In India’s Narmada Valley, a Controversial Dam Causes Upstream Flooding and Downstream Thirst

Sardar Sarovar Dam is a classic story of a nation’s failure to deliver environmental justice to its people.

Last week, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Sardar Sarovar Dam in his home state of Gujarat to celebrate his 69th birthday, the dam’s reservoir, had filled up to its full level for the first time and the backflow partially or fully flooded about 178 villages upstream in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh whose residents hadn’t yet been fully evacuated.

Sardar Sarovar dam during Monsoons
Earlier this month, the dam’s reservoir filled up to its full level for the first time and the backflow partially or fully flooded about 178 villages upstream in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh whose residents hadn’t yet been fully evacuated. Photo by Jayendra/Wikimedia Commons.

The villagers claim they were not given adequate warning to prepare for the flooding, and along with environmental and human rights groups, are demanding that the gates of the dam be opened immediately to alleviate the flooding. Some, including veteran environmentalist and Goldman Prize winner Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save Narmada Movement”) have even accused the Gujarat government of deliberately allowing the reservoir water level rise to that level a month ahead of schedule for the sake of the prime minister’s birthday celebrations.

This latest development, one in a long list of woes caused by the Sardar Sarovar Dam, one of the world’s most massive and controversial hydropower infrastructure projects.

Built over the Narmada River — the largest west-flowing river in India — the 4,101-feet long and nearly 400 feet high dam is the lynchpin of the Narmada Valley Project. The massive hydraulic engineering project involving the construction of a series of large irrigation and hydroelectric multipurpose dams on the Narmada took nearly four decades to complete.

Construction of the dam began in 1987, with the aim to irrigate more than 7,000 square miles of farmland and help provide drinking water and electricity to three Indian states — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. However, more than two decades after being built, the project has not yielded its intended advantages of irrigation, power generation, or flood control. Its social and environmental costs have far exceeded its benefits. Indeed, the Sardar Sarovar Dam is a classic story of a nation’s failure to deliver environmental justice to its people.

Sardar Sarovar is perhaps the only river valley project of its size in the world to have been cleared, constructed, and now expanded, without a proper environmental impact assessment. The dam, which has displaced thousands of tribal people and villagers from their land, and irrevocably altered the region’s ecology, has been at the center of sustained campaigns, protests and litigation for decades.

The dam’s height has been raised in several stages over the years, increasing the backwater spread of the reservoir and flooding many upstream villages during the Monsoons. Yet tens of thousands of dam-affected families are yet to be rehabilitated. Many others have been moved to resettlement sites but have not received new land or other entitlements as promised or aren’t even recognized as being affected by the dam since they don’t have any formal documents to prove ownership of their ancestral lands.

Right now, with the Monsoon season underway, heavy rains have again intensified the flooding and submergence of many homes and fields. The fight to ensure the rehabilitation rights of those impacted by the dam’s reservoir goes on.

women waist-deep in water protesting dam
The Sardar Sarovar project, which has displaced thousands of tribal people and villagers from their land, and irrevocably altered the region’s ecology, has been at the center of sustained campaigns, protests and litigation for decades. Photo by Karen Robinson/International Rivers

Meanwhile, the dam’s downstream impact has been disastrous as well. The institutional machinery that controls the river and the dam – namely, the Narmada Control Authority and its Environment Sub-Group (ESG) refuses to release adequate downstream flow to keep the river alive and flowing from source to sea during the dry seasons.

According to documents obtained through a Right to Information request by the Narmada Pradusan Nivaran Samiti (NPNS), a local NGO that is fighting legal battles to protect the river’s downstream flow, since 2005 the Narmada Control Authority and the Gujarat government have been releasing 600 cusecs of water for downstream needs every day from lock gates on Panchmuli Lake, which is connected to the main Narmada Canal. But the water released from here has no velocity and whatever little is released isn’t able to travel even halfway the downstream as its flow is again hindered by a weir located further down, says Jayesh Patel, President of the NPNS.

“If adequate water for downstream needs is released from the main gates of the dam instead of being released from the Narmada Canal, it is likely to have the requisite flow and if needed it can also be pumped through turbines to maintain its velocity,” says MSH Sheikh, president of the Brackish Water Research Center, another local nonprofit working to restore the livelihoods of traditional fishermen who live downstream of the dam.

The disastrous impacts of negligible downstream flow can be clearly seen in the 167-km stretch below the dam – visibly reduced to a thin stream during the dry season, and parched completely dry farther down. As a result, farms, fisheries, soil, and biodiversity in the region have been devastated since the dam became operational.

Nearly ten thousand fishermen and subsistence farmers directly dependent on the river have been severely impacted, says Ms Roshini Patel, an environmental activist with the Brackish Water Research Center. Since 1999, the year when the construction work on the dam began, thousands of fisherfolk and marginal farmers have been displaced in the downstream regions, she says, but there is no data on the exact number of people affected. “A survey is needed,” Patel adds.

Without adequate freshwater flow, saltwater has invaded the area downstream of the dam, with salinity ingress recorded up to 100 km upstream of the Narmada estuary. The tides also carry untreated toxic industrial effluents from the Gulf of Cambay into the freshwater zone beyond the estuary, and there is no longer enough freshwater flowing to flush them back out to the sea.

This has completely altered the soil, affecting agriculture in the region, and it has also contaminated groundwater sources below the dam, making it undrinkable. The iconic hilsa — a much sought-after species of fish with a similar river-to-sea-and-back migratory life cycle as salmon — no longer comes to breed in this freshwater zone. Alia Bet, one of the most biodiverse estuarine islands in the Narmada Basin and a habitat for fish breeding, has almost vanished due to the changed hydrodynamics of sweet and salty water. This crisis has affected the survival and livelihood of nearly 10,000 people in the region, particularly subsistence farmers and fishermen.

Surprisingly, the state government of Gujarat has not denied the downstream impacts of the dam and it has admitted that the present flow of 600 cusecs is not enough for the downstream needs. Still, it declines to release more water for the needs of its own people from its own share stored in the reservoir, despite the reservoir being full to its capacity right now. In response to protests by downstream villages, Gujarat maintains that it has other priority areas to serve from its share of water in the dam. In fact, in 2017, it demanded that its water allocation be increased so that it could release of 1,500 cusecs of uninterrupted flow for downstream needs until a more permanent solution to the crisis is found.

So, why the reluctance to release water downstream to fulfill the needs of the river and the people directly dependent on it for their survival? Aren’t the downstream people of Gujarat also entitled to water from the river?

The answers to these questions may lie in understanding the way decisions with respect to downstream flow and its environmental impact have been made by the Narmada Control Authority ever since the project attained conditional environmental clearance in 1987.

In 1995, after sustained protests by environmental and human rights groups held up work on the project for nearly a decade, the World Bank, which initially helped fund the project, sponsored a hydrological study of the downstream impacts of the dam. This was carried out by HR Wallingford, a UK-based consultancy that specializes in civil engineering, environmental hydraulics and water management. The study stated that the dam’s downstream impacts would not outweigh its overall benefits, however, it strongly recommended that a compensatory flow of 1,000 cusecs be maintained for downstream use and for the ecological needs of the river through all the stages of the development of the project. It also suggested that during the completion stages of the dam, a scientific assessment be made to determine the flow that would keep the river, downstream of the dam, alive in its ecological state, and that maintaining this scientifically determined flow should be a legal obligation for all states that share waters of the Narmada river.

But the Narmada Control Authority and its allies chose to ignore the recommendations of the study.

When the project was brought to the courts by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Narmada Control Authority only selectively presented HR Wallingford’s recommendations before the Supreme Court of India. Thus, in its final verdict in the Narmada Bachao Andolan case in 2000, the Supreme Court did not address the downstream issue or consider its negative impacts, as it relied upon what it was given to understand was the complete expert technical opinion on the subject. Clearly, neither science nor law was scrutinized thoroughly enough to examine Narmada Control Authority’s claims. Therefore, the court’s only directive with respect to environment was that the Narmada Control Authority should continue to monitor the river and ensure that all steps are taken not only to protect but also to restore and improve the environment in the region.

The Supreme Court verdict provided legitimacy to the entire exercise of commissioning such a large project without any public consultation, without the requisite environmental clearances, and without adequately studying its long-term impacts. The Sardar Sarovar Dam thus became an exception from the legal standpoint as not only the requirement for environmental clearances for the construction that had already taken place were exempted, but all future clearances needed for various stages of the project until the height of the dam is raised to 138.68 meters were also exempted from the purview of India’s Environment (Protection) Act of 1986.

In 2005, ten years after the Wallingford report was produced, the Narmada Control Authority finally officially accepted its findings. Not a single objection or reservation with respect to its recommendations —including the one that a compensatory downstream flow of at least 1000 cusecs should be maintained — is known to exist on record. Nevertheless, the report’s recommendations were again ignored and Narmada Control Authority’s arbitrarily decided that a flow of 600 cusecs was sufficient.

The Gujarat government — which once demanded 1500 cusecs of water for downstream needs during earlier negotiations with other states — did not object to the decision, in effect dooming its own downstream people and ecology.

For too long, successive water ministers in the central government have ignored the miserable situation downstream of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Even Modi, who was formerly the chief minister of Gujarat, has shown little concern for the affected communities. The National Green Tribunal, which deals exclusively with environment-related civil litigations, has also refused to address the issue.

The only hope left for those in the ravaged Narmada estuary region is to turn to the Supreme Court once again where the appeal has already been filed by the NPNS on behalf of downstream people, and hope that this time they will be heard on the basis of equity, evidence and scientific reasoning. All the communities have asked in their appeal before the Supreme Court is to direct the Narmada Control Authority and Gujarat government to ensure the flow of 1500 cusecs of water, which is the official demand of the Gujarat government itself and direct the commissioning of a study for the scientific assessments of the downstream flow needs of the River. Compensation to farmers and fishermen is another aspect that the Supreme Court may deal with.

It remains to be seen whether the country’s established environmental laws will prevail, and if justice will be done, finally holding accountable those who choked the river and its people downstream and flooded the lands of those living upstream.

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