Mullaperiyar, again: The solution must balance Kerala’s risks and Tamil Nadu’s needs

By: |
November 08, 2021 5:15 AM

The concerns over the safety of the dam—lying in a Seismic-Zone-3 area—made operational in 1895 are not of recent vintage.

Late last month, the apex court had asked the permanent Supervisory Committee to give its opinion on the Kerala government’s plea.Late last month, the apex court had asked the permanent Supervisory Committee to give its opinion on the Kerala government’s plea.

The Supreme Court will hear once again hear the Mullaperiyar dam matter this week. A PIL has urged the court to direct the Central Water Commission (CWC) to fix the rule curve, instrumentation scheme, and gate operation scheduled while, one of the respondents, the Kerala government had sought the fixing of the maximum water-level of the dam’s reservoir at 139 ft.

Late last month, the apex court had asked the permanent Supervisory Committee to give its opinion on the Kerala government’s plea. Bear in mind, the committee, in 2006, had opined the water level could be maintained safely at 142 feet; Tamil Nadu, which owns and operates the dam, has long maintained this is a storage level that can be handled safely. However, in 2018, following the devastating floods in Kerala, the SC had allowed the level to be brought down to 139 feet having earlier, in 2014, allowed it to be restored to 142 ft.

The concerns over the safety of the dam—lying in a Seismic-Zone-3 area—made operational in 1895 are not of recent vintage. Indeed, once these were flagged in 1979, the CWC brought down the maximum water-level from full reservoir water-level of 152 ft to 136 ft. But, by the mid-1990s, Tamil Nadu was demanding this be revised upwards. The stakes for Tamil Nadu are high. The reservoir is a lifeline for the water-scare southern districts of the state—the diversion of 22 thousand million cubic ft of water annually from the reservoir not just helps irrigate 2.20 lakh acres of farm-land, but also caters for the drinking-water needs in these districts. Any change in quantum of water supply can upend both farm livelihoods and water security.

But, for Kerala, which has seen cataclysmic rainfall over the past few years thanks largely to climate change—marked by devastation exacerbated by ecological degradation in surrounding areas—the challenge is existential. The location of the dam in a seismically-active region and the age and soundness of the dam’s structure compound the threat from cloudbursts.

At 126 years, Mullaperiyar is way past a dam’s ‘healthy’ lifespan of 50 years. Studies conducted by IITs Delhi and Roorkee, both commissioned by the Kerala government, had red-flagged the safety of the dam, as has a 2021 report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. The Kerala government has made submissions to the apex court on decommissioning of the dam, building a new one in its place.

However, the Tamil Nadu government had rejected the idea of a new dam.

Against this backdrop, fixing the rule curve etc is a short-term measure; even if fixed anew, it is not going to resolve the matter and the dispute will linger. While the leadership in the two states have affirmed faith in continuing negotiations, the need for a permanent fix can’t be overemphasised—more so with the uncertainties that climate change will worsen in the coming decades. The case for decommissioning the dam is a strong one given its safety and the very apparent risks to Kerala. The need now is to find a way to balance Tamil Nadu’s interests while moving towards this.

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