Kulekhani high  dam  was in danger of collapse

<br>-&nbsp;Dr. AB Thapa&nbsp;

Aug. 9, 2011, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.: 05 No.-4 Aug. 05-2011 (Shrawan 20,2068)<BR>

The Kulekhani high dam was in danger of  being completely washed away just a few years after the completion of  its construction.  Implementation of extensive civil engineering works in a very short period based on the recommendation of a panel of top geotechnical  experts from four different countries, viz the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan helped to prevent the disaster that could  have resulted  in many thousands of deaths apart from plunging  the entire country into economic despair.  How the Kulekhani dam was on the  brink of  collapse  must serve as a lesson to  our policy makers  and planners.  We can  learn  from it  that  even minor lapses  in implementation of  high dam projects could have disastrous consequences for the entire country.

Problematic Geology

Government was about to take  the decision to implement the Kulekhani high dam hydropower project.  It was a time when a few  years earlier  the world was terribly shaken by  two  major high dam disasters.  In December 1959 the Malpasset Dam built in France had collapsed. Similarly, in  1963  in Italy the Vaiont Dam disaster was accompanied with a 200 feet high wall of water sweeping into  downstream villages, wiping out everything in its path. Both disasters  were  consequent upon poor geology. 

At that time  I was not yet  associated with the then Ministry of Water Resources though I  used  to take a great  deal of interest  in  hydropower civil engineering problems of our country. I  got the impression that the geology of the Kulekhani dam area could be problematic based on general study of the project reports and site visit. I published about it in our daily newspaper “ The Rising Nepal”. 

Storm  of  Criticism

Publication of my article to my great astonishment was met by a storm of  widespread  criticism. Even  the  newspaper like  “Times of India”  had reported that our government establishments   as well as the World Bank authorities in Washington were terribly concerned about the issue raised  in my article.  Government had even published a statement to repudiate my   viewpoint on  geology of Kulekhani.  Government too had good reason to be  confident about the correctness of  its statement  because the investigation works as well  as the design of that project was done by one of the world’s leading consulting firm.  It was  rumoured  that     some  critics  had not hesitated  even to demand punitive action against the publication. 

The  argument  over Kulekhani high dam problems  slowly subsided and it was almost forgetton.  But  the Kulekhani dam geology  problem  was  out of the public attention only for a   short  period.   Some years after the completion of the  project  construction   all of a sudden our country was shocked by the news that  the Kulekhani high dam might be on the brink of collapse. At that time I was in the Ministry of Water Resources.

Looming  Dam  Disaster

Canadian  Water Resources expert Dr. John Cooper had  reported after his visit to the project site that deep cracks  threatening to be extremely dangerous for the safety of the high dam have already developed over a  large  area just upstream dam around the intake structures. It was feared  that  a very large mass of the right bank would slide and plunge into the reservoir  triggering the giant waves  overtopping  the  earthen core dam.  It became obvious that the Kulekhani dam was almost certain to collapse if prompt action is not taken to complete the necessary  engineering works in time before the onset of  the coming monsoon season  to prevent  the dam failure.  A similar  type of rock sliding into the reservoir had resulted  in  1963  Vaiont  Dam disaster in  Italy.

The gruesome news about the imminent danger of dam disaster quickly spread  and  it  was  widely  covered  in local newspapers. Foreign experts  and  donor agencies  operating  in  Nepal also  were  perplexed  by this latest development in Nepal.  Some foreign agencies  appeared  to have even started to   sound out our government on the question of relocation of people at great risk in the event of dam failure.

Ironic Twist to the Event

I , who had been blamed for misleading the government  by publishing article about the poor geology of  the dam site , had to take the initiative  on behalf of the Water Resources Ministry   to  help  the top foreign experts  to draw  plans to prevent dam disaster consequent upon the poor geology of  dam site. 

Anyone visiting the Kulekhani dam site can  even  now see the extensive works  carried  out  to prevent  the dam failure.  The intake and its surroundings have been anchored  by  long cables to prevent them from  sliding  into the reservoir.  Large areas have been cleared  of loose overburdens.  Special drainage tunnels have been provided to prevent the landslides.


At present  our country is heading for the implementation of the West Seti project that will have a 195 meters high cfrd type dam going to be the highest among this type of dams built so far, despite the fact that according to the article published in the INTERNATIONAL WATER POWER AND DAM  CONSTRUCTION  journal  by  Dr. Martin  Wieland,  Chairman of the Seismic Aspect Committee  of the ICOLD ( International Commission of  Large Dams) this type of dam would be vulnerable in high seismicity areas like our Himalayan region.  Needless to say that such gross negligence could be disastrous for our country.

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