Kaleshwaram under water: Learn lessons to move forward

Avoid any wild and highly unscientific statements on floods as creation of conspiracy by foreign Governments

Biksham Gujja

Before discussing the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project, KLIP of the Telangana Government it is important to state three fundamental realities across any public spending by any state Government or central Government. First one our public spending on large projects, specifically major irrigation projects do not follow their own guidelines, established standards and cost benefit ratios. Second any state CM or Central Government can spend any amount on any project anywhere regardless of its viability, technical standards, its benefits to farmers and third one, whatever might be view of technical experts inside or outside Government, public view, such projects will be implemented as long as funds are available. Such projects continue for decades, even if they have resulted in disasters. There is not process for which Governments are bound to review these projects independently or internally to make changes for more public good. Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project and its costs, the current massive damage to its pumping stations and its lack of any cost benefit ratio logic discussion, if any, need to be understood in that larger context prevailing at national level. There are two more additional specifics with regard to Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project first one is that this massive spending is through borrowed money from commercial banks with commercial interest rates, second one this entire project is driven by a single contractor and Government engineers seem to have played supporting role than any controlling, supervising the construction of this project’s components.

So readers of this detailed article should be clearly aware that, things may not change or any of the suggestions made in this article, even if they are logical, clear, in the interest of people and farmers, it is highly unlikely that they will be taken seriously to make any changes. This might  sound rather pessimistic, but that is what it is prevailing in our country and that is no exception to Kaleshwaram project or to Telangana Government. Having said that, still one can hope, in the larger interests, Government of Telangana might consider a process suggested in this article or similar to that to learn lessons and initiate changes for the larger interest of the state and farmers.

Telangana state has been established in 2014. The demand for Telangana state was based on three major slogans- Neellu, Nidhulu and Niyamakalu (water, funds and jobs). The main contention was that the Telangana region, then which part of Andhra Pradesh state, was neglected in these three main aspects. After a prolonged and consistent popular movement for nearly two decades, finally, Telangana state was established.

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Water for irrigation was an emotive issue for decades in Telangana. Still, it is. The new Government of Telangana focused on water. That is good thing and also by and large expected. Three major water infrastructure projects- Mission Kakatiya, Mission Bagiratha and Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation projects were implemented  In last seven years. The spending on these three projects is estimated to be around Rs.200,000 crores. The speed at which these projects were implemented, certainly remarkable. People generally appreciated the new Government and these projects. Since Telangana never seen any such large public investments in water sector or any other sector, the physical works of these projects are indeed remarkable. So people felt things are happening and the benefits will flow out of these projects. People in general are not concerned from where these financial resources are mobilised and the interest rates or long-term consequences on state. While some articulated those concerns, but they largely remained  marginal, never been taken seriously by the Government or public at large. On the contrary, such criticism about the viability, costs, benefits of such projects are seen as diversion or someone who is against the development of new state, Telangana.

Still, the benefits of these projects and debt burden have become intense debate. This article focuses on Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project, which is most expensive of the three projects mentioned. Before two important facts a) the geography of Telangana is not favourable for gravity-based projects. Though Telangana has  significant catchment area of two major southern rivers- Krishna and Godavari. But the water is at lower level and the lands require water are at higher level. Therefore water has to be lifted in order to provide for irrigation. That is an expensive process. B) the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project was started before establishment of Telangana state. The current government made modifications and certain additions. So lift irrigation is only option and the Kaleshwaram is not new projects. The present Telangana Government accelerated the implementation of project with certain major modification increasing the cost significantly. So again, there is wider support and from public at large for this project and also expectation that it would be completed at the earliest. So Government efforts were largely seen as good and also the rapid progress of construction has been seen as determination of Telangana Government to provide water to farmer.

Therefore, at this juncture, discussion about merits or otherwise of this mega project is totally unproductive. That discussion is over. The project now exists, public money has been spent, infrastructure is there on the ground. So time to look to future and make this infrastructure productive and less financial burden on state. This article is about suggesting a process for the future, not about the past.  We do hope the Government of Telangana, even at this stage embarks on the process of learning some lessons and incorporating appropriate measures to make this huge infrastructure useful for future generations. Before we get to that, some basics feature of the project. This is to understand the project and appreciate the process we are suggesting to make changes for greater good.

Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project: Truly a global excitement

Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project, KLIP is not a single unit,  it is a complex system. Few salient features of this project are given below to get about the scale of this project. The project its size, scale and the complexity has truly created national and internal sensation. Never before this type of project was implemented in India or elsewhere.  This is highly simplified version.

Physical and engineering works: There are about 20 reservoirs along the way to store the water of 147.7 TMC of water (4,100 million cu.m) and of this several are on the river, but six storage facilities required 35,000 ac of land of that close to 4000 ac are forest land. About 31,000 ac of land from farmers have been acquired to construct these reservoirs. In addition to that close to 6,704 existing houses have to demolished in 21 villages to construct these reservoirs. The high speed, high-capacity pumps are were dazing. Total of 96 machines of total capacity of 4,680 MW have been installed. These machines can lift 195 TMC of water several times transport several hundred KM. This is first of its kind in the world.

  • The main objective of the project is to lift 195 TMC of water and transporting 1600 km of canals and 203 km of tunnels pumping same water 9 stages to lift nearly 600 m from the source. The barrages, the underground massive pumping, the tunnels, the canals, the impressive man-made storages middle of nowhere, the concrete, the power stations, etc., has attracted major national international attention. Truly this project is so far the biggest in spending, biggest in lifting water, the world record high speed pumps and all this has created truly sensational, making a tourist destination for many politicians in the country. The Telangana Government was proud to say its global records of highest this, and largest that generated huge media sensation. Even the Discovery Channel made a film and several international magazines such as Forbes. Most of this excitement is about the construction, concreate, records not about the purpose. Neither Discovery Channel or Forbes magazine or for that matter any serious reporting was on the displacement, purpose, costs or its end goals. This media campaign is not even about benefits of the Kaleshwaram project but its physical structures blatantly looked like advertisement campaign for a contractor who is building the project with public money. Some national media outlets did report on issues such as rehabilitation around 2021 and costs as early as 2018. The banks which financed the project did not even consider any independent review or any further analysis of this projects. Some of the public finance corporations such as REC, rural electrification corporation has given A grade, since they funded to the tune of Rs.14,000 crores.
  • The estimated cost of this project was Rs.80,000 crores, But the spending already reached Rs.120,000 crores and still there is extension of the project to draw additional one TMC of water per day. The current capacity is 2 TMC. It is not clear what is the final estimates and what has already been spent and who actually financing the extension phase. The papers reported in August 2021 that the cost of this project is Rs.110,000 crores. As and when this project is completed with distributary canals and other structures, additional land acquisition, pipes for additional TMC, etc., may exceed more than Rs.150,000 crores.
  •  Cost of water delivery: The project is proposed to provide  165 TMC water which expected irrigate  18 lakh ac. This will come to 2593 cu.m per ac. The cost of pumping and other operational and maintenance costs are going to close to at least 70,000 per ac. per season. This is going to be one of the most expensive waters ever used for irrigation. All these analyses and calculations were done and presented well before the project was started.

Officially the project has been completed, the project has been inaugurated several times at several locations. Until now the entire system as whole did not function and reservoirs are not filled. Even water pumped into river has to be released to downstream last year due to sudden inflows to river. The benefits of this project still to be seen and so far it provided no significant irrigation, water for domestic use or for Industry. Before that the project has run into several unexpected problems.

A project in deep water, literally due to floods

Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project, KLIP,  is in big news now. As on the 15th of July 2022, at the time of drafting this article, two major pumping stations are submerged, tens of villages are in water, hundreds of people working on this project have been marooned in water. The situation might get worse in coming days as the large quantity of water still has to come from upstream. Damage to equipment and safety of structures, crops, private properties may run into thousands of crores. It is important to mention here that the water discharges are much higher during the 1986 floods. So, the current water discharges of Godavari is not the highest recorded. Imagine the damage, if 1986 level of water discharge occurs. So the worst is not over yet and this could repeat in many years if proper measures are not initiated. The expert engineers, who are not in Government suggest that the protection measures such as walls around pumping stations are required to protect these facilities.

This has raised serious concerns about its safety and also ability to deliver water when it is required, that during summer period.

Status of this project: Some pertinent questions.

While money has been spent, the project has not yet delivered any water or benefits. In addition to that, the infrastructure which supposed to pump water itself is in danger. As mentioned, contrary to the reporting, these floods in July 2022 is not the level of 1986 level. Even if one agrees that these are the greatest floods, still one has to raise the following questions.

  • Why pumps are submerged? With current level of technology, GIS, discharge data, advance forecasting systems it appears, the installation of these key infrastructure facilities have not taken into consideration of flood levels. When someone is constructing so close to river, it is not rocket science to expect the floods. So this clearly lack of utter disregard for basic planning and quality of implementation. This is not going to be the exception but will be norm already it is second time, last year to water came into pumping stations.
  • Does this complex interconnected system work? As mentioned, this is very complex interconnected system. Breakdown of one component in this long chain effects every other system. What is this means collapse technical or other reasons if one pumping station is not working, other pumps will be totally useless? Similar one canal or tunnel is blocked, the entire system has to be shut down. So it is time to look at the entire system and its week links, not from just from floods from every dimension. Infrastructure of this level needs rigorous operating system using the modern technology from every angle. Surely it is not there. It appears it has been done very hastily, in rudimentary way.
  • Are the tunnels safe? There is tunnel system of 203 km from Yellampalli. This system is vital for any transmission of water upstream. Even 10 metres of this 203 km tunnel collapses or caves in, the entire Rs.120,000 crore infrastructure will be totally useless. The downstream pumping, upstream pumping will have to be stopped.
  • Is electrical systems meet the peak time challenges? For pumping massive electricity and electrical systems have to be part of the infrastructure. They need to be synchronised with power requirement and power supply. It is time to test and make sure that system is perfect, reliable and will function in every unforeseen situation.
  • Can Mallannasagar reservoir withstand full capacity? A massive storage system of 50 TMC was constructed within 18,000 ac with 22 km bund around it. This sort of water storage was never done. When it is full, there will be 50 m column of water. So far reservoirs are built on rivers are streams, where is there inlet, out let and safety systems to release water to natural flow. Middle of nowhere, where abstracting existing natural flow of water a 22 km bund around was built to store 50 TMC of water. The safety of the system will have to be 100% during 100% times. This needs to be tested, independently certified and all measures to be taken to protect the villages, individual life and property.
  • Can Imamabad reservoir be bottle neck? There are many bottle necks for example one reservoir at Imamabad, Sri Ranganayaka Reservoir. This has just 3 TMC of water storage, but every day, when system operates full, will have to draw 2 TMC of water into and out of it. This is going to be major bottle neck for the system. This needs to be tested and verified in case of any failures.

These are some of the major concerns, but there many concerns such as distributary canals, power supply and fluctuations, power tariffs, pump failures, fire accidents, possible earth quakes due to storages and other totally unforeseen and not possible to anticipate incidents. All these should have been part of the designs and established protocols. All these concerns are not being raised to point out problems or to say that this project should not be operated. As mentioned, several times, all these questions and other concerns should be for better and productive operation of this entire system, which has been already built.

At this stage one might ask, what can Government of Telangana do to make this project a success story? Yes, surely GoT can and must do specific measures not only to prevent future flooding into pumping stations but to make this project economically viable to serve the interests of Telangana farmers, urban people and growing industry needs. Never too late to learn and incorporate the changes. Any responsible Governments in the larger interests of the state and people will take such incidents and accidents as lessons and establish a process to  to improve the performance of these projects and reduce the damages in future. No one, however intelligent or clever will have solutions to such complex system. A proper process will lead to find the solutions and interventions. We are suggesting process which could lead the way forward to make Kaleshwaram a success story.  The outcome of such process might certainly give detailed interventions to prevent such future calamities. One thing we are sure, if that is not done, Kaleshwaram project will do immense damage to state of Telangana, in addition to already burdened with financial re-payments with interests mounting.

Independent review of the project, the way forward.

As mentioned, we need to look to future. We sincerely request Telangana Government to constitute an independent panel of experts to review this project and suggest various measures to improve its performance and avoid such disasters. That is the only way.  The broad terms of reference for such review may include the following

  • Engineering aspects: Several infrastructures have been constructed, massive pumps have been installed, tunnels have been dug, reservoirs have been built. The review panel should look at the system in its entirety and provide specific measures for a) safety and security of each component- pumps, barrages, tunnels, canals, reservoirs, pumps etc. A thorough review and the specific measures should be clearly articulated with clear process to develop operational manuals using the latest technology.
  • Financial aspects: As mentioned the project, as and when it delivers water, it would be most expensive. Panel may come out clear guidance and suggestions on way of using this water- both supply side and demand side to improve the water use efficiency. This may include incentives and disincentives and broader policy for using water with utmost efficiency. There are many policy options are being actively implemented by many countries to improve the financial performance and reduce burden of operational and maintained costs of such large projects.
  • Safety and security of the infrastructure: This will have two parts a) some of these physical infrastructures have been created close proximity to human settlements, villages, and agricultural fields. Specifically Mallannasagar, the nearby villages of pumping stations, embankments on river etc. There is danger that these structures could breach and cause immense damage to life and property. Never before 50 TMC capacity reservoirs have been created middle of nowhere, without any previous river channels. This aspect is not just engineering aspects, but taking into consideration future developments and changes related climate change, soil textures, seepages etc.
  • Institutional mechanisms. Such massive infrastructure requires institutional mechanisms to operate and take decisions. This requires proper training, state of the art technology, capacity to solve the problems. A dedicated and capable team to be established, if not already done. Review process can suggest such institutional mechanisms to operate this entire system with command-and-control system to take decisions quickly and efficiently.

There could be three options for constituting this review a) Government of Telangana can approach any multilateral institutions in which India has strong presence (e.g. Asian Development Bank, just as an example)  or any other reputed international organisations to conduct complete and independent review of this project It is possible, they might do as part of technical support, without any fee. B) approach a reputed private company for that review, surely, the costs are nominal, considering the overall spending of the project. Such review can happen in less than 6 months. C) approaching the financial institutions such as NABARD or Banks to take lead in commissioning a review and asking them to fund it.

 By proactively requesting for such review, Government of Telangana will immensely gain in taking measures to avoid future disasters, and confirming that the project is sound and safe.    There is nothing Government of Telangana will lose by embarking on such process. If the measures suggested in the review are not agreeable to Government of Telangana, surely it under no compulsion to implement them. Or implement only what GoT thinks are suitable doable and appropriate. Such review might help in raising resources for future expansion or other irrigation projects. It is also possible that review may come out that this is indeed greatest project for greater good of Telangana state. That way other states could benefit from this experience.

Use the floods to fill the created storages

In the meantime, Government of Telangana should use this flood situation to fill up Mallannasagar and Kondapochamma reservoirs. It is quite puzzling that they are not doing this to use the water availability in manner reservoir. Large quantity of water is coming through gravity until Manner reservoir, from there pumping into reservoirs for use should be top priority. As mentioned earlier, now the discussion is not about merit or otherwise of constructing  Mallannasagar and Kondapochamma. That debate is over. Now that these structures exist, they need to be used. That means water to be filled. This is right time, power charges are almost rock bottom, water is at door step, the reservoirs are completed. This is the time to run the pump 24/7 to fill up as fast as possible so that water can be stored and used in future. This the purpose of these structures. As we write this article on 15th July, the pumps are not running and water is not being pumped into Mallannasagar. This is not only buzzard but utter lack of any planning. However, we are not aware of any other reasons for not pumping water. If this is due to safety of Mallannasagar, then that is even more serious. After spending thousands or crores and declaring that reservoir is functional, not filling it to use water defeats the very purpose of their existence and investments.  

Conclusion

  1. Take all the measures to protect lives and property due to damage caused by this huge irrigation project and its structures. We are optimistic that everything needed to be done being done. But this is only emergency measure, it is not going to be solution. This is going to be a repeated over and over again, unless some serious measures are taken.
  2. Commission a review of the project on the lines mentioned above. Do it now, do it fast and the benefits of such review will be massive. Not doing so will only strengthen the criticism of this project. By not commissioning such review, we have no doubt that Kaleshwaram project will be text book case which will be studied globally how not to do such projects and how not to spend public money. Kaleshwaram will stand has massive human blunder in the name of development. We are sure Government of Telangana will do everything to avoid such dubious distinction.
  3. Fill up Mallannasagar, Kondapochamma now. Start the pumps, use this opportunity of cheap power, proximity of water. Do it and start the pumps. Or else disclose the reasons for not pumping water into these reservoirs.
  4. It is time for GoT to establish dedicated institutional frame work with authority to take decisions independent of political considerations. Today there is public perception that the project is run by contractors to the extent that irrigation departments and state machinery has become sub-servant to these mega contractors. That is not good. Create and empower a dedicated institutional mechanism to run smoothly this massive infrastructure for intended purpose.

We sincerely hope, that Government of Telangana to avoid any wild and highly unscientific statements on floods as creation of conspiracy by foreign  Governments. The Chief Minister of Telangana,  during a visit to flood area of Godavari River, made a bizarre statement, blaming floods as foreign conspiracy. CM reported to have said “There is this new phenomenon called cloudburst. This is what happened in the Godavari region which caused the flood. There are reports that these cloudbursts are a conspiracy by foreign sources”. Such statements, even meant to divert the attention from the core issue may not work. There is serious problem with Kaleshwaram project. That needs to be addressed with seriousness it requires. 

Even at this stage, Government of Telangana should embark on review process learn the lessons and to incorporate the changes. Making wild statements, blaming foreign countries for floods will not only help, but push the project into deep water. Civil society and other political parties should work with GoT in commissioning such review for the overall benefit of Telangana state.

Dr. Biksham Gujja is an internal water management specialist, earlier worked with WWF-International, UN agencies and was also principle scientist at ICRISAT. He along with team published several reports and articles on Kaleshwaram project.

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