Banasura dam and the fatal gaps in advance warning

A view of Banasura Sagar dam at Wayanad in Kerala. DH photo by Janardhan BK

Were the four sluice gates of the Banasura Sagar dam in Wayanad district opened abruptly without any warning? Could the unimaginable losses have been avoided with a little foresight?

Locals confirm this, calling it a mighty mistake to have closed all the gates two days before a cloudburst raised the dam levels dangerously. Banks of all rivers linked to the dam were inundated in a flash, triggering immense suffering, loss of property and faith in the system.

On Thursday, when a DH team visited the spot, children were playing football on the Panamaram river bank, about a hundred metres from the sluice gates. But on August 8, when Wayanad was caught in a twister of landslides and dramatic deluges, the entire area was inundated by a mountain of water, flowing at great speeds to dangerous territory.

Thousands of residents in Panamaram, Kurumani, Pandijarathara, Kottathara and Venniyod were caught totally off-guard. They had absolutely no time to pick up their valuables as the water levels quickly rose. Panic-stricken, they simply had to run for their lives. Left behind in the sudden glut of water were their property documents, identity cards, cash and other valuables.

Preferring anonymity, a resident on the dam’s periphery explained how the closure of the gates on August 5 made all the difference. “On July 15, we could see that they had partially raised the gates. It should have remained that way. But they started closing them one by one, and by August 5, no water was coming out,” he recalled.

The cloudburst on the night of August 8 proved all the calculations wrong. “It rained so heavily that the dam levels rose and rose. Water was spilling out even over the gates. We knew that the dam authorities had absolutely no chance but to open all the gates fully. Otherwise, it would have burst,” said a hotel owner, who had a direct view of the unfolding nightmare.

Never in their memory had they seen the water levels rise so high. “We quickly shut shop and moved away from the place. But the others in the dam’s downstream had no such luck. Hundreds of houses were swallowed by the waters in minutes. People first moved to houses with multiple floors, but that was only a temporary escape,” recalled the hotelier.

Owned and operated by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), the dam has an optimal capacity of 209 million cubic metres. The board contends that it had issued an alert through a WhatsApp group operated by the Disaster Management Authority. The traditional methods are loudspeaker announcements and radio bulletins. The reservoir’s maximum level is 775.6 metres.

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