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Monday debate: Does India need big dams? - [15/05/2000] - The Hindustan Times
The Hindustan Times
Last updated[Metro]01:00 IST Monday, May 15, 2000, New Delhi
 

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Opinion 
 

Monday debate: Does India need big dams?
(B.G. Verghese for and Sanjay Sangvai against big dams)

Many have labelled the prevailing drought situation as a man-made disaster.

Towns and villages over large parts of the country are desperate for water. Many are dependent on periodic tanker supplies ferried across considerable distances. As summer advances, communities may be compelled to migrate unless help comes their way.

Rainfall is often erratic and unevenly distributed over space and time. Many regions regularly experience recurrent drought and/or flood as part of their normal hydrological cycle. Droughts, like floods, are therefore no surprise. It can be mitigated, even averted, by drought-proofing and, like flood, must be appropriately managed as and when it occurs.

Population growth and development aimed at enhancing the quality of life entails larger water use. This is subjecting India to increasing seasonal and regional water stress, with deteriorating water quality being an aggravating factor. Water conservation at all times and places, improved water management and maintaining water quality are therefore critical. Since all freshwater emanates from rain (snow and glacial ice), it must be harvested at all levels through a variety of means and practices, groundwater recharge and micro to mega storages.

These measures are not necessarily mutually exclusive and each has certain costs and benefits. The objective should be to secure optimality. The notion that rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and sound water management by themselves can provide a complete or sufficient answer to India’s water needs is mistaken. Pursued as a panacea that obviates the need for large dams, it could rob the country of vital insurance against disaster.

It is wholly fallacious to argue that if hundreds of large dams (over 15 metres high) have not averted the drought this year, the hugely demonised Sardar Sarovar, for instance, will make no difference. The simple answer is that the hundreds of dams and storages on local rain-fed rivers and smaller conservation works and traditional systems must fail if the rains fail. Deserted villages are mute testimony to this truth.

Sufficient rain must first fall before it can be harvested in situ. North Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutch suffer aridity. But the Narmada rises over 1300 kilometres away in a relatively high rainfall region. If its abundant flood waters are stored, these can be diverted from the terminal Sardar Sarovar dam to the very areas of Gujarat most troubled by drought. Gujarat’s allotted share of nine million acre feet of water — or even half that quantum — would have averted much of the present distress had the dam height reached 110 metres when the canals would begin to flow and generate energy.

The distribution system is far advanced and would have guaranteed drinking water, fodder and livelihood to millions. It would have recharged groundwater and filled hundreds of village ponds and depressions en route.

Dams are not a unique or absolute solution. But it is a dangerous mantra that small is beautiful, big is bad. The two go together. What would northwest India, indeed all of India, be minus the Bhakra-Pong? The country has a huge task ahead to manage its water resources sensibly, optimally and equitably. This is what the nation must address unitedly without losing more time in futile, wholly unproductive arguments. The present drought is both a crisis and an opportunity. Which shall it be? -- B.G. Verghese

****

There are a number of reasons why the Sardar Sarovar Project cannot be a real solution for the drought in Gujarat.

Even if it had been completed, only 1.6 per cent and 9.24 per cent of the total cultivable lands of drought-affected Kutch and Saurashtra would have benefited. Even before it could have possibly reached these regions, sugar factories, water schemes for metros and “water marketing” for industries would have gobbled up the water.

The estimate of water availability in the Narmada has been 22 million acre foot (MAF). The irrigation efficiency presumed by our bureaucrats was 60 per cent, which in real terms is impossible. The India Irrigation Review (1991) of the World Bank and the report of the Tenth Estimates Committee of Gujarat Legislature make it amply clear that the average irrigation efficiency in India has been 45-50 per cent. In the Project Completion Report (1995), the World Bank stated the untenability of the claims of benefits and estimated that about 20 per cent of the command area would have to be curtailed. This obviously means the Kutch and Saurashtra region will be denied the dam’s services.

Dam authorities claim that the Sardar Sarovar Project will provide drinking water to 135 towns and cities along with at least 8,215 villages. The number of villages to be provided with drinking water has been mysteriously increasing from zero at the beginning to “all the villages in Kutch and Saurashtra” at present. Recent information claims that 0.86 MAF water is reserved for 135 urban centres and 8,215 villages and puts the number of beneficiaries up to 40 million!

The real, long-term solution lies in a decentralised water conservation network along with optimum utilisation of the available rainwater and groundwater in the drought affected regions. Imperative measures for groundwater recharge include restriction on its excess extraction for cash crops and Green Revolution-style agriculture.

One has to scrutinise the babble of the dam building lobby about the lack of rain in Saurashtra and Kutch. Newspapers have asked the question: “Despite ten consecutive good monsoon years, why could the water problem not be solved”? It was pointed out that during the monsoon, many areas of Saurashtra were inundated only for a few days. Why could this water not be conserved? The answer lies in the fact that the Gujarat Government has done nothing during all these years to arrest the rainwater in small dams or in the form of groundwater.

From the summer of 1995, the Saurashtra Lok Manch, along with the disciples of Swadhyay Parivar and other organisations, have initiated a campaign for recharging wells in Saurashtra on a large scale. Saurashtra has 700,000 wells spread all over its territory. The recharging of even 200,000 wells would bring up the groundwater level throughout Saurashtra.

The campaign could recharge thousands of wells during 1995-98. The endeavour involves no big budget, no bureaucratic and unwieldy planning. It is in the hands of peasants and can be implemented cheaply with early results.

Sustainable and lasting development cannot be reduced only to one dimension of increasing agricultural output, as is the case with large dam projects. Neglecting all other solutions, Gujarat continues to facilitate work on the Sardar Sarovar Project, which alone consumes about 85 per cent of the State’s irrigation budget, efforts and attention. The worst part is that it may not benefit the needy areas at all. -- Sanjay Sangvai


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