11 March 2016, the canal connecting the Ganges to coal-fired power station dried up because of a lack of water. By next day, authorities were forced to suspend generation at the 2,300-megawatt plant in Farakka town causing shortages in India's power grid. Photo: Ronny Sen / BBC News

By Soutik Biswas
27 March 2016

(BBC News) – On 11 March 2016, panic struck engineers at a giant power station on the banks of the Ganges river in West Bengal state.

Readings showed that the water level in the canal connecting the river to the plant was going down rapidly. Water is used to produce steam to run the turbines and for cooling vital equipment of coal-fired power stations.

By next day, authorities were forced to suspend generation at the 2,300-megawatt plant in Farakka town causing shortages in India's power grid. Next, the vast township on the river, where more than 1,000 families of plant workers live, ran out of water. Thousands of bottles of packaged drinking water were distributed to residents, and fire engines rushed to the river to extract water for cooking and cleaning.

The power station - one of the 41 run by the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation, which generates a quarter of India's electricity - was shut for 10 days, unprecedented in its 30-year history.

"Never before have we shut down the plant because of a shortage of water," says Milan Kumar, a senior plant official.

"We are being told by the authorities that water levels in the river have receded, and that they can do very little."

Further downstream, say locals, ferries were suspended and sandbars emerged on the river. Some 13 barges carrying imported coal to the power station were stranded midstream because of insufficient water. Children were seen playing on a near-dry river bed.

Nobody is sure why the water level on the Ganges receded at Farakka, where India built a barrage in the 1970s to divert water away from Bangladesh. Much later, in the mid-1990s, the countries signed a 30-year agreement to share water. (The precipitous decline in water levels happened during a 10-day cycle when India is bound by the pact to divert most of the water to Bangladesh. The fall in level left India with much less water than usual.)

Monsoon rains have been scanty in India for the second year in succession. The melting of snow in the Himalayas - the mountain holds the world's largest body of ice outside the polar caps and contributes up to 15% of the river flow - has been delayed this year, says SK Haldar, general manager of the barrage. "There are fluctuations like this every year," he says.

But the evidence about the declining water levels and waning health of the 2,500km (1,553 miles)-long Ganges, which supports a quarter of India's 1.3 billion people, is mounting. […]

The three-month-long summer is barely weeks away but water availability in India's 91 reservoirs is at its lowest in a decade, with stocks at a paltry 29% of their total storage capacity, according to the Central Water Commission. Some 85% of the country's drinking water comes from aquifers, but their levels are falling, according to WaterAid.

No wonder then that conflicts over water are on the rise.

Thousands of villagers in drought-hit region of Maharashtra depend on tankers for water; and authorities in Latur district, fearing violence, have imposed prohibitory orders on gatherings of more than five people around storage tanks. Tens of thousands of farmers and livestock have moved to camps providing free fodder and water for animals in parched districts. The government has asked local municipalities to stop supplying water to swimming pools.

States like Punjab are squabbling over ownership of river waters. In water-scarce Orissa, farmers have reportedly breached embankments to save their crops. […]

It is a concern you hear a lot on the river these days. At the power plant, Milan Kumar says he is "afraid that this can happen again".

"We are being told that water levels in the Ganges have declined by a fourth. Being located on the banks of one of the world's largest rivers, we never thought we would face a scarcity of water.

"The unthinkable is happening." [more]

Is India facing its worst-ever water crisis?

On 11 March 2016, extensive drought forced Farakka town in India's West Bengal state to pump water from the Ganges river for washing and cleaning. Photo: Ronny Sen / BBC News

By Bob Burton and Ashish Fernandes
24 March 2016

(RenewEconomy) – Despite the Indian Government’s determination to double or even triple domestic coal production, the power sector is now being hit by water scarcity – with a new report warning the crisis could get far, far worse.

A little over a week ago the operators of the 2100 megawatt (MW) coal-fired Farakka power station in West Bengal shut down five of the six turbines due to lack of water.

A few days later the 500 MW sixth unit was shut down as well. There wasn’t even enough water to supply the taps for workers at the plant or the adjoining township.

With the plant supplying five states, power network operators scrambled to cover demand. It is currently estimated there won’t be sufficient water to allow the plant to run until at least March 25, 13 days after the first units went offline.

The 1720 MW Raichur Thermal Power Station in Karnataka state has been hit by lack of water too. Since March 15 it has had to shut down several of its units indefinitely. With the power station shut down the plant operators are now running out of space to stockpile coal, more of which arrives by the day.

The problem is far larger than just the shutdowns of the Farakka and the Raichur plants: India is in the grip of a growing water crisis.

As of March 17 the Central Water Commission calculated water in 91 major reservoirs across the country was down to just 27 per cent of total storage capacity. This represents more than one-quarter less than the average over the last decade.

With the monsoon not due until June, the next few months could be very lean times for coal, hydro and gas power generators reliant on large volumes of water for boilers, cooling and to run turbines.

Water for power plants will either come at the expense of water for drinking, agriculture and other industries, or the power sector will be forced to do with less – or without – in times of low-flows. [more]

Drought hits Indian coal plants and expansion plans



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