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Harjeet Singh: Five Questions For India On The Cause Of Punjab’s Floods
"In my view, the problem is mostly the actions of the BBMB (Bhakra Beas Management Board), who control significant dams impacting Punjab."
August 9, 2023 | 5 min. read | Opinion
Punjab has always been a region gifted for agriculture with plenty of rainwater, alluvial soil, and a mild climate. Fittingly, the history of Punjab shows few events of famine, water scarcity, or flooding. However, since the 1970s, post-construction of major dams, Punjab has been marred with receding groundwater levels on one hand and unnatural floods on the other.
As such, many are questioning why flooding in Punjab is now a regular occurrence.
Every dam is an obstruction of the natural flow of a river, and its major purpose is to prevent overflow/flooding by storing excess water during heavy rainfalls, providing water in the dry season for irrigation/drinking, and generating hydroelectric power.
Post-1947, various major dams have been constructed over three main rivers of Punjab (Ravi, Beas and Satluj). Given the abundance of water and extensive dam infrastructure, Punjab and neighbouring Indian state Haryana should never face water shortage or floods.
So what is the issue? In my view, the problem is mostly the actions of the BBMB (Bhakra Beas Management Board), who control significant dams impacting Punjab. And the floods this year show why.
In June 2023, some northwestern Indian states received marginally excess rainfall; Punjab (~21% excess), Himachal (~20% excess), UP (~30% excess), and Haryana (~49% excess). A +/-20% variation in Punjab is normal and not considered abnormal. The large reservoirs in Punjab and Himachal could have easily accommodated this excess rainfall.
Yet, a look at data on these dams reveals alarming practices.
These dams are expected to release water in dry months (March-June) and hold as much water as possible in monsoons (July-August). Between March-June 2023, BBMB only released a total of 109,7403 cuft/s of water (or 11,755 cuft/s daily) (1 cuft/s is equivalent to 24.4 lakh litres per day). In comparison, the average outflow for the same period in the previous four years was 227,3911 cuft/s.
This kept the dam water level high going into monsoon season this year while depriving farmers of water in the hot summer. When monsoons struck in July, strangely, the BBMB, instead of reducing outflow, pumped up daily outflow by 100%+ to 23385 cuft/s daily (from 11755 cuft/s daily dry months).
This action is even more puzzling because the BBMB started releasing excess water when the reservoir water level was 120 feet below the danger level. This pattern was repeated at all of Punjab’s major dams.
BBMB not only released excessive water from major dams but also blocked outflow to Punjab’s neighbouring states.
All major barrages to Rajasthan (Indira Gandhi Canal) and Haryana (Yamuna Link) were shut down. As a result, the excess water released from Dams had nowhere to go except to flood the plains of Punjab. Notably, over 65% of Punjab’s dam waters flow to Rajasthan, and the rest goes to Haryana and Delhi.
Once the Rajasthan Barrage at Harike Pattan was shut down, devastating floods became inevitable. There was no logical reason for blocking the barrage to Rajasthan as the state is a water-starved desert. Arguments that BBMB was worried about silt damage are weak, as the canals have a desilting process. For some inexplicable reason, the BBMB chose to destroy irrigated farms in Punjab instead of releasing water into Rajasthan’s desert.
Ex-Chief Engineer of Punjab, Sardar Dulat Singh, Ex-Chairman of PSEB (Punjab School Education Board), Sardar Harinder Singh Brar, and multiple other senior Punjab officials have publicly questioned these actions of the BBMB.
Sardar Atinderpal Singh (ex-MP) claims that these were malicious actions directed from Delhi to harm the interests of Punjab farmers. Social media is also abuzz with concerned citizens asking these questions of BBMB and the Government of India.
As a result of public pressure, on July 12, 2023, the BBMB claimed no more “excess” water would be released into Punjab, and they would “only” release “routine” water. Despite these public assurances, the BBMB continued to release 22,807 cuft/s daily from Bhakra between July 11-21.
The BBMB claimed that releasing 22,000 cuft/s is routine. That is false, as BBMB’s data shows they have been able to cap daily outflow below 3,000 cuft/s for prolonged periods.
A detailed look at data over 10 years indicates that a nearly identical pattern of water discharges and barrage closures was also responsible for the 2019 floods. In years when the BBMB discharged sufficient water in dry months and held onto the water in monsoons, no flooding was reported.
All of the above data underlines that the BBMB and the Government of India have questions to answer about these floods:
Why did the BBMB not discharge ‘enough’ water in dry months (March-June) to keep water levels in dams low, in preparation for monsoons?
Why did the BBMB ramp up daily outflow by over 100% (from 11755 cuft/s to 23385 cuft/s) right as monsoons hit in July, and dam water levels were 120 feet below danger level?
When the monsoons began, why did the BBMB block all barrages which take 80% of Punjab’s water to neighbouring states?
Why did the BBMB provide false assurances of stopping outflow while continuing to discharge disproportionate amounts of water through July, 2023?
Why is the BBMB hiding the data related to dam water levels and outflows between June 22-30, 2023? This data is missing on their publicly available water level dashboard.
Given the historical disagreements between Sikhs and the Indian government, some argue that sinister political motives might have driven these actions of the BBMB. I do not claim to know the real intentions of the BBMB and the Government of India. Readers can make their own judgments.
Harjeet Singh is an Ex-Indian Air Force Officer, currently settled in Seattle USA, working for a leading MNC.
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