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The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

Umiam Dam (part 2)

Although originally scheduled for completion in early 1963, the Barapani (or Umiam) Hydroelectric Project did not come online until June 1965. The dam was built by a combination of hand labor and imported American heavy machinery, such as bulldozers and backhoes. An American loan of $2.5 million covered the foreign exchange costs of the project, for the purchase of construction machinery as well as the turbines. The in-country costs of the project were $13.1 million, which were also covered by an American loan.1

The Barapani project was the second hydroelectric project undertaken after independence in Assam. The first was the Umtru Hydel Project, lower down in the Khasi Hills. The project, completed in 1957, was financed by Canadian capital from the Colombo plan. A run-of-river project, the dam relied on the flow of the Umtru River to turn its turbines for producing electricity.2 Umtru Dam was not capable of producing consistent levels of power throughout the year, because the flow of the Umtru River varied seasonally. Since snow never falls in the Khasi Hills, the area’s rivers rely entirely on rainfall. During the rainy season months, from around April to October, the rivers run high with heavy rainfall. But during the dry season, with no rain to feed them, the rivers sink and slow considerably.

The Barapani project offered a solution for the rivers’ unreliability. The project’s one concrete dam and two earthen dams plugged the bottom of the Umiam River’s gorge, creating a reservoir that could store water during the dry winter months. The power station was not located within the dam itself, but farther downhill, at an elevation 560 feet lower than the water intakes in the reservoir. A 1.5-mile conduit piped the water down to the power station. This arrangement provided greater head (pressure) for the turbines. After passing through the imported Japanese turbines of the first stage of the Umiam project, the water was diverted into the Sumer Stream, a tributary of the Umtru River. The Umiam reservoir thus provided a consistent water supply for both the Umiam and Umtru hydroelectric projects.3

The Umiam Hydroelectric Project was included in India’s Second Five-Year Plan, and it was overseen by the Assam state government. This project—like the scores of other projects included in Nehruvian India’s Plans—was imposed from the top by elites. Although the project was located in a rural area, most of the local population had little stake in it besides serving as laborers during construction. The primary customers of the project were not the rural inhabitants of the Meghalaya Plateau, but the mills and factories that were also a part of India’s top-down development plans. Most of the sources I have found on the dam mention only the use of electricity for industry. So far, I have found just one source that even mentions the prospect of rural electrification.4

Fifty years after its construction, the Umiam Dam still stands in its ravine high in the Khasi Hills. A series of additional stages to the project have added further generating stations downhill. Despite the increased generating capacity, the Umiam project has not been able to keep up with rising demand. At times of peak power demand, particularly in the summer months, the Meghalaya state electric utility must selectively cut power. These scheduled blackouts have become a fact of life in areas served by power from Umiam Dam. The project provided power to an under-served part of India, but it could not keep up with increased demand due to population and industrial growth.

  1. Agency for International Development, Program and Project Data Related to Propose Programs – FY 1965: Near East and South Asia (Washington, DC, 1964), 84; USAID Mission to India, The United States Contribution to Indian Development (New Delhi, 1966), 34. []
  2. “Canada and the Colombo Plan: The Umtru Project,” External Affairs 9 (1957), 241-43. []
  3. Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Indian Railway Gazette 62, no. 9 (1964), 239. []
  4. The source that mentions rural electrification is “State Electricity Board and Its Work,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []

Umiam Dam (part 1)

On January 8, 1960, at the town of Aswan in southern Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nassar of the United Arab Republic formally initiated construction of the Aswan High Dam. In front of a crowd of foreign dignitaries flown in from Cairo for the occasion, Nassar pushed a button to trigger charges of dynamite along the river half a mile away. The resulting explosions began to open the first diversion canal for the waters of the Nile. The Soviet Union, which had financed the construction of the dam with a starting loan of $93 million, was represented at the festivities by Ignati T. Novakov, the Soviet Minister of Electric Power Station Construction. The total cost for the 12,500-ft dam was then estimated at $1 billion.1

The next day, 3600 miles away, a similar scene played out in the Khasi Hills of northeast India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on a three-day tour of the northeastern state of Assam, dedicated the construction of the Barapani Hydroelectric Project on the Umiam River. Like Nasser, Nehru pushed a button to set off the first explosive charge of the project. Scheduled for completion in 1963, the project included a 580-ft concrete dam and two earthen dams designed to create a reservoir in a ravine of the Umiam River.2

The Aswan High Dam justifiably attracted international attention from the project’s inception in the 1950s. Nasser promoted the dam as a symbol of postcolonial Egypt’s entry into the modern age. The project was—and still is—famous as a major engineering work; modern technology had finally gained the ability to tame the ancient caprices of the Nile. The project also gained notoriety for displacing local populations by flooding their homelands, and for inundating ancient Egyptian cultural sites. UNESCO launched a publicized, and ultimately successful, attempt to cut apart and relocate the monument of Abu Simbel, but other unexplored cultural sites were lost under the Nile.

By comparison, the Barapani or Umiam project received mostly local attention, as it was just one of scores of dam projects initiated during Nehru’s tenure as prime minister. The river Umiam was little-known outside of northeast India, and the project was comparatively small. Nevertheless, the Umiam project reveals much about its time period. The project brings together many recurring themes of the industrialization of India during the Nehru era. These include transfer of technological artifacts from highly-developed nations (in this case, the United States and Japan) to India; transfer of technological expertise to India; displacement of local populations by development projects imposed by societal elites; and the need for foreign funds to build the dam. Unlike Aswan High Dam, Umiam Dam was financed almost completely by American capital, in the form of PL-480 and DLF loans. (These were later consolidated under USAID – the United States Agency for International Development.) The Umiam project was one of the first Indian development projects financed to such a large degree by American capital. The Barapani Hydroelectric Project illustrates how development projects in Nehru’s India used foreign capital and equipment to create new Indian technologies.

(In the next post I will describe the Umiam project in detail.)

  1. “Nasser Starts Construction of Aswan Dam on the Nile,” New York Times, January 9, 1960. []
  2. “Nehru Envisages Assam’s Great Future; Umiam Hydel Project Inaugurated,” Assam Tribune, January 10, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []

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