The Supreme Court will hear the Mullaperiyar Dam issue once again this week. A PIL urged the court to order the Central Water Commission (CWC) to fix the rules curve, the instrumentation scheme and the operation of the programmed gate while, one of the respondents, the Kerala government had requested the setting of the maximum level of the ‘water reservoir dam at 139 feet.
Late last month, the top court had asked the standing oversight committee to give its opinion on the Kerala government’s appeal. Keep in mind, the committee, in 2006, felt that the water level could be safely maintained at 142 feet; Tamil Nadu, which owns and operates the dam, has long argued that it is a storage level that can be safely managed. However, in 2018, following the devastating floods in Kerala, the SC had allowed the level to be lowered to 139 feet, after previously allowing it to be brought back to 142 feet in 2014.
Concerns for the safety of the dam – located in a zone 3 seismic area – made operational in 1895 are not of recent vintage. In fact, once these were reported in 1979, the CWC lowered the maximum water level from the full tank water level of 152 feet to 136 feet. But, in the mid-1990s, Tamil Nadu demanded that it be revised upwards. The stakes for Tamil Nadu are high. The reservoir is a lifeline for the southern districts of the state that fear water: the diversion of 22 billion cubic feet of water per year from the reservoir not only helps irrigate 2.20 lakh acres of farmland. , it also deals with the drinking water needs in these districts. Any change in the amount of water supply can disrupt both farm livelihoods and water security.
But for Kerala, which has seen catastrophic rains in recent years thanks in large part to climate change, marked by devastation exacerbated by ecological degradation in surrounding areas, the challenge is existential. The position of the dam in a seismically active region and the age and strength of the dam structure aggravate the threat of storms.
At 126, Mullaperiyar has far exceeded the “healthy” lifespan of a 50-year dam. Studies conducted by IIT Delhi and Roorkee, both commissioned by the Kerala government, have signaled the safety of the dam, as reported in a 2021 report by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. . The Kerala government has submitted observations to the top court on the dismantling of the dam, building a new one in its place.
However, the Tamil Nadu government had rejected the idea of a new dam.
In this context, setting the curve of rules etc. it is a short-term measure; even if fixed again, it will not resolve the matter and the dispute will remain. While the leadership in the two states has affirmed confidence in the continuation of negotiations, the need for a permanent solution cannot be underestimated, especially with the uncertainties that climate change will worsen in the coming decades. The argument for decommissioning the dam is strong given its safety and the very obvious risks to Kerala. The need now is to find a way to balance Tamil Nadu’s interests as it moves towards it.