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International Journal of Water Resources Development

ISSN: 0790-0627 (Print) 1360-0648 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cijw20

Large and small dams

R. Vidyasagar Rao

To cite this article: R. Vidyasagar Rao (1989) Large and small dams, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 5:2, 136-142, DOI: 10.1080/07900628908722425

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Large and small dams

R. Vidyasagar Rao

To meet the demands of a rising population India needs to increase its food output by about 60% by the year 2000. This will involve a correspondingincrease in the area of irrigated land.A controversy has arisenover whetherlarge dams should be used to meet the targetincrease,since it has been asserted that large projects entail severeadverse environmental and human impactsabsent from smaller works. This paper arguesthat small dams alone could not meet the country's needs, and if they could they would cause greater damage than would result from a combination of large and small dams.

Since the dawn of civilization India has primarily been an agricultural country. Agriculture continues to be the main occupation of the country, sustaining about 70% of its population. Vast areas are now being cultivated and crops are raised on them twoor three times every year. Like most other countries, India enjoys uneven rainfall. The annual average rainfall is about 1170mm, but there are considerable variations in both space and time. For example, Cherapunji inthe northeast on the Himalayas receives an annual


perhaps the highest in the world, while the corresponding figure for the Rajasthan desert in the northwest is only about 126 mm. The seasonal and annual variations in rainfall make the Indian economy and planning highly dependent on the monsoons. The dependence of agriculture on rainfall could render cultivation precarious, and there have been very serious droughts which have brought untold misery to the people in the past. This underlines the need for properly harnessing and utilizing the country's rivers by suitable irrigation works through major, medium and minor irrigation schemes so as to assure water availability for agriculture.

rainfall of about 10 600 mm, which is

The author is Director (Systems Engineering) of the Central Water Commission, Sewa Bhavan, RK Puram, New Delhi 110066, India.

India is a vast country with a kaleidoscopic

diversity of topography, climate and vegetation. Its geographical area is 328 mha, of which the culturable command area (irrigable area) is 186 mha, 56.7% of the geographical area. India has a very large population to support. According to the Seventh Five-Year Plan published by the Planning Commis- sion of India the projected poplation of the country

1986 level

by AD 2001 would be 986 million (the

being 761 million) and the demand for foodgrains will increase from 150 million tons in 1985 to 240 million tons by the year 2000. Such a large increase of about 60% in foodgrain demand can only be met if the programme for the creation of irrigation potential is stepped up.

The construction of dams as storage structures in

history. From 1860 to

1947 about 190 dams, big and small, were con-

structed with a total gross storage capacity of about

dams, particularly tanks,

India is as old as recorded

13 650 million m 3 . Small

have played a vital role in the history of Indian agriculture. One notable irrigation structure, namely the Grand Anicut built in the 2nd century AD in southern India in the delta of the river Cauvery, has stood the test of the time. Since independence a number of large and medium dams have been constructed and this has contributed substantially to the rapid pace of development and growth in irrigation potential. This in turn has played a significant role in the country's attainment of self-sufficiency in foodgrains. Hirakud, Bhakra and


0790-0627/89/020136-07$03.00 © 1989 Butterworth & Co (Publishers) Ltd

Nagarjunasagar are a few examples of major dams completed since independence. By the end of the Sixth Five-Year Plan a total irrigation potential of 69mha had been created, of which 30.82 mha were created by major and medium projects. Out of the ultimate potential of 113.5 mha the contribution from major and medium projects is expected to be 58.5 mha. Thus it can be seen that minor irrigation projects contributed about 55% of the irrigation potential created so far, and their contribution to the ultimate potential is expected to be around 50%.

Major, medium and minor irrigation schemes In India the classification system is not based on the size of dams. Irrigation projects are divided into three categories: major, medium and minor. Until recently this categorization was based on the cost of the project. At present any project which has more than 10 000 ha CCA (culturable command area) is considered to be a major project. A medium project irrigates an area ranging between 10 000 and 2000 ha and any project below 2000 ha is considered to be minor. By and large the major and medium schemes comprise storage and diversion weirs across rivers and streams while the minor schemes consist mainly of small storage works and development of ground- water resources by tubewells and dug wells. For the purposes of this paper major and medium irrigation schemes will be combined under the heading large dams, and minor irrigation schemes will be referred to as small dams.

The controversy over large

v small dams

For some time there has been a controversy in India and abroad on the adverse effects of large dams. Environmentalists and water resources development planners have often opposed one another in this controversy, the former vehemently opposing the construction of large dams and the latter favouring them. The criticisms of the environmentalists are centred mainly on the adverse impacts attributed to the construction of large dams. It is asserted that nature is very fragile and developmental activities which change the existing natural balance are not advisable, therefore irrigation development should now concentrate on small dams, ground water utilization, etc, which have comparatively less adverse effects. Before the relative merits and demerits of large and small dams are discussed, it may be of interest to consider whether one type of dam could replace the other totally. Conceding for a moment for the sake of argument that minor irrigation schemes are better than major and medium schemes in all respects, the

Large and small dams: R. Vidyasagar Rao

question would then be whether the irrigation potential balance of 44.5 mha could be created with the help of minor irrigation schemes alone. If this is not possible, then the problem will be to decide how large an area should be covered by minor irrigation schemes and how much by major and medium. Another important aspect that should be considered is that large dams cannot be built at every location that might be desired, but a small dam can be constructed anywhere without much difficulty. A large dam needs favourable geological, hydrological and topographical conditions and an adequate command area. Nature does not bestow favourable conditions for large dams everywhere. Therefore it might be necessary to consider the construction of large dams where such favourable conditions exist, even though these dams may cause certain adverse impacts, as long as these impacts are minimal and acceptable. No development project can be imple- mented without having some sort of adverse effects. What should be aimed at is to ameliorate or minimize the adverse impacts that come in the wake of the development. However, in cases where the adverse impacts outweigh the development benefits, there may be no other recourse than to abandon such projects, as has happened in some cases in India, such as the Silent Valley project in Kerala. The various adverse effects associated with the construction of large water resources development works argued by the environmentalists are:


Large dams necessitate massive population displacement because of flooding to create reservoirs, which leads to social and econo- mic distress for the displaced population.


Large dams submerge valuable forest land, cultivable land, plantations and important flora and may lead to the extinction of exotic species of fauna in some cases.


Because of the assured supply of water from large dams in two or even three seasons of the year, farmers tend to over-irrigate which leads to waterlogging and an increase in the salinity of the soil, thus progressively dimi- nishing the productivity of the land.


Dams increase the incidence of diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis because of an increase in the population of mosquitoes and snails.


The trapping of silt by large dams affects the regime of rivers downstream. A reduction of flows downstream, especially in the lean season, may increase the salinity of river water beyond tolerance limits for down- stream users.


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Largeand small dams: R. Vidyasagar Rao


Seismic activity in and around the reservoir area increases because of the impounded water. Major landslides in the periphery of the reservoir can pose a danger to the safety of the dam and local people.


Reduced river flow affects migratory fish, causing a decrease in the desirable fish population.


The damage cause to life and property by the failure of a large dam can be disastrous. Flood control measures including flood embankments have not significantly reduced the incidence of floods or flood damage.

In order to make an objective assessment of the issue, it would be appropriate to consider the benefits that can accrue from large dams but not from small dams.

Benefits from large dams


Large dams provide assured supplies for irrigation, municipal and industrial requirements. If the dams are designed to have a carryover capacity, they also cater for the needs of crops in the following year if rainfall becomes erratic.

Floodcontrol Large dams offer substantial flood protection to downstream areas by either temporarily holding back the flood flows or moderating the inflow peak value. The regulation offered in large dams by the storage and operation of gates is absent in small dams. It is not true to say that flood control and embankment schemes have not afforded flood protection and reduced flood damage. The problem, wherever it exists, should be studied in its entirety:

the river morphology, such as changes in river course, encroachment on flood plains and de- velopmental activities in protected areas, changes in rainfall pattern in the area, etc. Before construction of the Ukai dam in South Gujarat floods were very common. During 94 years up to 1970 water levels at Surat city had risen 19 times above the danger level of 28.96 m, the maximum level being 31.55 m in August 1968. Thanks to the Ukai dam the situation has altogether changed. Surat and downstream areas are now free from floods. As against 42 480 m 3 in 1968, the maximum flood released since completion of the dam has been only 13 620 m 3 . It is now realized that with some flow forecasting techniques the efficacy of large dams in flood protection can be increased enormously. Integrated operation of a river system also enhances the performance of the system for flood control purposes.


Large dams offer the generation of substantial firm power because of their large heads and storage facilities. Though hydropower is conventionally considered as a peaking power, hydro stations can be operated as baseload stations where thermal power is absent, as in the cases of Kerala and Karnataka states. Hydropower is cheap and uses a renewable resource - water. The cost of generation of a unit of energy is about Rs 0.35 in a large storage dam, while for thermal stations it is Rs 0.5 upwards, and for stations using diesel fuel the cost may be as high as Rs 1.50. The capital cost of construction of a large hydro system is about Rs 10 000/kW while it is Rs 12 000/kW for thermal stations. Further, the use of coal as a fuel for power production involves atmospheric pollution and waste disposal problems. Nuclear waste disposal has been a serious issue in many countries where there has been large-scale development of nuclear power. Small dams cannot provide the required amount of firm power because small storage cannot effectively regulate the erratic nature of river flows for sustained power generation. Besides, the cost of installing lkW of installed capacity may be three times higher for a small dam.

Water management

Large irrigation systems with a network of canals are more amenable to the introduction of a rotational supply of water and better water management policies. Modern communication networks using VHF can be introduced to monitor releases in main canals depending on the rainfall in the command year. Water can be stored between cross-regulators when not required. High irrigation intensities of the order of 160% are achievable in large command areas. With improvements in water management and adequate drainage provisions it is possible to counteract the adverse impacts of waterlogging and salinity. Conjunctive use will keep groundwater levels in check. Vector control and the spread of infectious diseases are also manageable. From the point of view of command area development activities, large command areas under a unified irrigation system are preferable. It is easier for agricultural extension workers to operate in large commands as farmers can see results and learn from neighbouring farms or demonstration farms. Simi- larly the supply of pesticides, herbicides and seeds can be better regulated. Land consolidation and rectangularization of holdings may also be possible.



Volume 5 Number 2 June 1989

Marketing and communication can be better plan- ned. All this cannot be expected if irrigated areas are spread over a number of pockets instead of one consolidated unit. The concept of a unified agency for command area development like CADA fits into a large unit of irrigated area rather than small units.

Water quality The quality of water in many of our river systems has deteriorated considerably due to increased urbaniza- tion and industrialization. The non-monsoon season flow in many rivers is too meagre to sustain this pollution load. It is paradoxical that large volumes of water carry waste to the sea in the monsoon which could otherwise be put to effective use by means of storage and release of adequate discharges into rivers in the non-monsoon period. Large dams can be designed for specific releases based on water quality considerations. Power releases at Hirakud dam have augmented non-monsoon flows in the Mahanadi with the result that there has been no case of pollution reported.

Recreation Recreation areas in and around many large reser- voirs have made the environment more pleasant, and have provided facilities for the people. Exam- ples are Brindavan Gardens (Krishnarajasagar dam in Karnataka), Malampuzha Gardens (Malampuzha in Kerala), Sant Gyaneshwar Udyan (Jayakwadi in Maharashtra) and so on. Reservoir areas provide economic and pleasant recreational facilities. They offer facilities for water-skiing, swimming, boating, fishing, etc. The scope for developing recreation centres on large reservoirs appears to be greater than with small reservoirs.

Possible adverse impacts of large and small dams

There are certain adverse impacts which have been attributed mostly or even exclusively to large dams but generally not considered for small dams. These issues may to some extent be disputable depending on specific situations, as will be discussed in this section.

Submergence A feeling exists among many people that submerg- ence due to a large reservoir is much worse than results from a number of small reservoirs created for the same storage. Unfortunately not much informa- tion is available on the submergence and cost aspects of small dams. However, an exercise was under- taken to compare the cost and submergence aspects

Large andsmall dams: R. Vidyasagar Rao

of large dams with that of small dams by considering the case of Jonk sub-basin in Mahanadi. In the study, two alternatives were considered. The first alternative was Girina dam, the major project with a storage of 603 mm 3 , and the second alternative was a substantial reduction of the storage at Girina dam supplemented by other small storage dams. It was found that Girina could be reduced to 185 mm 3 of storage, and the balance of 418 mm 3 would require eight other small storage dams. However, even a rough estimate of the storage cost alone showed that the second alternative was 150% costlier than the first, and also involved 60% more submergence. Another example that could be cited in this context is the Heran dam in Gujarat. This dam could not be built because of the opposition from the local population. A preliminary evaluation by the Gov- ernment of Gujarat of the possibility of reducing the height of the dam and constructing another small dam upstream showed that the population affected and land submerged could be reduced only margin- ally, but the tribal habitats and forest land affected increased tremendously. Information on subergence areas vis-d-vis irri- gated areas created by small irrigation projects is not readily available, but based on the information available for major and medium projects it can be seen that the submerged area expressed as a percentage of culturable command area for major projects generally ranges from 2.87% to 10%, whereas for medium projects this ratio ranges from 10% to 25%. By analogy it can be deduced that the percentage of submerged area to irrigated area for small projects will be much greater than for medium projects and could be somewhere around 50% to


Cost aspects To replace a single

large dam irrigating 100 000 ha,

50 small dams each irrigating 2000 ha would be needed in either the upper or the lower reaches of a watershed. Such a large number of alternative sites is rarely available in practice, necessitating a curtailment in the envisaged development. The construction of dams in upper reaches involves problems of transporting skilled labour, machinery, etc. Further, the submergence may also involve rich forest land. The construction of dams in lower reaches involves more submergence of usually cultivated land per unit of storage due to the flat nature of the topography. Advocates of small dams stress that the cost per ha of potential irrigation of tank projects is much lower than for large irrigation projects. This is true


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Largeand small dams: R. Vidyasagar Rao

because large dams involve mechanized construc- tion, the transport of cement and stone over long distances, construction of communication lines and housing colonies, design costs, costs of spillways and so on. In small dams, local unskilled labour is used with local material to construct embankments. Further, for a small project the distribution system is less expensive as the canals would mostly be unlined and they are constructed with the help of farmers. The input of labour from farmers is not generally taken into account when computing the cost. O&M costs for small dams are in practice also not taken into consideration. In an economic analysis the cost per ha is not important but the net present worth of long-term benefits, the benefit-cost ratio and the internal rate of return need to be considered.

Evaporation The annual evaporation depth adopted in India is 1.5-2 m. Large volumes of water will be lost by evaporation in small reservoirs because of their relatively shallow depths compared to large reser- voirs where water depths are quite significant.

Groundwater use Groundwater development forms the bulk of a minor irrigation programme and could become a people's programme implemented through indi- vidual and non-cooperative efforts with finances obtained from institutional and other sources. It is widely believed that groundwater can provide the farmer with an instant supply of irrigation water and its use can control waterlogging and salinity. In reality, though groundwater could perhaps supple- ment and augment surface water supply it cannot altogether replace large irrigation systems. The use of groundwater is dependent on the availability of cheap power in the form of electricity or diesel. Groundwater use can involve a lot of mechanical hardware such as strainers, electric motors and pumps which need proper maintenance, and quick repair facilities are a must. The reliability of power supplies to the agricultural sector has not been satisfactory in most Indian states. The statistics show that tubewells in Uttar Pradesh between 1974 and 1980 functioned for only 17.8% of the total number of hours due to closure on account of mechanical defects and the non-availability of power. In many areas groundwater has been reported to be saline as it has to flow through many types of geological formations and its continued use has caused soil salinity. In costal areas groundwater pumping has sometimes caused sea water intrusion into the aquifer, rendering the groundwater supply unfit for any type of use. This has happened in

Madras city and the coastal areas of Sourashtra. Groundwater flow is intricately related to low flows in most river systems in the non-monsoon season. Any large-scale groundwater development will adversely affect the low flows which are already much lower than is required in most river systems from the water quality point of view. Irrigation could prove to be a boon to groundwater development, as the recharge from irrigated areas will increase groundwater levels.

Seismic aspects Reservoir-induced seismic activity is another debat- able point since the present level of data and- knowledge of structural formations deep below the earth's surface foreclose the adoption of any definite conclusions. A study of 425 large dams in the world has shown that only in 15 reservoirs were seismic forces observed to have gone up after construction of the reservoir. In 10 out of these 15 cases the magnitude of the earthquake was less than 5 on the Richter scale. Seismological observations at Bhakra, Pong and Ramganga dams have not registered any increase in seismic activity due to the impounding of water in such large reservoirs.

Adverse impacts of large dams and their mitigation

Population displacement The most important and emotive environmental issue in India at present is the submergence of land and consequential population displacement. It is here that the water resources engineers face a big dilemma. If the submerged land is populated, population displacement and the submergence of agricultural land and dwellings becomes a major issue. If the area is sparsely populated, then it is either forest land or some valuable flora that may get submerged. Though displacement of population to varying degrees of severity is present in all development projects, in water resources projects the effect of submergence is more pronounced because of the concentration of disruption in one place. As regards the displacement of population, the issue in focus is not the displacement itself but the implementation of proper rehabilitation measures and the timely payment of adequate compensation. The Maharashtra government in its recent Resettle- ment Act 1976 provided many amenities for oustees, including reservations of up to 15% of the command area for resettlement pruposes. Almost all the state governments in India are aware of this problem and are taking suitable measures for the protection of the



Volume 5 Number 2 June 1989

rights of oustees. A package of rehabilitiation measures has been drawn up for the Narmadasagar and Sardarsarovar dams planned on the Harmada in view of the magnitude of the population affected. It is not true that water resources planners are indifferent to the displacement of populations. Some projects which involved large-scale population dis- placement, such as the Tikkerpara dam on the Mahanadi and the Bhopalapatnam dam on the Indrawati have been deferred on this account. It cannot be said that small dams do not displace populations. However, the impact of each small dam is not felt so severely because the numbers involved are not so concentrated. A railway line or national highway running over thousands of miles would also displace a lot of people but its impact would not be as great as that of any other project such as a reservoir or a mine project. A similar comparison can be made between a number of small dams and one large dam. It is argued that large dams cause the submerg- ence of forest lands. It has been calculated that water resources projects are responsible for 12% of the total reduction of forest cover. If the compensa- tory afforestation which is being conducted in association with many recent projects is taken into account, however, this percentage will be less. The Forest Act of 1980 and the clearance procedures set out by the Department of Environment of the Government of India ensure that adequate precau- tions are taken to safeguard reasonable interests in this respect.

Waterlogging and soil salinity Waterlogging and soil salinity are problems to be reckoned with in many irrigated command areas, and a number of steps are being taken in mitigation. Some of the most vital are:


assessment of the water requirements of crops on a scientific basis based on agrometeoro- logy;


introduction of a rotational water supply to farms;


provision/re-excavation of main and interme- diate drains as part of the project construction activities;


provision of farm drains as a component of on-farm development works; and


conjunctive use of groundwater with surface water to lower the watertable.

Water and land management institutes have been set up in several states to train officers of the agriculture and irrigation departments in water management. Inter alia these institutes offer training in remedial

Large andsmall dams: R. Vidyasagar Rao

measures for waterlogging and soil salinity prob- lems.

Aquaculture Environmentalists argue that the yield of river fish has been reduced because of dam construction. No doubt any barrier across a river, and particularly a dam, affects the upstream migration of species such as salmon unless special provisions are made. In India such provisions are made where required. Migratory species of fishes of the Solomon type are almost non-existent in the Indian river system except in a few snowfed Himalayan rivers. Due to the reduction in low flows downstream of a dam a certain reduction in the yield is likely to occur. However, this is adequately compensated by rearing fish in the reservoirs created by dams where a copious water supply is always available. In the Ukai reservoir an inland freshwater fishery has been successfully developed.

Effects on downstream areas There has been a misconception that downstream existing riparian users of river water are adversely affected by dam construction. In reality the position is otherwise. Regulated releases from dams firm up water supplies for irrigation and municipal uses. The storage size of a dam is invariably designed to cater for existing users. The Nagarjunasagar dam in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, provides for manda- tory flows through the outlets to take care of the riparian rights of farmers in the Krishna delta.

Dam breaks Dam breaks are no doubt disastrous. There have been failures of dams such as the Tebon dam. In India there has been no large dam break in recent times. With more rigorous spillway flood estimation using a hydrometeorological approach, better foundation investigations and their implementation in quality control during construction, the risk of dam breaks can be minimized to a large extent. Because of the non-exacting standards required for the estimation of design floods in their construction, small dams are more prone to failures, as is evident from recurring tank breaches in Karnataka and Sourashtra. The breach or failure of small dams may not cause loss of life but will damage crops and habitations and lead to loss of cattle.

Other issues Large dams trap silt and deprive the lower reaches of silt in the water. This may affect areas where inundation irrigation is practised as nutrients in the silt are absent when the land is flooded. Most parts


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Largeand small dams: R. Vidyasagar Rao

of the country practise only rainfed agriculture where irrigation provision improves yields and thereby economic conditions dramatically, as in the case of the Rajasthan canal project, Ukai, Kakra- par, Nagarjunasagar, etc. There have been no reports of adverse consequences from the supply of silt-free water. Trapped silt no doubt reduces the life of reservoirs, but no developmental activity has a limitless life, and will need replacing. A dam is designed to have a reserve below the dead storage level for trapping the silt. By proper planning of silt storage and management of the catchment, the life of a reservoir can be preserved or extended. Large dams do require huge capital investments. The returns do not necessarily start flowing even after completion of the dams because the distribu- tion systems may not be ready. Even when the returns do start flowing they may only be partial. This problem is not encountered in the case of small dam where the returns start flowing as soon as the scheme is put into operation.


The attainment of an ultimate irrigation potential of 113.5 mha in India will involved massive surface irrigation development. Groundwater and minor irrigation are supplemental in nature and cannot

form the main thrust of the national irrigation strategy. It is not a correct approach to view minor irrigation schemes as an alternative to major and medium irrigation works. Much of the criticism of large dams has emanated from environmentalists in the developed countries where most of the possible developmental activities in water resources have already taken place and where there is hardly any need for additional food because of limited popula- tion growth. Self-sufficiency in food has been the thrust of the planning process in all developing countries and the tempo of this thrust should not be diluted by overemphasizing adverse environmental impacts without weighing them against the enor- mous benefits and potentials. Modern-day project planning is exacting and comprehensive; all aspects of the impact on the environment are considered in detail at the planning and implementation stages. Most of the adverse impacts of large-scale water resources development can be minimized, compensated for or even elimin- ated. Large and smll schemes both have their roles to play in furthering the development of water resources. Therefore the controversy about large v small dams is not rational and in reality large and small dams should coexist without any conflict. Hence the concept should not be large v small but large and small dams.



Volume 5 Number 2 June 1989