Indian Water Crisis Shuts Down Multiple Power Plants

A severe water crisis gripping India this year has forced several of the country’s hydroelectric and thermal power plants to shut down.

At least 10 of India’s 29 states have been stricken by severe drought after the monsoons failed for two seasons in a row (as of the start of July, the monsoons had still not arrived, though meteorologists have predicted an above-normal season). More than 330 million people—about a quarter of the country’s population—have been affected by the drought, including farmers, who have suffered debilitating crop losses.

Just as damaging to India’s recent economic triumphs is how the water scarcity has affected its power sector. Minister of Power Piyush Goyal in May told parliament that India had sufficient power overall to serve its citizens but listed several plants that had been forced to close in eastern, central, and southern India—some for days, others for weeks, and at least a few of them for months.

Considering lost generation, analysts have estimated that at least $350 million in profits have evaporated for the coal power sector alone. The plants’ afflicted owners are the National Thermal Power Corp. (NTPC), India’s giant state-owned generator, as well as Adani Power, GMR, Mahagenco, and Karnataka Power Corp. The affected plants include five units (totaling 1.6 GW) at NTPC’s 2.1-GW Farakka plant in West Bengal, which has implications for neighboring states that depend on the plant for power: Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha. Also affected were four units (2.6 GW) at Adani’s 3.3-GW Tiroda plant in Maharashtra. Units at Mahagenco’s 1.1-GW Parli power plant in Maharashtra have been shut down repeatedly since 2013, as the plant has been paralyzed after the nearby Khadka dam almost dried up. Mahagenco is reportedly mulling a plan to use reclaimed water from a water treatment facility about 60 kilometers away but may shun the solution for its high costs.

India’s hydropower plants have been badly stricken as well. According to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, the nation’s hydropower generation has dropped nearly 20% compared to 2015, even as 1.5 GW of new hydro capacity was installed. At one point in early May, for example, the 1-GW Tehri hydroelectric dam, India’s tallest, had no usable water stored in its reservoir on the Bhagirathi River in the Himalayas, even though it is designed to hold 2.6 billion cubic meters (Figure 2).

water crisis

2. Dry descent. The first phase of the Tehri Dam on India’s Bhagirathi River, a headstream of the Ganges, was completed in 2005 after more than 25 years of construction. The dam has a height of 260 meters and is the fifth tallest in the world. Yet a severe drought gripping parts of India has severely reduced the dam’s generation capacity. Courtesy: India Water Resources Information System

Despite the water crisis, India has forecast that it may have a 1.1% power surplus by March 2017, and Minister Goyal has even told reporters that the Modi administration’s target of providing “power for all” could be achieved two years ahead of schedule in 2019. That achievement would be laudable, considering that the power deficit was as high as 13% about a decade ago. But skeptics caution that the numbers are optimistic because, though India has made big gains in its coal power output (despite supply issues) and has launched measures to reform state distribution companies, state utilities don’t always report their numbers accurately, presumably for political credit. Also, the nationwide power surplus number conceals wide regional variations. Only the western region of India would in 2017 actually boast a surplus at 6.9%. The eastern states still suffer a 10.3% deficit, the northeastern region, an 8.3% deficit, and the northern states, a 1.8% deficit.

However, the anticipated surplus was a factor in the government’s notable decision this June to cancel plans for four ultra-mega power plants—a combined 16 GW—that had been planned in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh. Other factors include community resistance to compulsory land acquisition for the plants, along with forced resettlement, and Goyal’s much-publicized mission to halt the import of thermal coal into the country.

Sonal Patel, associate editor