In Gujarat’s water crisis, key question: why is Narmada’s level low this year?

With the onset of summer, water level at the Sardar Sarovar Dam has dipped below the minimum drawdown level of 110.64 m, and stretches of the canal network are lying parched. The state is now forced to use the ‘dead storage’ of the dam.

Written by Sowmiya Ashok | New Delhi | Updated: March 28, 2018 7:33:09 am
Centre announces funds for Narmada project The Congress has alleged that the release of water for events such as the seaplane sortie of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led to this crisis situation. (File/Bhupendra Rana)

Since March 15, Gujarat farmers have not been given access to Narmada waters for agricultural purposes. Security personnel have been deployed along the main canal of the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadia to ensure that farmers do not illegally draw water. From a high of 130.75 metres on September 25, 2017, the water level in the reservoir has dropped over 25 metres. Local farmers say the canals were full last year, and when the gates of the dam were lowered on June 17, 2017, to hold more water, large areas were submerged.

Gujarat is experiencing a severe water crisis. Depleting water level is not confined only to the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the waters of which helps irrigate 1.8 million hectares, and benefit one million farmers through a canal network that roughly runs 75,000 km. Dams and reservoirs across the state are also drying up. Data compiled by the Central Water Commission show that of the 27 reservoirs in Gujarat and Maharashtra that it monitors, “the storage in the current year is less than the storage of last year, and is also less than the average storage of last 10 years during the corresponding period.”

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With the onset of summer, water level at the Sardar Sarovar Dam has dipped below the minimum drawdown level of 110.64 m, and stretches of the canal network are lying parched. The state is now forced to use the ‘dead storage’ of the dam. But why is the water level low this year? The explanations vary.

Deficient rainfall

A substantial area of the Narmada basin lies in Madhya Pradesh. When this area experiences shortage of rainfall, it severely affects the dam’s water level. This argument was put forth by Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel, who also holds the Narmada portfolio, while responding to the Congress’s charge that the government misused Narmada waters. The latter has alleged that the release of water for events such as the seaplane sortie of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led to this crisis situation.

Patel, however, said the allocation of water to the state is not linked to water available in the dam, but on the total water in the river basin. “In a normal year, 9 Million Acre Feet [MAF] water is being allocated [to Gujarat]. Last year, it was 9.34 MAF. If the dam is full, its live water storage will be 4.75 MAF, which means that to utilise this 9.34 MAF water, the dam’s live water storage has to be used twice. This makes it clear that our share… depends on the storage of water by Madhya Pradesh,” Patel explained.

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Data show MP and Gujarat experienced deficit rainfall from August to November. According to Y K Alagh, the former executive vice-chairman of the Narmada Planning Group that developed the Sardar Sarovar Development Plan in the 1980s, Gujarat kept drawing water during Kharif, when it should have saved it for Rabi in the summer. “We should not have used any water for riverfront ceremonial occasions after August, by when the rainfall failure was known,” he said.

Responding to The Indian Express in an email, an official of the state-run Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) said, “there is no outflow from SSP to the Sabarmati riverfront. However, water is released in the Sabarmati river to cater to domestic and drinking water needs of Ahmedabad city, irrigation of command area in Ahmedabad district through Vasna barrage and industrial water requirements for Ahmedabad city.”

narmada dam, gujarat farmers, sardar sarovar dam, narmada water dispute, ssnnl, indian express Farmers carry tubes used for drawing water from the canal, after SSNNL stopped the supply of Narmada water for irrigation on Friday. (Express Photo by Bhupendra Rana)

Inefficient utilisation

The timing of the release of water by upstream dams on the Narmada is also being scrutinised by many. The Indian Express had earlier reported that an unusual surge of water was released between September 12 and 17, prior to the inauguration of the Sardar Sarovar Dam by Prime Minister Modi on September 17. Official records show that the high water level was achieved on the inauguration day primarily because BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh released an unusual amount of water from upstream dams over a five-day period. The water level of the reservoir consistently increased till it reached its highest point in late-September, and then it began to dip.

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Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People claims that the release of water from the dam was done in a manner that was “non-optimal, wasteful and not in public interest”. Prior to the assembly election in December 2017, the Gujarat government used the opportunity to “show people that they have the water”. Although such a situation is not unique, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) stands out from the rest. According to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, power benefits from the project are to be shared among Madhya Pradesh (57%), Maharashtra (27%), and Gujarat (16%). “If you look at electricity generated through the riverbed powerhouse at the SSP, it has produced zero units from July 2017,” Thakkar said. “Why hasn’t Madhya Pradesh objected to not receiving electricity that is due to them?”

Prior to issuance of the notification that informed farmers about the March 15 deadline, SSNNL chairman S S Rathore in a press conference said: “The Gujarat government usually supplies water for irrigation till June, before the onset of monsoon. This year, we will not be supplying Narmada water till monsoon.” He added, quoting certain norms, that the government is “not bound to supply water for summer crops.” The SSNNL has stated that the decision on how to fill the dam and the further utilisation of water was taken in meetings, the minutes of which are not available in the public domain.

Structure of the dam

Questions have often been raised about the structure of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. At a Dam Safety Conference organised in Kerala in January 2018, by the Ministry of Water Resources, a Narmada Control Authority (NCA) official was asked about the measures incorporated to curb water seepage from the lift joints of the SSP. He replied: “Regarding heavy seepage that is occurring, we have taken note of the observation and because the construction has been in stages, there are problems…, we are in touch with the state government”. The official added that the SSP enjoyed a “special position” and that the NCA was working with the state government to ensure that a special monitoring was carried out. “I hope working with the state governments, we can bring out all the issues, and make sure safe operation of the dam,” he said.

Read stories from The Indian Express series ‘Narmada: Rationing the Lifeline’.

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