World Rivers Review
Volume 12, Number 3 / June 1997

Earthquake Hits Narmada Valley

by Patrick McCully

A strong earthquake hit the Narmada Valley on May 22, killing around 50 people and injuring 1,000 in the city of Jabalpur in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The epicenter of the magnitude 6.0 earthquake is believed to have been about 20-40 kilometers from Bargi Dam, which completed filling in 1990. No damage to the dam had yet been reported at press time. The earthquake has focused attention on the seismic risks faced by the scores of large dams planned for the Narmada Valley, and on the risk of reservoir-induced earthquakes.

Indian seismologists have noted an increase in seismic activity in the Narmada Valley over the past 20 years, which may be linked to reservoir impoundment. The world's worst confirmed reservoir-induced earthquake was triggered by the Koyna Dam in the watershed of the Krishna River in Maharashtra state in 1967. Nearly 200 were killed in the magnitude 6.3 tremor. Some seismologists, however, believe that the devastating magnitude 6.4 earthquake which struck Killari, Maharashtra in 1993, killing 10,000 people, was induced by a nearby reservoir. In the Narmada Valley itself, a series of tremors were felt soon after the completion of the Sukta Dam.

Indian seismologist Dr. Arun Singh told a government-commissioned review of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1995 of the risks of a "major earthquake" striking the Narmada Valley in the "near future." Singh recommended then that the seismicity of the Narmada Valley be re-evaluated in the context of the recent increase in tremors.

Following the Jabalpur quake, a new coalition representing people affected by dams throughout the Narmada Valley has accused the Indian government of trying to "downplay or even conceal the dangers of both seismic risks and reservoir-induced seismicity in the Narmada Valley. The coalition, the Narmada Valley Struggle Coordination Committee, is demanding that the government appoint an independent panel of experts to review the issue of seismicity and high dams in the Narmada Valley and that work on all dams in the valley be stopped until the review is completed.

Meanwhile, work on Sardar Sarovar, the most infamous dam on the Narmada River, remains suspended after the New Delhi Supreme Court on March 3 rejected an application from the project authorities for permission to raise the height of the dam from its current 63.5 meters (about half of the dam's final height). The Supreme Court has consistently refused to allow the dam to be raised due to the inability of the authorities to rehabilitate people who would be displaced by a larger dam.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA - Save the Narmada Movement) filed its case against Sardar Sarovar in the Supreme Court in April 1994. The next hearing of the case, now mired in complex constitutional issues, will be in July.

While the court case moves slowly forward, the NBA has been actively building links with people affected by other dams and destructive development projects. In December 1996, 50,000 people attended a rally held beside the Narmada with the theme "Against Large Dams - Towards a New Water Policy." Representatives of people affected by 15 large dams throughout India attended the rally as did representatives of anti-dam groups in Nepal and Thailand.

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