Shankar Sharma: India’s Ongoing Water and Power Crises

Droughts are nothing new to India.  Many states in the Union have experienced the drought many times in the recent past.  Media reports have indicated that this year roughly 50% of the geographic area in the country is in the grip of drought, with many of them having two successive drought years.  Out of 170 odd talukas (geographic subdivisions) in the state of Karnataka, about 135 have been declared as drought affected indicting the seriousness of water scarcity in 75% of the land area of the state.  The adjacent states of Andhra Pradesh and Telnagana have declared drought in 196 mandals (geographic subdivisions) out of a total 670, and 231 out of 443 rural mandals respectively.   Drought is reported to be impacting other states also: Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana, and Maharastra.

shankar sharma power crises april 2016With about 53% of the country’s land area recognised as water stressed, and 35% as drought prone, many  massive population groups have been struggling to access even potable quality water for most parts of the year.  The scenario of drought can and will visit our country time and again.  The phenomenon of Climate Change is projected to exacerbate this problem acutely.  Growing population, increasing demand for water from competing sectors such as industry, commerce, agriculture, commercial plantations, power plants etc. are leading to a crisis like situation. Droughts have also been associated with power crises in recent decades due to close relationship between water availability and electricity demand/generation.

India’s declaration to UNFCCC as part of COP 21 meet at Paris (in the form of INDC) says: “India accounts for 2.4% of the world surface area, but supports around 17.5% of the world population. It houses the largest proportion of global poor (30%), around 24% of the global population without access to electricity (304 million), about 30% of the global population relying on solid biomass for cooking and 92 million without access to safe drinking water.”

Whereas the water crisis due to droughts in the past was generally impacting the poor villagers only,  in recent decades the impact is felt increasingly by almost everyone, including the urban rich.  Such widespread impact is because of the reduced generation in power plants due to low water levels in the reservoirs.  In view of the well known water – energy nexus, due diligence in studying the impact of drought on the power sector can provide means of better management of these two critical sectors of our economy.  In view of the fact that coal power plants need huge quantities of fresh water, the drought scenario in the country should lead to a thorough review of coal based power policy for the country.  Drought is known to have profound impact on the electric power sector, which in turn will have huge impact on agriculture, industry and commerce.

Karnataka’s case study as far as water – energy nexus is concerned, can be a good basis for the country to consider suitable action plan to minimise the impacts on electricity supply.

This year, Karnataka is experiencing a severe drought situation not seen in last 40 years.  More than 75% of the talukas in the state have officially been declared as facing drought.  When seen in the context that about 72% of the state’s geographical area is arid or semi arid and about 52% is drought prone, it should become obvious that the drought like situation for the state should be a critical factor in its developmental pathway.  It is also critical to acknowledge that the fast evolving global warming phenomenon will only exacerbate the drought like situation, and hence there is an urgent need to consider the present scenario holistically to prepare our communities to face the consequences from a long term perspective.

Whereas the urgent measures to provide drinking water, food, fodder and suitable employment opportunities in the drought affected areas should be the priority for the state, it is also critical to consider the likely impact of future droughts on all sectors of our economy and on all sections of our society in the long run.  The need to develop a realistic state action plan on climate change should be seen as a great opportunity to consider various measures to minimise the impact of drought on our communities.  One area needing such a holistic approach is that of electrical power.

A major coal power plant in the state is Raichur Thermal Power Station (RTPS) with 8 Units totaling 1,720 MW capacity in the norther part of the state, which has always been known as drought prone region. While it is not the first time this power plant has been impacted by lack of water in river Krishna (and the availability of coal from distant coal mines sometimes), this year it has been severe with one or more units having been shut down almost continuously due to the lack of water since February. The water availability scenario in that river cannot improve considerably till the onset of monsoon by the middle of June.

What is troubling even more is that two more coal power plants (3 * 800 MW capacity generators) are under construction nearby with dependence on the same river basin for water supply.  An Ultra Mega Power Project (4*800 MW capacity) also is being constructed against all techno-economic norms and against popular opposition near Almatti reservoir across the same river Krishna upstream of Raichur.  It is a glaring fact that there can be no assurance of adequate water supply to all these coal power plants in the future, in the context that the Krishna river (an interstate river) generally has vastly reduced water flow in Karnataka stretch between January and June. A drought year will make this even worse.  Either most of these coal power generators will face the threat of stranded assets, or the people of the region will face heightened water crises, or both.

The issue is also similar in the case of the other major river in the region i.e Tunga-Bhadra on which one coal power plant (3 generators totaling 1,700 MW) is depending (near Bellary town). Some more coal power plants are reported to be planned for the same region north of this place (designed to get water from the same river basins).

It has been a well known fact that the North Karnataka region, wherein all these existing and the proposed coal power plants are/to be located, has been a rain shadow area and hence facing water shortage for centuries (even for drinking and agriculture). In such a scenario, it cannot be termed by no stretch of imagination, as a sane planning to build coal power plants in Karnataka, which has no known reserve of coal.

A coal power plant is also being considered to be built in a relatively more green area in South Karnataka near Western Ghats (Hassan district) which will add  water scarcity and pollution to other existing problems of the area.  Even the only coal power plant on the west coast of Karnataka, which is alleged to have heavily impacted the lush green foothills of Western Ghats, also is reported to be planning to add two more generators at the same site. Fresh water cannot be said to be plenty here either, as is evidenced by the usage of sea water for this plant. In addition to impacting the local environment this particular plant is associated with the destruction of thick forests in Western Ghats because of the transmission lines needed to evacuate the power to the load centres of Karnataka.

The Chief Minister of Karnataka during 2008 is on record for having said (while participating in a ceremony on 8 Sept. 2008 to sign a MOU with Chhattisgarh govt. to set up a coal power plant in the state of Chhattisgarh) that since setting up a coal power plant in Karnataka is not economical, a coal power plant was being set up in Chhattisgarh.   The fact that Karnataka has no known reserve of coal and coal for its power plants has to be transported from a long distance, and that the state is officially regraded as water deficit state, must have been weighing heavily in his mind.  In this context it should be inconceivable that so many coal power projects in Karnataka can even be considered.

People have been highlighting these issues for many years, but there is no let up in building more of ill conceived coal power plants.  Unfortunately, we do not seem to have any provision in Law to hold the decision makers responsible for ill-conceived power plants which can go waste at huge cost to the society.

This scenario of huge number of coal power plants already operating and additionally being planned in water scarce areas has been same in many other states of the Union,  all adding up to major crises not only for the power sector, but also for the essential water needs of the people. It is an indication of the poor vision on part of our policy makers that a coal based power policy is being pursued even after clear evidence of coal power plants worsening the fresh water availability in the country.

As per the survey report (THERMAL POWER PLANTS ON THE ANVIL: Implications and Need for Rationalisationby Prayas Energy Group, India), if 700,000 MW of additional coal and gas power plants are to be set up (as planned in  2011), fresh water requirement of a huge quantity (about 4.6 billion cubic meters /per year) can be expected. The gravity of the situation becomes clear when we also realise that this much of fresh water can meet the drinking water needs of about 7% of the population in India, OR can provide irrigation to more than 900,000 hectares of land. When we also consider the sever shortage of drinking water in many parts of the country (including that of the fast depletion of ground water everywhere), and the already low per capita availability of fresh water in the country, the stark reality of the impact of coal power plants on fresh water availability become evidently clear.

As at the end of February, 2016 the country had total installed power capacity of 288,700 MW out of which 201,400 MW was thermal power (coal, natural gas and diesel). Such a high percentage (70%) of thermal power capacity, needing a lot of fresh water for satisfactory operation, cannot be considered in the true interest of the communities in a scenario of drought in most years.  Keeping in view the high probability of Climate Change exacerbating the fresh water availability across the country and a growing population (expected to reach 1.7 Billion by 2050), the present practice of over-reliance on thermal power (including nuclear power) cannot be continued.  A rational analysis of the country’s own experience during the last 7 decades should have led to a definitive path away from thermal power, but sadly a large number of such plants are being built and planned to be built without any consideration of many associated societal level issues.  The unambiguous issue of water-energy nexus should have been at the focal point of our country’s developmental paradigm; but sadly we have ignored not only this, but also the true welfare of our communities.

In the present context of recurring droughts, Climate Change implications, and the global understanding at COP 21 meet, one would have expected the policy makers to take a conscious decision to move away from coal dependency early. Whereas the recent trend has been to reduce the coal power dependency in various parts of the world, due to the issues of economy, pollution and Climate Change, India seems to have determined to defy such wise policies, and ignore the issues which may lead to the destruction of the already fragile ecology, stressed natural resources, and the poor people’s overall welfare for the benefit of few vested interests.

It is a sad commentary on our power policy, that despite many credible reports on the impact of coal power on the densely populated and poor communities here, the govt. continues to advocate coal based power policy in the guise of eradicating poverty.  Despite the massive growth of power sector in the country since independence about 30% of the populations has no access to electricity.  As per Central Electricity Authority (CEA) data, between 1947 and 2013, power capacity grew from 1,300 MW to 224,000 MW (172 times); length of T&D lines  increased from 23,000 kM to 89,70,000 kM (390 times); and the per capita consumption grew from  16.3 to 917 Units (57 times).  During this period coal power capacity increased from 736 MW to 130,000 MW (176 times).  The fact that despite such massive growth in the coal power and electricity infrastructure, about 1/3 rd of the population are denied of access to electricity and no consumer category is satisfied with the quality of supply, should be a clear indication of the failure of the current model of electricity demand – supply.

Whereas the authorities continue to argue that coal power is needed to eliminate the energy poverty, the facts belie the same.  Despite the massive increase in the power infrastructure, the 57 times increase in per capita consumption hides the sad picture that much of the growth in electricity infrastructure has gone on to increase the per capita consumption of urban areas, ignoring more than 60% of the country’s population in rural areas.  Whereas the urban areas get electricity on an average for 20 to 24 hours in a day, those rural areas which are rather lucky to get connected with electricity network get generally less than 10 hours of supply.  Whereas the per capita consumption of a typical middle class family in urban areas (constituting more than 60% of urban households)  may range from 300 Units to 600 Units, families in rural areas have only 50 to 100 Units.  Whereas the urban area households generally have most of the modern electrical appliances (radio, TV, fan, washing machine, refrigerators, music systems, water pumps, VCRs, mixers/grinders, cooking stoves, computers etc.), rural areas hardly have sufficient lighting, cell phone charging facilities, TVs, radios etc.   Whereas, the urban areas are wasting a considerable amount of electrical energy in the form of vastly more illumination than necessary in public places and street lights, pumping water from distant sources only to waste 30 to 40% of it in distribution, centrally air conditioned offices/ shops, night time sports etc. the rural areas hardly have adequate number of street lights and illumination for the public places such as schools and community centres, primary heath centres, cottage industries, good water supply systems (including that for agricultural purposes) etc.

This scenario goes only to establish that the energy poverty in India is not truly due to the shortage of electricity, but is due to highly inefficient, wasteful and inequitable distribution of the same.  Gross inefficiency of the Indian power sector (as measured by high T&D losses, low asset utilisation factors and poor financial performances) is the root cause of all the problems in the sector.

Whereas these chronic problems and effective solutions to the same have been advocated by the civil society groups and domain experts since decades, the authorities seem to be interested only in pouring in the scarce financial and natural resources to expand the electricity infrastructure without due diligence.  Hence, the abuse of public trust in the elected governments continue unabated at huge cost to the present and future generations.

At a time when many parts of the world are moving resolutely towards sustainable energy options such as highest possible efficiencies, demand side management, careful harnessing of the natural resources, deploying the fast developing renewable energy sources etc., India must not continue to rely on those failed power sector policies, which will severely compromise on its natural resources and condemn its people to unacceptable levels of pollution of land, water and air by continuing to rely on coal and other conventional electricity sources.  Many sustainable energy options (such as very high efficiencies and deployment of renewable energy sources), which are deployed in many parts of the world, are also found to be successful in some pockets here, and they should be extended to all other parts through diligent processes involving civil society groups and domain experts.

Whereas the power sector is closely associated with the causes for global warming, the phenomenon of Climate Change itself can impact the electric power sector in many ways.  Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Year 2012 report “Climate Risk and Adaptation in the Electric Power Sector” has discussed such issues as applicable to Asian countries.  It is well known that the electric power investment decisions have long lead times and long-lasting effects, as power plants and grids often last for 40 years or more. This necessitates the need to assess the possible impacts of climate change on such infrastructure, to identify the nature and effects of possible adaptation options, and to assess the technical and economic viability of these options. The report has stated that the power sector is vulnerable to projected climate changes, most importantly due to droughts and floods.  Large size conventional power plants, including coal and nuclear, and the associated assets are projected to be at risk from CC related water-energy nexus.

Whereas it is difficult to come to the conclusion that the phenomenon of recurring droughts will impact the coal expansion plans in India in the immediate future, it cannot be denied that such a business as usual scenario cannot continue for long.  The water shortage, unacceptably high pressure on our natural resources, and the looming consequences of Climate Change will force our authorities to adapt a paradigm shift, later if not immediately.  But the real concern is by that time lot of our agricultural lands would have been spoiled, food and water security would have been vastly degraded, considerable amounts of public money would have been wasted, our natural resources would have been largely compromised, and our environment would have reached a point of no return.

It is unfortunate that those who raise such social and environmental issues on ill-conceived power projects are some times labeled as anti-development.  However, it is a matter of satisfaction that the Human Rights Council  under UN General Assembly on 21 March 2016 has adopted a resolution to the extent “Environmental en Sustainable Development Defenders are Human Rights Defenders.”.  It is fervently hoped that the movements across the globe to protect our environment will meet with success, and such defenders will not face any persecution.

It is difficult not to project a gloomy situation for the power sector due to water availability issues alone.  But the civil society groups will continue to work to bring the necessary paradigm shift, and hope that such natural phenomenon like droughts and increasing opposition to conventional projects will force the authorities to move away from ill-conceived power projects, and towards a highly efficient, sustainable powered system based on renewable energy sources and micro-grids.

Shankar Sharma
Power Policy Analyst

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