De-commissioning of dams

Context: Recently Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water, points out that though 234 large dams are 100-300 years old, none has been decommissioned.

Why decommissioning of dams is required?

  • Even after the enactment of the Dam Safety Act in 2021, the threat to the life, property, and livelihood of millions of people from dam-related perils remains unabated.
  • Retiring a dam has seldom been deemed an option in India even if the structure turns highly hazardous — as is the case with the nearly 130-year-old Mullaperiyar dam, which is not being replaced with a new one despite having been declared unsafe by the Kerala government.
  • Decommissioning vulnerable dams is now common practice to avert dam-related disasters in developed countries, notably in Europe and the US.
  • The parliamentary panel on dam safety has recommended decommissioning unsafe old dams. 
  • Nearly 20 per cent of 5740 large dams have outlived their rated life span of 50 years.
  • Besides, most of these old dams were constructed with locally available materials so, they are more vulnerable.
  • The situation has since undergone a dramatic change because of further development of the water-use infrastructure and global warming-induced uncertainties of the volume of water flows.
  • Risk factors like flash floods, landslides, and increased sedimentation are much more pronounced now than in the past. The country has witnessed more than 40 major dam failures in recent decades.
  • The Jal Shakti ministry conceded before this parliamentary committee that it did not have any methodology to assess the viable lifetime of dams.

What should be the way forward?

  • It is imperative to evolve a mechanism, as recommended by the parliamentary panel, to precisely estimate the potential life span of dams and decommission the over-aged ones to minimise the risk of their crashing down.
  • Routine maintenance work is done on the basis of the health evaluation of the structure.
  • Follow the US system of risk appraisal through a web-based integrated risk management model — called Dam Safety Analysis Tool — using variables from dam bursts in the past.
  • Develop an indigenous system for this purpose, using the expertise available in scientific institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Read also: List of Major Important Dams in India

Practice question for mains

Outline the need for decommissioning of unsafe old dams in India and suggest some measures in this regard. (150 words, 10 marks)

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