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80-foot crack in dam threatens thousands

July 7: A cracked, 118-year-old dam in Jodhpur is threatening to swamp dozens of villages — and all that the government can do is wait and hope.

“We should know by tomorrow evening if the dam will stand or not. All we can do is hope,” district collector N.P. Gangwar told The Telegraph over the phone as he stood beside the Jaswant Sagar dam, built by former Marwar ruler Jaswant Singh II.

The horizontal crack at the base, 40 feet wide last evening, had widened to over 80 feet at the time of reporting. But there has been no loss of life yet, the collector said.

Close to a hundred thousand residents of 48 downstream villages are in danger if the dam collapses, officials said, adding that nearly 7,000 people have been moved to higher ground.

Gangwar said the area had seen only rare drizzles in the past seven years but a series of recent storms had flooded the dam’s catchment areas like Merta, Ajmer and Pushkar. This had resulted in rainwater collecting in the dam, which, the collector said, had not been repaired for over a decade.

Unlike modern dams, Jaswant Sagar — 350 km from the capital Jaipur — doesn’t have gates that can be opened. Instead, Gangwar said, it has a “fixed overflow wall” at the end of the reservoir, over which excess water flows out automatically.

With modern structures, the gates are opened after evacuation of downstream villages, saving the core wall of a dam from sustained water pressure. The gates are structured in a way that gives the released water direction, preventing it from choosing its own path. Planning evacuation is, therefore, easier.

But in the case of Jaswant Sagar, authorities have to wait — even after the initial evacuation — till the water level in the catchment areas subsides.

“And if the dam collapses in the meantime, the water could go all over, flooding villages away from the normal path the water takes,” Kiran Soni Gupta, the district’s divisional commissioner, said.

Officials said the overflowing water has flooded roads, especially the national highway connecting Jodhpur and Jaipur, complicating the evacuation process. The road, which was opened yesterday, was closed this morning as a precautionary measure.

Sand bunds supporting the dam from either side were also washed away by the floodwaters, said additional collector Meethalal Lohar, who is overseeing the rescue efforts.

Sources said air force helicopters had evacuated dozens while jawans of the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary had been pressed into action. The army would be called in if needed, Lohar said.

Chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who visited Jodhpur for an aerial survey of the dam, said there would be no dearth of funds for relief work.

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