cusecs of water has been released from the Sardar Sarovar Dam today. It has impacted at least 30 villages near the dam. We have shifted 4,977 people who were affected by the flood like situation. MD Modiya, the district magistrate, Bharuch said currently the water level of the Golden Bridge is at 32.68 ft.”
According to another set of Gujarati reports (click here, here and here), following opening of 23 of the 30 spillway gates of SSD, for the seventh time in last 50 years water level crossed 34 feet and reached 35.17 feet (10.72 m).
Livelihoods of tens of thousands is affected, at least 6,595 people had to be shifted for safety. Boats were plying in Old Bharuch city streets. Water has entered at least 4,000 shops, leading to massive damages. Crops over at least 20 000 ha have been destroyed. Narmadeshwar temple at Garudeshwar got washed away in the floods. 
A video, released by the “Times of India”, shows how Bharuch areas are flooded. CWC also tweeted how SSP releases lead to floods in downstream areas.
How did SSP authorities operate the dam? From the information available from CWC (Central Water Commission) Flood Forecasting (FF), NCA (Narmada Control Authority) daily bulletins and other available information, we can understand how SSD was operated during this episode.
There is contradictory information in some instances between these sources, in which case we have gone by what CWC FF hydrographs, as that is more detailed information compared to NCA bulletins, which give only daily average figures. 
As per the hydrograph of SSD from CWC, no water was released from the spillways of the SSD till around 0000 hrs of August 29.
Was actionable information available with SSP authorities for advance releases of lower quantum? Did they use that information?
The NCA bulletin of August 28 also reported zero releases from SSD spillways. NCA bulletin of August 29 reported (applicable for 0800 hours that day) spillway release of 3,231.4 cumecs and when we add the RBPH (River Bed Power House) releases of 1,114.6 cumecs, we have total release to river of 4346 cumecs. This is possibly the average figure for the 24 hrs ending at 0800 hrs on August 29.
Similarly releases to river for August 30, August 31, September 1 and September 2 are reported as: 17,343 cumecs, 25,726 cumecs, 29,887 cumecs and 23,410 cumecs respectively.
NCA bulletins also tell us that the Sardar Sarovar power houses were producing no power on August 2, paltry 0.509 million units (MU) on August 26, 10 MU on August 27 and produced peak of 26.91 MU on September 2, when power houses released maximum 1,552 cumecs.
This again shows under-utilization of the power stations. If they had operated them optimally before August 29, it would have helped reduce water level.
Average water release from SSD (including spillways, power houses and Head Regulator) on August 25, 26, 27 and 28 were just 4.4 cumecs, 117 cumecs, 688 cumecs and 1,114 cumecs, which shows that the Sardar Sarovar was just hoarding water during these and earlier days. If the dam had released regular greater quantity of water, that would have not only helped the people, river and ecosystem, but also would have helped avoid the disaster.
Hydrographs of Garudeshwar show that water level started climbing from around 22 m around 1600 hrs on August 29, sent above the warning level of 30.48 m around 1900 hrs on August 30, reached a peak of 33.1 m at 1500 hrs on September 1, started falling and then came down below the warning level by around 0000 hrs on September 2.
Two hydrographs of Bharuch show that water level was 4.85 m till 2000 hours on August 29, when it started climbing and reached 10.6 m by 0300 hours on September 1. And that since September 1 evening, water level has started dropping and has dropped from peak of 10.72 m on September 1 evening to 8.7 m on September 2 evening.

Advance action could have been taken

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) provides daily district wise rainfall figures for the 24 hrs ending at 0830 hours every day. If we see these figures for August 27 (rainfall happening on August 26), the rainfall in some of the Narmada Valley districts were: Dindori: 416% above normal; Jabalpur: 315% above normal; Mandla: 254% above normal; Katni: 147% above normal and Seoni: 135% above normal.
So this rainfall on August 26, the information about which should clearly be monitored by Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) authorities, since that rainfall would ultimately result in inflows in the Sardar Sarover, was clear, actionable information.
Similarly, rainfall in some of the Narmada valley districts in Madhya Pradesh reported by IMD on August 28 morning (rainfall on August 27) was even bigger warning: Narshimapura: 152.6 mm; Raisen: 110.5 mm; Hoshangabad: 81.8 mm; Balaghat: 83 mm; Chhindwara: 68.5 mm; Dindori: 49.8 mm; Jabalpur: 58.9 mm; Mandla 74.2 mm; Seoni: 67.4 mm. The rainfall of August 27 was another major warning.
Rainfall reported by IMD on August 29 morning (rainfall on August 28) in some of the Narmada Valley districts went up further: Betul: 142.4 mm; Harda: 111.1 mm; Hoshangabad: 191.1 mm; Raisen: 114.5 mm; Sehore: 87 mm; Balaghat: 90.7 mm; Chhindwara: 250.6 mm; Narsimhapur: 138.4 mm; Seioni: 139.7 mm. Such heavy rainfall on August 28 was another major warning.
This is about actual rainfall. In fact, IMD forecasts for rainfall were available even earlier that these respective dates.
CWC also provided warning and advisories that SSP authorities clearly ignored CWC daily reports and advisories provided warnings in a number of ways.
It is clear from the above that SSP authorities had sufficient information to take advance action and start releasing water from the dam from August 26 evening, if not earlier. If they had gradually started water releases and built up to say 4 lakh cusecs (11300 cumecs), they could have continued to release this moderate quantity of water for the next say 10 days starting from August 26, and that would have taken care of all the flows that SSD received during August 29-September 1. The water level at SSP may have risen a bit temporarily.
This would have meant no flood disaster in the downstream area. Instead, the 4 lakh cusecs water that would have flown in this 160 km stretch of river would have benefited the river, groundwater and the eco-system in large number of ways.

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