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#India- Between thirst and darkness in Maharashtra

Rivers are diverted for generating electricity, while the government plans water trains for its people. Baba Umar reports on an impossible situation in the state
Baba Umar

January 31, 2013, Issue 6 Volume 10

Parched earth Eight districts in the Marathwada region of the state are expected to run completely dry by March, Photo: Getty Images

THIS SUMMER, people in southern Maharashtra can enjoy either electricity or water, not both. Until recently, the state had prioritised use of water for industrial purposes over agriculture. But now the government finds itself at odds to explain the diversion of water to hydel projects when water activists claim that the diverted water can be used to meet the requirements of eight drought-hit districts, which are expected to run completely dry by March.

Activists say the state government diverts massive quantities of water from the drought-hit regions of southern to hydel projects in the water surplus western regions of the state, eventually ending up in the Arabian Sea. But stopping the diversion may also mean shortage of electricity in an energy-starved state.

“If the government is serious about quenching the thirst of millions of people, then it has to stop diverting water from east flowing rivers to the west, which is a water surplus area and receives over 3,000 mm rainfall annually,” explains expert Himanshu Thakkar a water rights activist.

Maharashtra diverts 1,413 MCM of water annually to three hydel projects from the river basin, while the Koyna dam in Satara district diverts 1,911.4 MCM of water from the Krishna basin to five hydel projects. Currently, these projects have 2,835 MCM of water in live storage. And this water is sent to Konkan areas where it ends up in Arabian sea.

“The water available in live storage capacity of these dams today is sufficient to provide 100 litres per capita per day for about 7 crore people for the entire year, provided it’s not diverted,” Thakkar says.

According to him this water, besides the additional flow into these dams through the rest of the year, can be useful for the drought-prone areas if no more water from any of these dams are allowed to drain into the Konkan rivers until monsoon arrives.

The three hydel projects in the Krishna- basin collectively produce 297 MW of electricity, while the five hydel projects based around the collectively produce around 1,956 MW of power. The eight projects add up to 8.5 percent of the state’s total installed power capacity.

“A decision should have been taken as soon as it became apparent that the monsoon is a failure and the state is in dire need of all available water,” says Thakkar. “We are already at least five months late in taking a decision on this. When people are facing severe water scarcity, it is high time the diversions were stopped.”

Currently, water is being supplied across the region by tankers. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government has already spent Rs 414 crore to combat the situation, of which Rs 248 crore was released for erecting cattle shelters for nearly 70,000 cattle head in the drought-hit villages and hamlets. According to reports, the government has also finalised plans to send water-filled train carriages to the droughthit region.

Earlier this month, a high-level committee that studies which states affected by natural calamities need the Central government’s help approved assistance of Rs 778.09 crore to Maharashtra. But people living in the districts of Aurangabad, Nanded, Latur, Jalna, Beed, Parbhani, Osmanabad and Hingoli, which are the worst-hit in the region, are yet to see the crisis subsiding.

“The state government must work on long-term solutions. Sending water by tankers is a only short-term effort,” says Shrikant Katre, a local journalist. In Jalna, people are taking their cattle to government shelters “because they can’t afford to provide the animals with water and fodder”, he adds.

A media report suggested that stopping water diversion was discussed during a meeting at the water resources ministry, but the option was rejected.

“Stopping diversion would also mean hampering energy production in the already distressed state,” a senior official in the water resources ministry told TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity. “The government, I think, would continue to remain in limbo. We can’t see power cuts in the state, neither can we see people dying of water. It’s a double-edged sword.”

In the past five years, the state’s peak electricity demand deficit has risen from 17 percent in 2005-06, to 22 percent in 2011-12.

But water expert Thakkar says: “In times of crisis, such decisions need to be considered. Maharashtra is already facing the possibility of conflicts and clashes, with the people and cattle in the Krishna basin facing dire water scarcity. When there is talk of running water-tanker trains, shouldn’t this option too be explored?”

WATER RESOURCES Minister Sunil Tatkare couldn’t be reached for his comments. His public relations officer, however, referred TEHELKA to Dr Patangrao Shripatrao Kadam, minister for rehabilitation and relief works saying, “His ministry is managing the present drought condition.” But Kadam’s staff denied access saying, “He is busy in a meeting and can’t comment right now.” An SMS sent to Kadam elicited no response.

Suniti Su Ra of the National Alliance of People’s Movements says the water from these dams have been flowing into the sea for more than 60 years and in all these years the government could have developed a mechanism to stop this water from going waste.

“The state needs to overhaul its water policy. Water for industries has all along been prioritised over water for agriculture and drinking purposes. Water meant for farmers and drinking purposes is guzzled by industries across the state,” she says.

While the government is struggling to help people survive the drought, Thakkar says the only option left is to stop the diversion of water from ending up in the sea.

But is the government listening?

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