Godavari floods: Did increasing height of Polavaram's cofferdam intensify damage?

According to officials, 19,000 people have been evacuated from low lying areas and shifted to relief camps, following flash floods along the Godavari river.
Godavari floods: Did increasing height of Polavaram's cofferdam intensify damage?
Godavari floods: Did increasing height of Polavaram's cofferdam intensify damage?
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A major row is underway in Andhra Pradesh even as heavy downpour in the catchment area of the Godavari basin has triggered flash floods in East and West Godavari districts over the past one week.

Continuous rains lashing coastal Andhra have resulted in flash floods along the Godavari river over the past week and resulted in water rising in the Doleswaram barrage. According to officials, 19,000 people have been evacuated from low lying areas and shifted to relief camps.

The controversy relates to politics over the construction of the Polavaram Irrigation Project in the state, which has been contentious from its inception.

The YSRCP government claims that it was the previous Telugu Desam Party's (TDP) government’s move to construct a cofferdam and increase its height, without completing work on the spillway, which led to the flooding.

The YSRCP government claims that damage in Devipatnam mandal, which is one of the worst-affected areas due to the floods, could have been prevented if the TDP took up construction of the Polavaram project in a better way. 

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Irrigation Minister P Anil Kumar Yadav said, "Even when we declare the third warning as the water level increases, the situation is never so grave. However, this time, even as we issued the first warning, the inundation has begun in Devipatnam mandal. This is only because of the cofferdam."

"We couldn't estimate which areas would get severely affected due to the cofferdam's construction. We have taken stock of the situation now and we will ensure that no family will have to suffer like this again," he added.  

This claim was repeated by East Godavari district-in-charge and Andhra Minister Alla Nani as well. The Chief Minister's office also repeated the claim in a statement, after Jagan Mohan Reddy conducted an aerial survey of the affected areas on Thursday.

"Officials said that normally Godavari will not flood so severely even if the water flow is between 10-11 lakh cusecs. This could have happened due to a cofferdam (built as part of Polavaram project). The Chief Minister has said that the water level at the construction site at Polavaram should be taken into consideration instead of the water level at Dowaleswaram and steps should be taken to rehabilitate those evacuated from the submerged villages and low-lying areas," the statement said.

All these claims have led to questions on whether there was an engineering oversight in the construction of Polavaram's cofferdam. 

Engineering defect or political blunder?

It was in 2017 that then CM Chandrababu Naidu had laid the foundation for the cofferdam. 

TNM has learnt that while the plan was to initially build a cofferdam for a height of about 30 metres, it was on Naidu's insistence that it was decided to raise it to around 40 metres, to withstand more severe floods. However, the move seems to have backfired and submerged villages upstream. 

Dubbing the move a 'blunder', president of Andhra Pradesh Rythanga Samakhya Yerneni Nagendranadh says that there has definitely been a more severe impact in Devipatnam mandal as a result. 

"When an irrigation project has to be built, especially along the course of a river, they build two massive bunds on either side, to ensure that water doesn't seep through, and construction of the project can take place in between. This is called the cofferdam, and it is a temporary structure. To ensure that water continues to flow, they build a spillway, to redirect the water back to its main course," he says. 

"Ideally, spillway has to be completed first. However, in the present case, they have firstly not completed spillway works, and secondly, they have diverted the course of the water slightly," he adds.

"The previous government in AP, despite technical advice to the contrary, ordered a substantial increase in the height of the cofferdam of Polavaram, resulting in a huge risk of submergence of the upstream tribal villages and an undue increase in the cost. There was constant political interference in the engineering works," says EAS Sarma, a retired bureaucrat, who has demanded a CBI probe into the project. 

"Yesterday, the tribal villagers facing serious submergence problems have expressed their anger and anguish to news reporters, confirming what has all along been anticipated," he added. 

The YSRCP has said that asking the contractor to raise the height of the cofferdam was only to give scope to the contractor to demand extra cost, without providing any real utility. 

Nagendranadh says that the previous government had taken an area, which is 2,300 metres area, and left 300 metres on each side for the spillway, before raising the cofferdam to a height of more than 30 metres. 

"Now several lakh cusecs of water, due to the flood, is splitting in the middle and going through this narrow area of 600 metres. As a result, we are seeing the water overflow to more villages than it otherwise would have. This will even cause issues in downstream villages in the future," he says. 

Meanwhile, the TDP has dismissed the allegations, with former Irrigation Minister Devineni Uma telling reporters that the increase in height was done after approval from the Dam Design Review Committee (DDRC), the Polavaram Project Authority (PPA) and the Central Water Commission (CWC).

The TDP has also laid blame on the YSRCP's decision to stall the Polavaram project and terminate the ongoing contract, which led to further delay of construction works where the cofferdam and spillway were concerned. 

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