Ensuring Dam Safety in the Himalayas: Challenges, Solutions, and the Way Forward

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October 26, 2023

Ensuring Dam Safety in the Himalayas: Challenges, Solutions, and the Way Forward

Dam safety in Himachal Pradesh be damned


  • India, home to nearly 6,000 large dams, faces critical concerns regarding the safety of these structures, as a significant portion surpasses 25 years in age, posing potential risks. The Himalayas, instrumental in meeting India’s energy demands, harbor numerous large dams and hydropower projects. However, the recent Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) incident in North Sikkim has amplified apprehensions regarding their safety.

Hydropower Expansion in the Himalayas

  • As of November 2022, the Himalayan states and Union territories have witnessed an upsurge in large hydropower projects, with 81 operational (above 25 MW) and 26 under construction. An additional 320 projects are in the planning stages, highlighting the pivotal role the Himalayas play in India’s energy landscape.

Discussion: Dam Safety in the Himalayas

Vulnerability to Natural Hazards

  • The Himalayan region’s complex geological and topographical features make it highly susceptible to earthquakes, landslides, and GLOFs, posing a threat to the integrity of dams and reservoirs.

High Population Density

  • With dense populations residing downstream of dams and hydropower projects, a dam failure could lead to catastrophic loss of human lives and property.

Ecological Sensitivity

  • The Himalayas house unique biodiversity, making it an ecologically fragile region. A dam failure could trigger environmental disasters, severely impacting delicate ecosystems.


Climate Change

  • Global warming-induced glacier melt contributes to the formation of glacial lakes, heightening the risk of GLOFs and jeopardizing downstream infrastructure.

Snowball Effects

  • Landslide dams can trigger a cascade of events including floods, secondary landslides, and downstream impacts, posing severe threats to communities and infrastructure.

Delayed Impacts

  • Run-of-the-river projects, while promoted as environmentally friendly, can still indirectly lead to displacement and environmental impacts due to disturbances in geology and geohydrology.

Aging Infrastructure

  • Approximately 80% of dams and hydropower projects in the Himalayas are over 25 years old, necessitating rigorous maintenance and monitoring for continued safety.

Dam Safety Act, 2021 and its Provisions

  • The Dam Safety Act (DSA) was introduced to address deficiencies in surveillance and maintenance, establishing key responsibilities and creating national and state-level bodies for implementation.
  • Provisions include the formation of the National Committee on Dam Safety, the National Dam Safety Authority, and the State Committee on Dam Safety, among others.

Challenges in DSA Implementation

Inadequate Risk Assessment

  • Experts contend that the DSA lacks incentives for risk-based decision-making and transparency in its implementation.

Transparency Concerns

  • Transparency is hindered when government officials and project engineers dominate decision-making bodies, potentially compromising objective assessments.

Lessons Learned from Recent Incidents

Comprehensive Risk Assessment

  • Dam safety protocols should encompass comprehensive risk assessments considering factors like climate change, geological stability, and GLOFs, with periodic reviews for updated inundation maps and reservoir capacity rules.

Hazard Profiling Issues

  • Hazard risks are influenced by various factors, necessitating periodic reviews and transparent reporting of findings.

Standardized Safety Evaluation

  • The DSA mandates comprehensive dam safety evaluations, but standardization in failure analysis and reporting is lacking.

Transparent Reporting

  • Rigorous implementation of the DSA should prioritize transparent reporting of dam safety assessments and failures.

Community Involvement

  • Engaging local communities in dam safety measures can yield valuable insights into the environmental and social impacts of such projects.

Way Forward

Early Warning Systems

  • Implementing advanced early warning systems is imperative for detecting potential hazards, particularly GLOFs, to save lives and minimize damage.

Regular Maintenance

  • Aging infrastructure must undergo regular maintenance and upgrades to ensure their continued safety and functionality.

International Collaboration

  • Given the transboundary nature of the Himalayan region, international collaboration on dam safety and disaster management is crucial for mitigating shared risks.


  • Safeguarding dams in the Himalayas is paramount for India’s sustainable development. The Dam Safety Act, though a crucial step, requires continuous refinement. Lessons from recent incidents emphasize the need for comprehensive risk assessments, standardized evaluations, and transparent reporting. With a focus on community involvement, early warning systems, and international cooperation, a safer future for the Himalayan region can be ensured.

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Ensuring Dam Safety in the Himalayas: Challenges, Solutions, and the Way Forward | Vaid ICS Institute