Punjab Floods: Caught Out By Climate Change, Bhakra Dam Officials Act Fast To Save Lives

Rachna Khaira

CHANDIGARH—On August 18, the mood was anxious at the plush offices of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) office at Chandigarh.

The previous night, incessant rains in Himachal Pradesh meant close to 3.11 lakh cusecs of water had flowed into the Bhakra reservoir, raising the water level in the dam to 1681.33 feet — just past the dam’s critical mark at 1680 feet.

If water continued to flow into the dam at the same rate, the BBMB would have had no option but to open the flood gates and inundate the areas downstream of the dam.

However, the rains had also meant that the Swan and Sirsa rivulets, which originate in Himachal Pradesh and merge with the Sutlej river at Ropar, had breached their banks and had flooded the low lying areas in Punjab. Over 38 people were reported dead in Himachal, while 300 villages in Punjab were evacuated. 

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Opening Bhakra’s flood-gates would have further devastated Punjab, and quite possibly parts of Haryana.

“This never happened before. The water flow was more than the water received during floods reported in 1988,” BBMB Chairman Devendra Kumar Sharma said at joint press conference held today in Chandigarh. 

The 1988 floods are a dark memory for the BBMB. In September that year, the Board opened the dam’s floodgates without warning after a freak cloudburst. An Indian Today story from the time reported entire villages were washed away in a matter of hours, and placed the death toll at 1500 with another 500 missing.

More recently, the 2018 floods in Kerala revived the debate over dam management, when the release of water from the Mullaperiyar dam is believed to have significantly exacerbated flood damage in the state.

Thirty years after the 1988 floods, and a year after Kerala, the BBMB appears to have learnt its lesson. Officials told HuffPost India that even as the water-levels in the reservoir crossed the danger mark,...

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