Leaked memo warns of unsafe Indian dams

Issue 

A leaked internal World Bank memo charges that the great majority of India's dams are unsafe by present standards. Of 25 dams surveyed by an ongoing World Bank dam safety project, none had been designed to hold back the amount of water which, it is now calculated, could enter their reservoirs during heavy storms. Two of these dams could be hit by floods seven times greater than they were built to survive.

The dams surveyed include two of India's largest, Hirakud and Gandhi Sagar. The author of the memo, William Price of the bank's Asia Technical Division, says, "The consequence of a dam failure during a major flood would have to be described with some adjective beyond 'disastrous'".

The 25 dams assessed by the World Bank team make up less than 3% of the total number of dams in the four states covered by the project. The memo, obtained by Inter Press Service, states that the problems found at the 25 dams may be "only the tip of the iceberg".

India's worst dam disaster, the failure of the Machhu II Dam in 1979, killed at least 2000 people. Machhu II collapsed during a flood which was over twice as strong as that which the dam was built to contain. Price points out that "there is no comparison" between the remote area downstream of Machhu II and the "highly populated valleys" below Hirakud and Gandhi Sagar, and that "the failure of either dam, Hirakud especially, would dwarf" the Machhu disaster.

Furthermore, Machhu II was a relatively small dam at 26 metres high. Hirakud is 59 metres high and can hold back 8.1 billion cubic metres of water — 80 times as much as Machhu II. Gandhi Sagar is five metres higher than Hirakud, and its reservoir is only marginally smaller.

The world's worst dam disaster, in Henan province in China, in August 1975, was caused by the failure of two dams with a combined capacity of 600 million cubic metres. Between 86,000 and 230,000 people were killed when the dams burst during an exceptionally heavy flood.

Although hundreds of thousands of people are at risk downstream of the 25 dams surveyed in India, none of the findings of the World Bank team have been made public.

Patrick McCully, campaigns director for the International Rivers Network, said on April 6, "It is cynical and grossly negligent to put lives at risk by not informing people of the real possibility of dam failures, and by not being prepared to evacuate affected areas".

Studies in the USA show that the preparation of evacuation plans can cut fatalities from dam breaks by a factor of more than 100. At present, no evacuation plans and no inundation maps showing the areas likely to be affected by dam burst floods exist for Indian dams.

According to McCully, "The World Bank should insist that inundation maps are published and evacuation plans prepared for all future dams that it funds in India and elsewhere. The bank should also make public the safety criteria for all of its ongoing dam projects."

Himanshu Thakker, an engineer with India's Save the Narmada Movement, agrees. "The World Bank's findings show that the Indian government should halt ongoing dam projects until there is a public review of dam safety in India and measures to minimise the risk to downstream populations are put in place. It is imperative that two projects in particular be stopped: the Tehri Dam — it would be India's highest dam and it is being built in a highly earthquake-prone Himalayan valley — and Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada, where a 24.4 metre deep hole was gouged out of the concrete and rock protecting the dam foundation during last year's monsoon."

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