As we prepare for the IOTX events that start on the 16th of June in Negombo, I was reminded of the first expert consultation we conducted, exactly one month after the tsunami. That was a productive meeting, catalyzing, among other things, the USD 71 million plus dam safety project that has made large swaths of our country safe from inland tsunamis. Thank you to all who worked with us along the way.
The Mullaperiyar Dam has been considered unsafe for many years. Nothing much has been done about it, partly because Tamilnadu and Kerala cannot agree on the remedial measures. Now Kerala is going hard, possibly energized by a feature film called Dam 999. Mr Joseph, quoted below, is a Minister: Mr. Joseph told reporters here on Friday that the Centre should intervene immediately to save the life of 30 lakh people who lived under the threat of a dam breach.
The whole point of a public lecture is to catalyze thought and action. It’s been three months and the first evidence I saw of anything being catalyzed was the phone call I got from Bandula Mahanama, the speaker we invited from Polonnaruwa. He had some plans about reducing risks from the Minneriya reservoir and wanted me to come. He and his colleagues from six farmer organizations wanted a Colombo partner. I went with Lakshaman Bandaranayake the CEO of Vanguard Management who has been our steadfast partner on all dam-safety related projects.
Last week, b-mobile subscribers in Bhutan received a message that cell broadcasting had been enabled on the system. It was the same week LIRNEasia recommended that cell broadcasting was the best option for effecting public warning in the mountainous country that is vulnerable to massive flash floods known as Glacial Lake Outburst Floods
The moderator of the DRR lecture and panel and leading science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has written about the discussion at the DRR lecture. More than 200 small dams did breach during those rains, causing extensive damage to crops and infrastructure. The most dangerous form of breach, the over-topping of the earthen dams of large reservoirs, was avoided only by timely measures taken by irrigation engineers — at considerable cost to those living downstream. This irrigation emergency was captured by a local cartoonist: the head in this caricature is that of the minister of irrigation. In early February, Sri Lanka announced that it will expand its dam safety programme to cover more large reservoirs and will ask for additional funding from the World Bank following recent floods.
The Kantale dam breached twenty five years ago, in April 1986. It cost 176 lives, LKR 65 million in relief only, LKR 186 million to repair the dam, uncounted amounts to repair damage to infrastructure, livelihoods and private property and still haunts the survivors. A documentary on Kantale, 19 years later, made in 2005 by Divakar Goswami, serves as a virtual memorial. But do we remember? Have we done what needs to be done to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of our people living in the shadow of the dams?
We first explored the idea of embedding sensors in dams so there would be better information about potential failures back in 2005 in the course of our dam safety research project. We were talking about relatively unproven RFID or electronic dust systems back then. Today it’s a proven technology, according to the NYT. Traditionally, most systems that monitor structures’ responses to earthquakes or strong winds have been wired ones. But wireless alerts may one day be an alternative.
LIRNEasia conducted a major study on the safety of the 350 large and medium sized dams and the 12,000 small dams that dot the landscape of Sri Lanka in 2005. In our little way we contributed to the initiation of a project to repair 32 of the most seriously impaired large dams. In the aftermath of 200 plus dams breaching and many others having to be subject to radical measures to save them in the recent dual floods, the issue of dam safety has risen on the public agenda a little. We hope it stays there. Appears that aging earth dams that are in danger of breaching is not a problem unique to us.
In 2005, we were approached by citizens and professionals to help raise awareness about the dangers of “an inland tsunami,” dam breaches. With the help of committed professionals, a small grant of around LKR 700,000 (around USD 7000) from the local initiatives fund of CIDA, an extremely generous partner in Vanguard Management, and the active involvement of community leaders including many from Sarvodaya, we conducted a participatory research project that remains to this day one of our most successful and rewarding efforts. The end result was a USD 71 million plus World Bank soft loan to help repair 32 of the most endangered dams. If not for that initiative, one wonders whether things would be worse than today, where we are suffering the effects of multiple small tanks breached, but all the big ones safe, so far. I wrote about the need to pay more attention to dam safety and maintenance, after the first flood of 2011.
When we talk about taking research to policy, we say that it is better to change the way policy makers think than change policy. One of our big wins was the inclusion of sustainable dam safety measures in a USD 71 million World Bank credit to the Government of Sri Lanka. Now we read this in the 2010 first budget speech: Hon. Speaker while expanding irrigation infrastructure, we must also devote adequate resources for the maintenance of both minor and major irrigation systems to ensure their safety and improve water management in downstream development. The government has already implemented a programme to improve dam safety in all major irrigation projects and increase water reservoir capacity.
We welcome the USD 71 million project to improve dam safety in Sri Lanka. LIRNEasia , together with several partners including the Sri Lanka Committee on Large Dams, Vanguard Management and Sarvodaya, did a lot of work on raising awareness of the impending dangers posed by ill-maintained dams, going as far as saying that a catastrophic dam failure in this reservoir-dotted country was not a question of if, but when. The repairs will, we understand, address the most serious risks raised by the LIRNEasia participatory research. However, due to ill-informed protests of the opponents of water-use reforms and the weak-kneed response of the government agencies and the World Bank, the component that would have addressed the sustainability issues was stripped out after one exchange. So we have postponed the day of reckoning, but not created a long-term sustainable system for safe water use.