Banasura Sagar dam in Kerala’s Wayanad district is the largest earthen dam in the country. Early on August 9, more than 1,000 people living near the dam woke up abruptly to find water gushing into their homes. When the water reached knee level, they scampered for safety, carrying children and elderly people in their arms.

Watching their neighbourhoods go under water, the residents initially thought that the heavy rains that had been lashing Wayanad for a week were responsible for their homes being inundated. But they later discovered that the water had been released by the Banasura Sagar dam. The Kerala State Electricity Board, which manages the dam, had opened its water flow gates without giving any warning to residents of the area.

“We are lucky not to lose any lives, but what the board did was complete disregard to people’s lives and property,” said PG Sajesh, the president of the Padinjarathara gram panchayat, where the dam is located. “What would have happened to the people had they not woken up from their sleep?”

The dam has a maximum storage capacity of 775.6 metres. Electricity board officials opened the shutters of the dam when the inflow began to increase on August 8. As per rules, they should have consulted the district disaster management authority and ensured that people living in the area were informed in advance and given time and help to evacuate. But in this case, the district collector, who is chairman of the district disaster management authority, said he was not informed. “They opened the shutters without getting my permission,” said AR Ajayakumar, the district collector.

Faced with these charges, the state electricity minister, MM Mani, initially denied any lapse on part of the board officials. On August 14, however, he changed his position and promised to conduct an inquiry into the incident. “We will take actions against officials if they erred,” he said.

Unprecedented situation

Most of Kerala is battling severe floods. The gates of 35 dams in the state had to be opened on Wednesday, following heavy rains in their catchment areas.

According to the national registry of dams of the Central Water Commission, Kerala has 62 big dams of which 36 are managed by the state electricity board, 20 are managed by the irrigation department and two are managed by the state water authority. Four dams come under the control of water resources department of Tamil Nadu.

In the case of Kerala’s biggest dam, the Idukki reservoir, electricity board officials issued several warnings before releasing water on August 9 when the water level rose to the 2,399-foot mark. The full reservoir level of the dam is 2,403 feet.

The government also issued an alert before opening the shutters of the Mullaperiyar dam in the early hours of August 15, when the water level touched the 140-foot mark. The district administration relocated more than 4,000 people to relief camps.

But there is no clear information available to assess whether the officials manning the other, relatively smaller dams followed protocol.

CN Ramachandran Nair, a retired judge who is the chairman of the Kerala Dam Safety Authority, insisted that they did. “The government officials took all the precautions before opening the shutters,” he said. “This is a first in the history of Kerala. We have never opened so many dams in the same day.”

Asked about the Banasura Sagar dam, he said local people were making baseless allegations. “Alerts have been issued there too,” he said.

Lack of coordination

The chief of disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Environment Programme, Murali Thummarukudy, said it was commonplace for authorities to open the shutters of dams without informing residents. “The main reason being the lack of unity between the civil engineers who look after the safety of the dams and reservoir managers who plan water utilisation,” he said. Safety engineers would like to release water when levels begin to rise, but reservoir managers want to hold maximum water in the reservoir.

“When the water level begins to reach the brim, they will open the shutters for fear of dam safety,” Thummarukudy said. “This is not a Kerala-only phenomenon.”

Thummarukudy said this is not the right way to manage dams. “Those who manage the dams should find out the water level increase in a reservoir by factoring in the rain pattern and water usage every year,” he said. “There is no need to keep the dam full in the middle of a rainy season. Water can be released slowly when there is a prediction of heavy rain.”

He added: “It will not damage the reservoir and threaten people’s lives.”