Even as widespread flooding is devastating Kerala, the conflict over the Mullaperiyar dam reared its head again, as reflected in an exchange of aggressive letters between the chief ministers of the Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The dam, built under an agreement in 1886 between then Maharaja of Travancore and the British, is located in Idukki district of Kerala but is managed by the Tamil Nadu government. Tamil Nadu channels water from the dam into the Vaigai basin.

In a letter to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on Wednesday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan pointed out that Tamil Nadu field engineers were managing the discharge from the dam erratically with a view to achieve the storage at the 142-foot level.

This 142-foot level is significant. After a prolonged legal battle, Tamil Nadu managed to obtain a Supreme Court order in 2014 allowing it to raise the water levels from 136 feet, the level at which Kerala wants the storage to be maintained. In Tamil Nadu, this 142-foot storage level is seen as non-negotiable and is often projected as a great achievement of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

However, the request from Kerala has come at a time when record inflows into almost every dam in the state are contributing to devastating floods.

Vijayan had pointed out in the letter that the outflow was much lower than the inflows.

“It is seen that at several points the discharge was decreased through the spillway gates, despite the knowledge of the heavy rainfall in the catchment area of the Mullaperiyar dam. Sharing of information is not forthcoming on the quantum of discharge through the spillway gates except stating that the authorities would act as per protocol.”

Tamil Nadu reply

In his reply on Thursday, Palaniswami said the dam was completely safe. He said that a Supreme Court-appointed advisory committee had inspected the dam on August 4 and had found that the structure could safely hold water up to 142 feet.

The letter said that water was being released to the Vaigai basin to the “maximum extent possible” and outflows were being coordinated with Kerala to ensure that the water level is maintained at 142 feet. In response to Vijayan’s charge that digital water-level recorders were not functioning, Palaniswami said an inspection on August 15 showed that the recorders were working well.

On his part, he accused Kerala of not allowing Tamil Nadu to gauge rainfall in the catchment area, due to which inflows were being calculated based on the rise in water levels.

While Tamil Nadu has taken refuge in the Supreme Court orders in keeping the water level at 142 feet, water management experts said the state should listen to Kerala in the current grim situation.

S Janakarajan, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, said a reduction of a few feet would not make a big difference to Tamil Nadu. “We have not seen such floods in 100 years,” he said. The professor added that it was always advisable to store water at a lower level when inflows are so high and more heavy rain is predicted.

Janakarajan said the dam has the capacity to release more water. “The water could be discharged into Vaigai dam and further down into other regulators,” he said.