Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Precautionary Principle

In this post, I want to discuss about the ‘Precautionary Principle’, which is the basis of the New Dam offered by the State of Kerala. State of Kerala strongly defending our case for a New Dam before the Hon’ble Supreme Court and also before the Hon’ble Empowered Committee citing this principle, which advocates prevention is better than cure. As there is reasonable apprehensions about the imminent danger and the possibility of a dam failure of archaic Mullaperiyar dam, the State of Kerala should not take any chances with its people’s life, which it is duty bound to protect under the Constitution of this great nation.

The origin of the Precautionary Principle can be traced back to Germany in the 1970s with the Vorsogeprinzip. Translated as the ‘Foresight’ Principle, this broad principle is a philosophical approach to risk prevention by taking protective measures against specific environmental/safety hazards in order to avoid or reduce environmental/safety risks. This approach was subsequently adopted in various International agreements.

Precautionary Principle must be invoked:

·       Where the scientific evidence for safety is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain.
·        Where preliminary scientific evaluation suggests that effects on the environment, health or safety may be unacceptable and/or inconsistent with the chosen level of protection; and precautionary principle may be applied without waiting for the reality and seriousness of those risks to become fully apparent.

This principle was laid down in the Rio de Janeiro Declaration on Environment and Development of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992), in which India is a signatory. The due jurisprudence implied in the Rio instruments are international in impact and it cannot be violated by signatories like India.

Moreover, a number of important international conventions have incorporated this principle, including conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity.

·   “States....must not wait for proof of harmful effects before taking action” (1984 Bermen Ministerial Declaration of the International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea)
·      “The parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures” (1992 Framework for Convention of Climate Change, Art 3(3))

Former Judge of Supreme Court Sri. V.R. Krishna Iyer, a great humanist, had invited the attention of the nation through an article in Hindu daily published in last year. In that article he pointed out that “Mullaperiyar is a classic instance where the precautionary principle of action cannot wait for a public calamity to happen. The nation as a whole must raise its voice against a possible natural calamity involving Mullaperiyar.”

He also cited a recent judgement of Supreme Court of India in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (AIR 2004 SC 4033): “In such matters [involving actions that pose a threat of serious or irreversible damage], many a time the preferable option is not clear. If an activity is allowed to go ahead, there could be irreparable damage to the environment; if it is stopped, there could be irreparable damage to economic interests. In case of doubt, however, protection of environment should take precedence over economic interest. The Precautionary Principle requires anticipatory action to be taken to prevent harm. This harm can be prevented even on a reasonable suspicion. It is not always necessary that there should be direct evidence of harm to the environment.”

Nothing in life is entirely risk free, and indeed science cannot demonstrate freedom from risk, particularly from as yet known risks, because ‘absence of evidence’ is not ‘evidence of absence’! There are situations where engineers may disagree with one another. Some experts may consider the condition of a dam to be marginally safer than what others say it is. But nature has its own way, and experts’ expectations and calculations may go awry. Once there is reasonable apprehensions about the imminent danger and the possibility of a risk, the state should not take any chances.

However sound the CWC’s and  Tamil Nadu engineers’ opinion on the structural safety of the Mullaperiyar dam may be, as engineers in IITs and Kerala have expressed grave doubts about a tragic alternative scenario, no chances can be taken. Responsible governments are duty-bound to protect and save the lives of every citizen. In this background, Government of Kerala cannot sit idle without taking appropriate and quick remedies to avoid a possible catastrophe.

I would like to sum up my short speech by citing two examples from the international area wherein the precautionary principle was implemented to ensure the safety of the people.
·        Boyds Corner Dam is the first concrete dam built in USA in 1872. In 1980s, after the collapse of Tenton Dam, it was decided to review the condition of that dam. There was divided opinion on the safety of the dam. Some strongly believed that it was safe while others believed  that it was unsafe. Despite opposition, the Government of USA decided to construct a new dam and the Boyds Dam was demolished and rebuilt in 1990.
·        Decommissioning of Old Victoria dam in Australia is an example of how a century old unsafe dam of almost the same age and built using similar technology as that of Mullaperiyar dam was treated in a developed country. This dam was constructed in 1891 with lime concrete like Mullaperiyar dam in 1895.  In 1966, the Dam witnessed lot of seepages, which is also the case in Mullaperiyar dam. Certain strengthening measures were carried out to the Victoria dam, which were found to be inadequate in 1988. Therefore the authorities concerned decided to decommission the dam in April 1990. In its place, a new Victoria dam has already been constructed, which now supplies drinking water to the city of Perth.

Considering all the above international covenants and precautionary actions adopted, Government of Kerala has decided to construct a new dam downstream of the existing Mullaperiyar dam to ensure the safety of its citizens and also for ensuring the continued supply of water to the needy farmers of our neighbouring State of Tamil Nadu. This has been now endorsed by our Legislative Assembly through a unanimous resolution. We have conveyed this assurance several times to Government of Tamil Nadu and Government of India.

I hope Tamil Nadu Government will understand and sensitive to the fear and concerns of the people living downstream of Mullaperiyar dam (who are the legitimate riparian donors of the water to Tamil Nadu’s agricultural prosperity) for a dialogue on exploring the possibility of risk reduction from the old dam and as well as extend their co-operation for a New Dam. Be proactive rather than being obstructive!


Dileep said...

Well written sir...
Yes, the dam may not break tomorrow, or the next year or even in the next century.. it may never break... we may not be able to tell for sure..

But even if there is 1% chance that the dam may fail... then the preventive measures has to be taken... And I do believe we have more than reasonable doubts about the dams safety..

Ok... 35 lakh people may not die,,, may be less than 1 lakh casualties...or say 3000 casualties( america went to war on this)... or leave... say 100 people lose their lives... can it be called an acceptable loss???
Can we forgive ourselves for not preventing this when we could have easily prevented this????

Jithu said...

Great writing. I'm sharing this..

Anonymous said...

Very authentic and sharp article. Hats off!

I do have a doubt... In which reports do TN base their adamant stand that the dam is in tact? While the Keralites are sharing a hundred report links about dam's insecurity, I saw TN standing just with a common statement that the dam is perfect, without providing anywhere any authentic links or materials. They just respond to it emotionally. That doesn't help. Is there some study that makes them believe so? If so, can you please share it here? I want to read a rigid write-up that is against Kerala's stand.

dr.keshav mohan's virtual class room said...

Good argument. Informative too.

Esahaque Eswaramangalam said...

Dear James Wilson, Good Day to you!!

Your Article is excellent!! - "Precautionary Principle" -

we wish to re post your article in our Mission Mullaperiyar Group's Wall


Thanking You
Esahaque Eswaramangalam
+91 98950 11254

Sneha said...

IIT, Roorkee team have identified 22 major faults in a radius of 300km around Mullaperiyar dam site. Out of this, the Tekkady-Kodaivannalur Fault is identified as the one which will create most devastating effect on the Mullaperiyar dam site, which is capable of producing an earthquake of 6.5 Magnitude in Ritcher scale with a close distance of 16km from dam site. The intensities of maximum possible earthquakes due to the 22 faults and their effect on Mullaperiyar dam site were studied in detail. IIT, Roorkee in their report on Seismic Hazard Assement recommended that the existing Mullaperiyar dam has to be checked for its safety under Maximum Considered Earthquake (MCE) condition since eventuality of its failure may result in huge economic and human loss. Finally Dr. D.K. Paul and Dr. M.L. Sharma of IIT, Roorkee have concluded that the (MCE) possible in Mullaperiyar region will produce a Peak Ground Acceleration (PGA) of 0.21g at the site.

They concludes their study with the recommendation that the engineered structures in the central midland region should incorporate at least the most conservative seismic codes available for the region, but these will not be sufficient for critical facilities. The critical facilities must be designed based on exclusively site specific seismic study.

Quoted from ur post "Seismic Threat to Mullaperiyar Dam"

So a doubt arises in my mind. If its a risky seismic area, then will a new dam be able to solve every issue..? wont it be more risky..?

the immediate things that are to be done are

1) Lower the water level
2) Decommission the 116 year old Mullaperiyar Dam
Safety of 35 lakh people chould be the main focus instead of new Dam..isnt it..?

Ponnoly Blogs said...

Safety concerns hinge mainly around the issues listed below:
1.Age of the dam: The dam is 116 years old as of 2011. It has outlived its expected life span of 50 years. Strengthening the existing dam has its limitations and may not prove to be effective in the event of a disaster (reference: Morvi Dam disaster)
2.Construction Material: The dam was constructed using lime and mortar. Seepage and leaks from the dam have caused concern.
3. Earthquakes: The dam is situated in a seismic zone. CESS has reported that the dam cannot withstand earthquakes above 6 point on the Richter scale. Several earthquake tremors have occurred in the area in recent times.
4. Changing weather patterns leading to incessant rains, flooding and overflow of the dam.
5. Impact on lives and property downstream in the event of a disaster: The estimated population of the five districts of Kerala downstream is 3.5 million. Villages such as Vallakadavu, Vandiperiyar, Upputhara, Ayyappankoil, Kumili and parts of Kattappana and other parts of Idukki and Ernakulam Districts would be immediately affected, with loss of lives and property.
6. Impact on flora and fauna including endangered species such as tiger and elephants in the Thekkadi Wildlife Sanctuary.
7. Impact on tourism and the economy of Kerala. Thekkady Reservoir and Periyar Wild Life Sanctuary are important and popular tourist spots in Kerala.
8. Impact on Idukki Dam and the disastrous consequences of an Idukki Dam disaster.

This makes a strong case for construction of a new dam.
-Joseph Ponnoly

KV said...

Thank you sir, for doing such a wonderful work. All your articles are quite informative and facts.

Harish said...


മുല്ലപ്പെരിയാര്‍ : കേന്ദ്ര പഠന റിപ്പോര്‍ട്ടില്‍ ഞെട്ടിക്കുന്ന സത്യങ്ങള്‍ , റിപ്പോര്‍ട്ട് സംസ്ഥാന സര്‍ക്കാര്‍ പൂഴ്ത്തി.

Sneha said...

@joseph Ponnoly
What about the seismic threat..? The possibility is very high that it will be a threat to the proposed new dam.

"IIT, Roorkee team have identified 22 major faults in a radius of 300km around Mullaperiyar dam site. Out of this, the Tekkady-Kodaivannalur Fault is identified as the one which will create most devastating effect on the Mullaperiyar dam site, which is capable of producing an earthquake of 6.5 Magnitude in Ritcher scale with a close distance of 16km from dam site."

Please note the above point. Safety is to be ensured first. For that the water level should be brought down immediately. and the dam should be decommissioned.

Sankaran said...

A naive solution... from a non-civil engineer. Why not construct a barrier downstream so that even if the current barricade fails there is another barrier to prevent water run off...?

Anonymous said...

Hi James,
May I know why people are keep talking about 999 years contract even though it is already lapsed since India got independence? And why Kerala is waiting for TN's permission to make a new dam there? Kerala is projecting a coward attitude and TN is showing superiority attitude, very bad..!

Ajai said...

A brilliant piece of work and an excellent article. Many people are not aware of the facts, but the article is very informative. Also raising many queations and concerns of the lives of millions of peopeles nearby...

Great effort James, much appreciated.

Aj Daniel

குடுகுடுப்பை said...

Proposed new dam is lower than the old one by at least 50Ft or more, Could you explain the technical feasibility of giving water to TN, as with the current dam must have a minimum 109 Ft to release water to TN.How from the new dam?

குடுகுடுப்பை said...

Why not TN build a new dam in the leased land and control it?

Anonymous said...

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bharath said...


Can u please give the technical details of the new dam proposed by Kerala government ? TN people doubt whether they will get water from the new proposed dam as the proposed dam is several metres downstream ,so they fear whether the water coloumn will reach the tunnel carrying water to TN side.If we can solve this doubt then the opposition for the new dam will cease...waiting for your positive response..

Rose Mathew said...

Sir, I highly appreciate your efforts in acting for Kerala in The Dam Row.
But may I bring to your attention the fact that the Tamillians dont care about the life of Keralites.
There was a recent discussion held where in the endangered life of 3.5 million people were highlighted. The people there were then asked to raise their jands for a new dam.
To my utter astonishment that there were hardly few hands raised.
But when I made a false claim that 1 million Tamilians would get affected, You should have seen the enthusuaism in the building of a new dam. Tjis clearly points out the ignorance of people to plea of Keralites..

Anonymous said...

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അനില്‍ ഐക്കര said...


bluesky said...

Dear James..
On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the situation of SC case for Keralam now?
What options do we have if we fail in court...
The Worst case scenario..
Even if TN wins the case, that doesn't make all you said in your years of research wrong...
As a Malayale, I am proud of you.. And your hard work in trying to protect the welfare of our state Keralam, and its people..

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