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Punjab Floods: Caught Out By Climate Change, Bhakra Dam Officials Act Fast To Save Lives

The sudden surge in water levels in the Bhakra Dam was last seen in the devastating floods of 1988, official said.
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

CHANDIGARH—On August 18, the mood was anxious at the plush offices of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) office at Chandigarh.

The previous night, incessant rains in Himachal Pradesh meant close to 3.11 lakh cusecs of water had flowed into the Bhakra reservoir, raising the water level in the dam to 1681.33 feet — just past the dam’s critical mark at 1680 feet.

If water continued to flow into the dam at the same rate, the BBMB would have had no option but to open the flood gates and inundate the areas downstream of the dam.

However, the rains had also meant that the Swan and Sirsa rivulets, which originate in Himachal Pradesh and merge with the Sutlej river at Ropar, had breached their banks and had flooded the low lying areas in Punjab. Over 38 people were reported dead in Himachal, while 300 villages in Punjab were evacuated.

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Opening Bhakra’s flood-gates would have further devastated Punjab, and quite possibly parts of Haryana.

“This never happened before. The water flow was more than the water received during floods reported in 1988,” BBMB Chairman Devendra Kumar Sharma said at joint press conference held today in Chandigarh.

The 1988 floods are a dark memory for the BBMB. In September that year, the Board opened the dam’s floodgates without warning after a freak cloudburst. An Indian Today story from the time reported entire villages were washed away in a matter of hours, and placed the death toll at 1500 with another 500 missing.

More recently, the 2018 floods in Kerala revived the debate over dam management, when the release of water from the Mullaperiyar dam is believed to have significantly exacerbated flood damage in the state.

Thirty years after the 1988 floods, and a year after Kerala, the BBMB appears to have learnt its lesson. Officials told HuffPost India that even as the water-levels in the reservoir crossed the danger mark, the Board relied on the dam’s spillways (also known as overflow channels) to restrict the release of water.

“Keeping in view of the safety of the dam, we had to resort to controlled release of water,” Sharma said, explaining that the management had begun a controlled release on August 16 which was then increased over the weekend right up to August 19.

This decision, officials said, had saved hundreds of lives.

Climate Change Crisis

That climate change has made the Indian monsoon harder to predict is now well-established. Anecdotal evidence, recent reportage, and an analysis of monsoon data suggests that the once leisurely monsoon is now restricted to a few days of intense downpours.

In interviews, officials from the India Meteorological Department described the rainfall on August 17-18th in Himachal Pradesh as an unprecedented Meteorological event.

Regional Director Surinder Paul said the rainfall in Bilaspur, Una, hamirpur and Shimla districts of Himachal Pradesh were 252.5 mm, 147.7mm, 134.7mm and 104.8mm on August 18.

These districts are right next to the Bhakra reservoir, implying that the surface run-off from these rains quickly flowed into the reservoir, raising its level without warning.

“Due to climate change, it is getting very difficult to predict the weather for longer duration,” said Kumar. “Also, other factors like water inflows, canal maintenance and climate changes also played important roles in preventing such flood like situations.”

Across India, this means that dam authorities have to be far more vigilant in the way they manage their reservoirs.

Flood Plans

With the flood now slowly abating, the Bhakra board has now decided to more water from the dam to bring the water level in the Bhakra reservoir to 1675 feet to handle any future possibility of floods.

“Since IMD has assured us that not much rainfall is expected at least in the next ten days, so we can comfortably release adequate water downstream in a controlled manner,” said Sharma.

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh on Monday announced ₹100 crore for emergency relief and rehabilitation measures in the flood-hit regions of the state and said a special ‘Girdawari’ will be conducted as soon as the water level recedes to ensure adequate compensation for the affected farmers.

In Jalandhar district of Punjab, over 50 villages in the district were inundated and crops in over 30,000 acres were submerged. The Jalandhar district administration airdropped food packets in many marooned areas.

“Army has been called in to expedite the work of plugging the breaches at village Mandiala and mania in Shahkot subdivision. Also, one column of army would reach in Phillaur and Lohian to plug the breach,” said Jalandhar deputy Commissioner Varinder Sharma.

He said people were warned in advance to vacate the house and to go to safer places, but a many families did not.

“Due to this, many are still stranded in water and so we had roped in air force to airdrop the food packets by tomorrow,” said Sharma.

In Ferozpur, state government has set up relief camps for the residents of 52 villages living near the swollen Sutlej river.

In Chandigarh also, a major breach in naval earthen dam in forest area washed away over two dozen cattle.

In Himachal, over 102.5 mm rain was reported in the last 24 hours which is 1065 per cent more than normal. The water level in most of the dams including Kol and Pong in Kangra, Chamera in Chamba and Pandoh in Mandi are flowing over the critical marks. Keylong area even got snow up to 3 cms.

NARINDER NANU via Getty Images
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