If reports are to be believed, many parts of the state of Kerala are staring down the barrel of an extinction event-level disaster in the form of a ticking water-time bomb called the Mullaperiyar dam. This disaster, if it happens, will have no parallels in recorded human history and will have horrifying consequences that will haunt and torture people of this country for generations to come. When there are many ways that we as a species are alive only because the Universe is merciful enough not to wipe us all out in an instant, we seem to be making fools out of ourselves by trying and forcing the hand of those unexplained cosmic powers!
For the uninitiated, this not an issue of water sharing like the Kaveri dispute but a safety issue staring Malayalees (and Tamilians) in the face, one that will reduce the most prosperous lands and people of the state to a muddy wasteland riddled with corpses and shattered lives which will make the post 2004 Tsunami Indonesia look like downtown Los Angeles. If the dam fails, death will come to central Kerala in the form of flash floods, landslides, washouts at first and as diseases, famine, drought and ecological, economic, financial and social disasters that will follow it. 3.5 million Malayalees, entire family trees and everything that all our ancestors have built up over centuries will be wiped off the map in a matter of hours. And devoid of water, 5 districts in Tamil Nadu will face crippling drought.
The Mullaperiyar dam is a 116 year old masonry gravity dam, constructed of stone and a Calcium Oxide mixture, known as Surkhi or Lime-Mortar. The dam is not constructed of Cement or Concrete, but a water-soluble Calcium compound! But after many a “strengthening ” exercises over decades, the dam today has become a mish-mash of many materials including concrete and cement. It has been holding back 443 million cubic meters of water (weighing 443 billion tonnes) for the past 116 years. It stands upstream over another mega-dam complex which holds 2000 million cubic meters of water. Almost 3.5 million (35 lakh) people live in the shadow of these two dams. And now, with recurring earthquakes shaking the area there are reports of serious cracks appearing in the dam including a 1,200 wide foot crack as per inspections carried out by underwater diving vehicles (report from Times of India), thereby increasing seepage from the dam and spreading panic across Kerala. If the fears come true, nothing could be done to save all these people including yours truly and family. All this thanks to petty politics, misplaced emotions and lack of rational thinking and games played by politicians?
LOCATION OF THE MULLAPERIYAR DAM
The Mullaperiyar dam is located at 9° 31′ 43″ N, 77° 8′ 39″ E, in the Peerumedu taluk of Idukki district in Kerala, India, close to the Tamil Nadu border. Lying almost entirely within the Western Ghats (Sahyadri), and called the “high-ranges” in local parlance, Idukki is Kerala’s second largest district area-wise and mostly mountainous. The district is heavily forested and sparsely populated and is home to several rivers, dams and lakes, national parks, hill station resorts and is rich in biodiversity and natural splendor, so much so that it is called “God’s own District“. The dam is constructed on the headwaters of the Periyar river, at the confluence of the Mulla aar and the Periyar, which originates in the Sivagiri hills in the Western Ghats. The famous Periyar National Park (of which Periyar Tiger Reserve is a part) surrounds the reservoir. The famous “Thekkady” boating trips take place on the reservoir of the Mullaperiyar dam. The dam is built on a river which originates in Kerala and flows only through Kerala, and it’s reservoir and catchment area all lie entirely within Kerala. Nearby towns are Kumily, Vandiperiyar, Thekkady and Chinnar. The Idukki Hydroelectric Project and reservoir, of which famous Idukki Arch Dam is part of, is situated just 30 km downstream of the dam.
HISTORY OF THE DAM AND THE CONFLICT
The Mullaperiyar Dam one of those headache inducing legacies the British left for the country. During the rule of the East-India Company and later the British Raj, the present day Tamil Nadu was called the Madras Presidency. Most parts of interior Tamil Nadu consisted of hot, arid, scorching waterless plains. These plains stood in the leeward shadow of the mountains of the Western Ghats, which rose suddenly from the arid plains forming the border with the princely state of Travancore. On one side, the mountains received almost year round rainfall but most of the water drained away through rivers into the Arabian sea, underutilized. On the other side, just in a matter of 30 kilometers the landscape changed from wet, moist, tropical jungle to arid, dry, semi-tundra desert with sparse rainfall. The British found this unfair and wanted to solve this problem of water-imbalance by somehow bringing water from Travancore to the plains of Madras for drinking, irrigation and cultivation, to battle the severe drought that made life impossible in these dry, dusty rainshadow districts. After conducting extensive surveys the jungles of what is now Idukki district, and the plains, it was planned to divert the Periyar into the Vaigai river and hence to Madurai. But prohibitive costs and absence of technology caused that plain to be abandoned. Instead, a decision was made to build a dam at the confluence of the Mulla aar and Periyar, so that the water so captured could be channeled to a dam on the Vaigai and hence for irrigation across the districts of Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram in Southern Tamil Nadu.
To construct and use the dam, on October 29, 1886, the Secretary of State for (then) “India” (Madras Presidency), signed an agreement of lease with the then Maharaja of Travancore H.H. Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma. As per the lease agreement, “India” (Madras Presidency) would lease from Travancore, 8000 acres of land situated at 155 feet above and surrounding Periyar river for irrigation purposes (a reservoir and catchment area) and another 100 acres to build a dam to capture water, and would assume full ownership and operating power for all this for 999 years. The lease amount would be a (now) paltry sum of Rs. 40,000 per year. It is not known why the Maharaja agreed to such a unilateral setup, maybe it was just a lack of foresight. But most probably this could have been the result of the famous British policies of arm-twisting (view the entire text of the lease deed here). Whatever it is, this blunder now hangs above the heads of all people in Kerala like the sword of Damocles. Even more ridiculous is the agreement of 999 years, when the dam will never last that long. And there is a clause which says that the agreement can be renewed for another 999 years!
The construction of the dam started in 1886 itself. Dense jungle, humid tropical climate, inhospitable terrain, flash floods, torrential monsoon rains, wild animals and diseases like Malaria made life hell for the working crew and many were killed. And the first dam constructed was washed away by floods. Most of the English quit and went home. But the chief engineer, one Colonel J. Pennycuick was not one to give up easily. With a determination that seemed almost supernatural, he sold all that he had in England and gathering enough labor and materials he set off to build the dam. Nature, animals and diseases gave up in front of his resolve and construction of the dam was completed by 1895. It will not be wrong to say that whatever we see in those five districts of Tamil Nadu today exist only because of Col. Pennycuick. This man who risked his life and savings for their well-being is God for the people of those five districts, the God who gave them water and hence, life.
As soon as the dam was completed, Madras started to draw water from the dam and continued use it for the next 57 years, Even though Pennycuick himself had said the dam would last only for 50 years. When Independent India came into being in 1947, all pre-independence agreements between the British Empire and princely states were deemed to have lapsed as per the Indian Independence act of 1947, and the Article 131 of the Indian Constitution denied Supreme Court jurisdiction over such agreements. Even then, some sort of informal agreement continued to exist between the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu (TN), and TN continued drawing water from the reservoir and exercised ownership powers over the project. Then, in 1970, the two state governments signed an agreement renewing the 1886 treaty, with Kerala incredibly agreeing to keep almost all original clauses intact. Through the dam and catchment area were within Kerala State boundaries, Kerala was left with no say about the dam. Tamil Nadu continues to use most of the water in the dam for irrigation and power generation to this day.
In 1979, a minor earthquake shook the Periyar region and cracks were observed in the dam. The water level in the dam was reduced to 136 feet (the current allowed maximum level) from the 142.2 dam capacity level, as the dam was quite old and it was feared that it would breach if more quakes happened in the region or due to stress if the level of water was kept raised for long periods of time. TN moved Supreme Court citing the “safety concerns” were “imaginary” and the dam was totally safe and should be filled to maximum capacity, an argument which Kerala countered. This dilly-dallying continued till 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that the dam capacity be raised to 142 feet as per TN’s claims. The Kerala government then passed a “Dam Safety Act” in the assembly prohibiting this, which the Supreme Court did not object to. The max height was fixed at 136 feet. In 2009 the government of Kerala decided to construct a new dam downstream, to which TN appealed to be stayed. Meanwhile, the dam which was estimated to survive for 50 years is as of now 116 years old. The arguments and counter arguments from both sides notwithstanding, I feel that it is only common sense that a huge structure like a dam holding back 444 million cubic meters of water, built 116 years ago when technological developments were in their infancy is not bound to last for ever. Especially so when the dam is constructed of lime mortar, which is essentially brand new technology if you happen to be living in the 4th Century BC in the Roman Empire.
RECENT AND CURRENT STATUS
After lying dormant for a couple of years the issue has again come to the forefront in Kerala thanks to successively recurring tremors shaking the region. Areas with large dams are prone to earthquakes due of the enormous weight of the collected water exerts on the Earth. As many as 22 recorded quakes have occurred in Idukki district around the Mullaperiyar project area during the past 8 months, out of which the two on Friday, November 18, measured 2.3 and 3.4 on the Richter Scale and were a mere 32 kilometers away from the dam. More visible cracks and fissures have started appearing on the dam, indicating it has been further weakened. But there is no exact data on the amount of seepage of water that has been escaping the dam as usual TN is downplaying the issue. It has been calculated that the dam will not withstand a quake measuring above 5.5 on the Richter Scale. Adding on to this, there was a tremor measuring 4.5 under the seabed off Lakshwadeep, whose tremors were felt in Trivandrum, 300 km away. All these earthquakes are making people jittery. And all the arguments TN has raised regarding the dam have been met by counter arguments from Kerala.
The most frightening fact is that as expected the dam seems to be in pretty bad shape. Though the TN officials guarding the dam do not allow people to take photos of the dam to prevent exposing the true condition of the dam, some have sneaked in and managed to do so. When the water level falls below 115 feet, the horrifying real condition of the dam becomes visible with its corroded, cracked and decayed wall showing above the water level (See pictures here – Report in Malayalam). It really is a wonder that the dam has held itself together for so long. It is not just the people of Tamil Nadu, but of Kerala also who owe their lives to Colonel J. Pennyquick. There seems to be no doubt that the dam is weak and in danger, no matter what the TN Government claims it to be. The funniest fact is that, while the TN government claims the dam to be safe, it does not allow anyone to inspect the dam. It is preposterous that people from the Kerala government are not allowed to inspect territories which come under the boundaries of the Kerala state.
MULLAPERIYAR DAM FAILURE SCENARIO
Should the dam fail, the catastrophe would be unimaginable, a disaster which cannot claim to draw parallels to any that has ever occurred in recorded human history, maybe save the China floods of 1931 which killed an estimated 4 million people. The Mullaperiyar dam is a gravity dam, which means it stands on its own weight. It will probably never break under its own weight or due to water pressure, but an earthquake can change everything. Surprisingly, no government has initiated any study or measurement as on what would happen if the dam gave way. All that is given below are speculations and hypothesis, as there are no official studies available on what would happen.
In the worst case of the Mullaperiyar dam giving way, flood waters will follow the Periyar rift valley to reach the Idukki reservoir in a span of minutes, flowing downstream at unimaginable velocity and force. Some of the water might follow various valleys towards the left and right. The town of Vandiperiyar sitting just below the dam will be instantly washed away without a trace, killing tens of thousands of people instantly, leaving a muddy, decaying wasteland with no sign of anything ever having existed there. Now, even if the Idukki dams are able to absorb all this extra water as the AG of Kerala argued, what about the lives of all these Lakhs of people living in the Periyar Valley??
Note: Everything described below here on is purely hypothetical, assumed and speculative, mainly by looking at the geography around the Mullaperiyar dam and the Idukki Hydroelectric Project dams, and after studying the destructive powers of flowing water, after looking after the Banqiao dam disaster and the aftermath of many other dam bursts and flood and landslide disasters. Nothing, I repeat, nothing is based on any scientific calculations and should not be taken on exact face value.
The Idukki Hydroelectric Project and it’s Impact
The Idukki Hydroelectric Project (IHeP) comprises of not one but three dams: the Idukki Arch Dam, the Cheruthoni concrete gravity dam and the Kulamavu masonry gravity dam. It generates 60% of Kerala’s electricity, and was considered to be an engineering marvel when constructed. Out of the three, the Arch Dam is the largest, most sophisticated and modern. The reservoir area mainly receives water form the Mullaperiyar dam spillway (water that escapes when the water level in the dam goes over 136 feet) and can hold almost 2000 million cubic meters of water (2 trillion liters weighing 2 trillion tons), spread over an area of 60 square kilometers (roughly equivalent to two-thirds the area of Kochi). That is thousands of trillions of Joules of energy locked up and if released will have the power to vaporize anything in its path. Kulamavu and Cheruthoni dams face North-West, towards Kochi while the Idukki dam faces North-Easterly, towards Tamil Nadu. It is speculative if the dam system will be able to absorb the extra water from Mullaperiyar (assumed 200 million cubic meters weighing 2oo billion tonnes). It is reasonable to believe that the Idukki arch dam will stand intact given its parabolic curvature and construction but the smaller normal straight line dams may not. These dams failing can spell doom for Kerala without warning.
Further Impact on the 4 Districts
The water after breaching the Kulamavu and/or Cheruthoni dams will flow downhill roughly following the Periyar drainage basin with unimaginable speed and power. The valley starts immediately after the dams, and the terrain plunges from 700 meters above sea level to 50 meters in the matter of 20 km or so. The water will not be flowing, but crashing down steep slopes gaining momentum and energy, obliterating anything and everything in its way. The flow might follow the Moolamattom – Kanjar valley, the Periyar rift valley and so on. But it does not matter which route the wall of water several meters high is going to take, as it will carry with it such power that it will pulverize anything that stands in its way including hills and embankments. All this will be converted into rubble and piles of mud that the avalanche carries with it downstream, using it as a weapon to further destroy anything that comes in its path, burying everything: houses, buildings, vehicles, trees, vegetation, railway lines, roads, highways, people and animals under meters of mud. Areas around the Periyar basin will be absolutely devastated. As it passes across the plains of central Kerala, the wall of water will spread out till it reaches the Arabian Sea. Whatever the water picks up will be deposited everywhere along the way from Kulamavu till the Arabian sea, maybe from Kodungalloor in the north to Haripad in the south, forming a real Kerala triangle on the lines of the Bermuda Triangle. All those rubber plantations, the curvy snaky MC road and he huge houses people built up along it, many pilgrim centers (even Sabarimala will be in danger), the international Airport, Harbor, Naval Command and in short anything that has been built up in the path of the water will be flattened and crushed out of existence. All those houses people built up through a lifetime of toil, sweat and sacrifice will turn into their own watery, muddy graves.
No one knows or will know how many people will lose their lives in this inundation, but it is sure that Lakhs will die. Whole families will be wiped out, real people with real hopes and dreams. The dirt poor, the obscenely rich, the powerful and powerless, the BPL family and the middle class family, those who are close to politicians and aam aadmi, drunkards and those who don’t drink, the easy-money-swindler and the swindled, B.Com first class holders and school drop-outs, Gulf returnees and visiting NRIs, believers of all Gods and their leaders, party members and Super Star fan clubs, software engineers and real estate sharks, black money holders and quotation gangs, rapists and moral police, lovers, husbands and wives, children, babies…. It is estimated that 35 to 40 lakh people (3.5 to 4 million) living in the districts of Idukki, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta will be affected with maybe Idukki and Ernakulam the most, including the city of Ernakulam-Kochi. Kerala’s financial and economic hub could be devastated. All this is apart from the carnage the flood will cause between the Mullaperiyar and Idukki dams and among the hills of Idukki district.
The danger does not come of flowing water alone, but also on what the water flow turns into. The water will shear away the topsoil, mud, rocks and sand lying its way downstream. Add to this all the other debris like vehicles, remains of buildings, roads, bridges, rail lines, vegetation and bodies of people and animals. The result will be that as the water gains ground, the water avalanche will be converted into a high-powered mudslide. And by the time it reaches the Arabian Sea (if it does), it will bury everything in its way under a couple of meters of muddy debris.
The Aftermath of the Carnage
Those who survive this initial devastation will be met my shortage of drinkable water, food and shelter. And if the bodies of those dead are not buried within 24 hours, the decay will lead to outburst of horrible communicable diseases. This is not the only suffering that will await the hapless survivors. Billions upon billions worth of property in all forms will be destroyed, along with the economy of the state and country. There will be no way for anyone to reach anywhere in the absence of roads and ways for communication. And this is not taking into account the long-term chaos that await them. All land records will be gone, as well as any source of economic sustainability. The financial nerve center of the state will disappear, along with the harbor and naval command. All this will put huge strain on the rest of the state and on the country, which will never have faced a disaster of this magnitude it its history, even at the time of partition. Then there are the cultural and psychological issues that await generations of Malayalees, in the form of the trauma of the incident. The entire culture of Central Travancore will be lost, with all of its population. The population of Kerala will be reduced by 10%. There will be a heavy influx of people from TN, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to fill this gap, destroying the unique culture and language of the Malayalees to a large extent. And don’t forget that with the IHeP gone, 60% of Kerala and 20% of TN will be in darkness.
And what will happen to Tamil Nadu? Apart from power cuts in industrially important districts, there will be some casualties from the dam failure as well, but nothing major and compared to what the future would hold. Building a new dam being now impossible, the water supply which had been keeping 5 districts of southern TN alive for more than a century will suddenly go dry and stay so for decades. Millions of people will perish in TN too under the unforgiving sun. And they as people will be burdened with the moral responsibility of the holocaust of 3.5 million people for all eternity.
PLEASE LET THIS NOT HAPPEN!
The only solution for this crisis and to save the state and it’s people is to build a new, strong and modern dam somewhere downstream on the Periyar. This will ensure that the people of Kerala will remain safe while Tamil Nadu can continue receiving water. There is an advantage here that TN can get even more water than what it is receiving now since the new dam could be filled to the brim. But that is the bone of contention now. Not only is the Government of TN totally against building of a new dam, but they also want to increase the water level to 142 feet! When millions of people are staring down the barrel of a potentially explosive ticking water-time-bomb, it makes no sense that someone should even try to take steps that this will indeed happen instead of trying and preventing the disaster!
Incredibly, TN still insists the dam is totally safe despite it being so old! They dismiss claims by the Kerala government as the dam to be weak and a potential threat to the lives and property of 35 million people, apparently in fear of losing control of the dam and hence the share of water from the Periyar reservoir. Are they expecting this ancient dam to stand for 874 more years? Or are lives of 3.5 million Indians simply expendable over the life of some one else? Or is this just another form of vote bank politics? Are virulent politicians laying price to the lives of people? What if something happens? Will they take responsibility? Why are they opposing the building of a new dam?
What will happen if a new dam is built?
The new dam should be built by the Kerala Government some distance downstream of the current dam. But the Government of TN is vehemently opposing this for many reasons, saying that this move is against the interest of the state and people of Tamil Nadu. The Government of Kerala has repeatedly reassured TN and its people that they are committed into giving water to the people of TN, but only want the people of Kerala to be safe. Blessed with 44 rivers and abundant monsoons, I would say Kerala actually does not need the water in the Periyar reservoir. And of course, not a single soul in Kerala wants anyone of our Tamil brethren to suffer from lack of water! The problem seems that the TN government is playing to the gallery evoking parochial emotions and vote bank politics. They refuse to take on face value that Kerala will keep the promise of providing water from the new dam. In addition to this, they will not retain control of the new dam as it does not come under the agreement of 1886 or 1970. There have been emotional outbursts from Keralites as well, asking “Why anyone should ask for any permission for building a dam on land belonging to Kerala over a river that flows exclusively through Kerala?” Well.
While this is makes sense, I would say that no one should go overboard with emotions, and the dam should be built only after taking the people of Tamil Nadu into confidence. What could be done is the Kerala Government should submit a something like an assurance or a memorandum or something legally binding before the Supreme Court and the Parliament that once the new dam is built, they will provide TN with the equivalent or more water as is being supplied as of now. In short, everything should be done to gain the confidence of the people of TN in building a new dam, to make sure that the people of Kerala remain safe. This is not a question of “bowing down” to anyone, but one of safeguarding an entire people from an extinction event.
We Only Want to Live! We don’t want any Water!
My plea to the politicians from Kerala and Tamil Nadu is: All that we ask you to please ensure the safety of the people of Kerala in any eventuality. We know that politicians will be safe even if millions will die, be it of water avalanches or drought. But not the people. Please work together to find a solution for this so that both the people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu be safe. I have only highest respect for the Tamil language, which I can fluently speak, read and to an extent write. Please help us live our lives and achieve our dreams! But it looks like they are least bothered, and politics and power is all that matters. The lives of people in this county seems to be expendable and worthless, as all we can see is lip service. And as it is expected in this country, there is no emergency/ contingency plan or disaster management scenario in case something like this happens. Politicians will come and say that they are ‘shocked’, hypocritical screaming journalists will cover the disaster 24/7 as breaking news and after sometime everyone will go back harping about Sachin Tendulkar’s 100, some stupid song or the birth of a new Bollywood star.
Centuries ago in 1341, a devastating flood in the Periyar wiped out the then bustling port city of Muziris, which is near to the present day town of Kodungalloor or Pattanam in Kerala. Muziris in those days was to maritime trade what Mumbai or Singapore is today. The flood wiped out Muziris, burying it under many meters of mud as the Pattanam excavations reveal today. We would not want that to happen again to Kochi or any part of Kerala. There are little or no records of the flood of 1341, but it is known that it changed the course of the Periyar, must have killed tens of thousands of people and changed the geography and culture of Kerala. Muziris, which had trading connections with the Roman Empire was washed away opening the chance for Kochi to become a leading financial center and trading point. The devastation would have been unimaginable.
Please don’t let that happen again. Save Mullaperiyar. Save us. Save Kerala. And Tamil Nadu!
Addendum: Looking at the apathy our so-called “national media” displays towards this issue and the lukewarm response from the central government, I think that the lives of 35 lakh Indians really do not matter, because these Indians do not live in the Hindi belt or have any significant say in matters of national politics. Despicable, it is. I have always thought Kerala to be like the North East where lives of people do not matter. What can be expected from a country which gives five-star treatment amounting to 50 Crores to a terrorist who attacked the country, while law-abiding voiceless citizens do not have security for living an honest life?