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Drinking water, power shortage loom in India as reservoirs go dry

New Delhi : In early March, state-run National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) stopped production of electricity at its 2,100 MW Farakka plant in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. The shutdown was complete and hit power supply to the country's national grid.

The alarming situation, unprecedented in NTPC's 30-year history, was due to a sharp drop in availability of water in the country following two consecutive years of scant rainfall in the entire South Asian region.

“The availability of water from Farakka Feeder Canal to the 2,100 MW Farakka Plant has further declined......, compelling authorities to switch off the lone generating 500 MW sixth unit. With this, generation at Farakka has come to a standstill,” a NTPC communiqué said.

The plant, like several others, use water as feedstock to produce steam that spins the turbines. Water is also used as coolant and this time the non-availability of cooling water endangered the life of critical equipment at the NTPC plant, which saw gradual suspension in power generation from its six units.

Drinking water facilities within the plant as well as nearby townships also went dry.

Two back-to-back droughts in India have already brought large parts of the country to the knees. The year 2015 was particularly bad for and saw the worst monsoon season in six years. The India Meteorological Department said the rainfall deficit was as high as 14 per cent.

But, experts say the turmoil is only expected to grow as storage capacity has plummeted to its lowest levels in past several years.

The Central Water Commission, which churns out regular storage status report on the country's 91 major reservoirs, said the water storage available in reservoirs for the week ended March 31 was 39.651 BCM, which is 25 per cent of total storage capacity of these reservoirs.

The capacity was also 69 per cent of the storage of corresponding period of last year and 75 per cent of storage of average of last 10 years.

For the week ended March 17, the CWC said the water storage available in reservoirs was 43.394 BCM, 27 per cent of total storage capacity of these reservoirs. This was 70 per cent of the storage of corresponding period of last year and 74 per cent of storage of average of last 10 years.

The total storage capacity of these 91 reservoirs, according to CWC, is 157.799 BCM. This accounts for about 62 per cent of the total estimated storage capacity of 253.388 BCM created in India. As many as 37 reservoirs out of these 91 have hydropower benefit with installed capacity of more than 60 MW.

For a developing country like India, unavailability of water is slowly turning out to be a limiting factor. Experts feel that water shortage will rewrite the energy-water-food equations in the country.

The rapidly depleting reservoirs have already impacted hydro and thermal power production in India, but experts are warning that there could be a cascading effect on several sectors, particularly agriculture in coming months.

"Water scarcity is growing across Indian states and it is likely to impact even the manufacturing, construction and real estate sectors. Unless there is at least an average monsoon, rural distress is expected to worsen and drinking water supply in the country will be badly hit", said a senior official of the Union Water Resources Ministry.

A recent study by Greenpeace International drives home the point on the energy-water nexus. Besides hydro-electricity, India has coal-fired power plants supplying to the national demand for energy.

According to the study, more than 40 per cent of India’s proposed coal-based plants are in highly stressed water use areas. If these plants get constructed, the country’s water consumption will get doubled to 15.33 billion m3/year.

The situation will add to the deepening water crisis in almost all states, said Greenpeace, adding that Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and West Bengal will bear most of the brunt.

“From the first ever plant-by-plant study of the coal industry’s current and future water demand, it has come to the fore that some of these areas are extremely vulnerable to drought and yet hundreds of water guzzling coal plants are being proposed in these locations. In some of these areas water demand already exceeds 100 per cent of the available resource and if a go-ahead to 52 GW of thermal power plants proposed in red-list areas and 122 GW in high water stress areas is given, than the water situation in the country may deteriorate even further", the study noted.

With consistent population growth and economic development, India will need to think differently about managing its water resources more efficiently, said a former CEO of a US-based consultancy in India. "Since supply of freshwater is limited, demand-centric solutions need to be explored as also reuse and recycling", he added.

For starters, it is NTPC which is looking at using recycled water at some of its plants.

Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal had recently asked the power producer to use sewage treated by Nagpur Municipal Corporation's (NMC) sewage treatment plant (STP) at Bhandewadi for its Mouda plant.

The plant is currently operating two 500 MW units using water from the Gosikhurd dam. When NTPC starts to use treated wastewater, the local administration is hoping more water from the dam will be available for irrigation and potable purposes.

The Centre had also announced that power plants located within 50 km from a municipal corporation city would need to use treated sewage water of the city. This condition has been made mandatory for the 1,320 MW NTPC plant at Solapur too.

Drought-prone Maharashtra too has taken some initial steps to use treated sewage water. Plans are afoot in Mumbai to use 2130 million litre per day (MLD) water soon from seven sewage treatment plants (STPs) being installed under the second phase of the BMC’s Mumbai Sewerage Disposal Project.

The wastewater will undergo tertiary treatment and made available for use in some non-potable purposes, including industrial.

Notwithstanding the steps taken to pump up alternative sources of water, the southwest monsoon will be much awaited this year. A normal rainfall will help alleviate some pain from the country's hinterlands.

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