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A Few Urgent Issues in Harnessing Water Resources, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Power

Council of Power Utilities, India organised, in the first week of November 2008, an International Conference "Water India - V : Sustainable Water Development for Freedom and Power". I had the opportunity to deliver the valedictory address and, therefore, could get a good sense of the various Sessions and the important issues which were deliberated. Before I articulate the points made by me in the Valedictory Session, it may be appropriate to briefly touch upon various issues which were discussed in different Sessions.

  • National Water Policy (2002) stipulates that the water resources of the nation must be developed in a planned manner. Keeping in view that the entire water availability is only for 100 hrs in a year, it is important that we must create reservoirs for storing water.

  • The total power generation from hydro electric power plants in the country was 123 billion units during the year 2007-08 and the overall operating availability was of the order of 90%.

  • The Conference discussed in detail the issues relating to spillways and management of sediment. A number of power plants set up in last few decades are facing serious operational problems due to losses in reservoir storage and abrasions in turbine and other equipment. Many of these projects, while under design, did not adequately consider the issues relating to impacts of sediments.

  • In India some of the power plants which have faced serious sedimentation problems include the largest hydro electric power plants of the country, such as Natpha Jakri and Salal.

  • Large dams and reservoirs cover and regulate hardly 3,500 cubic kilometre per year. This is just about 30% of the world's available water resources. The water that is stored and regulated by dams and reservoirs provides irreplaceable water resources and benefits to water supply, irrigation, hydro power, flood mitigation, river navigation, tourism etc.

  • Irrigated areas account for 17% of world's agricultural land, but produce 40% of the total world crop yield.

  • Reservoirs play a significant role in draught and flood mitigation and one of the purposes of one fifth of the world's reservoirs is to reduce major socio-economic impact of floods.

  • Hydro power which is clean and green energy constitutes about 20% of the world's generated electricity.

  • Renovation and up rating of hydro plants has proved to be a very effective strategy. Old power plants have been rejuvenated and their life has been extended with greater vitality, renewed generation capability and above all with enhanced installed capacity.

  • Roller Compacted Concrete helps in reducing cost of construction of dam and the construction is faster which leads to reduced time of construction and therefore cost by almost 20%. Till 1985, about 26% dams were built using roller compacted concrete, but by the year 2007 the share is about 50%. In India it is less than 5%

  • Nearly 400 dams have been constructed world over using RCC in place of Conventional Vibrated Concrete. Since India has to go a long way in developing hydro power, RCC technology can be used with advantage over the conventional method.

  • Hydraulic Transient Analysis is an important study to be carried out while designing water conductor system of a hydro electric project. Every component - from intake to the turbine, viz. Headrace Tunnel, Surge Shaft, Penstocks etc. need to be checked for structural safety against high pressure. This study, therefore, needs to be carried out with due care.

In the valedictory address, I avoided a large number of issues which are all relevant to water resources and their impact on society, but focussed on a few important aspects. I outline below the issues which I articulated:

  1. The whole issue of global warming and consequences of climate change, which have assumed such a large proportion in global for a today, can be attributed to the global indifference towards water as an important energy resource. While dealing with development of energy, the world as a whole followed an easy option. We went on concentrating on fossil fuels. If we look at the large economies of the world, most of them relied heavily, for their electricity generation, on fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas.

  2. Almost all the countries in the world are endowed with water as a resource, may be in varying degrees. But, if we look at the efforts which the world as a whole have directed towards harnessing hydro potential, the proportion is hardly 20%. More than 80% of water energy remains unharnessed and gets wasted through various river systems finally into the sea.

  3. In India also, our performance is more or less in line with the global average i.e. 22% of hydro electric potential have been harnessed so far and balance 78% remains unexploited. These figures are, however, on the basis of the estimates of potentials which have been identified. But, there could be potentials, particularly in the mini and micro hydel capacities, which have not been identified and therefore they have not came into reckoning in these computations. Accordingly, the proportion of tapped potential could be even less than 20%.

  4. For economies like India, it was always the issue of laying down the required priorities. If we look at the power development strategy in last several decades, we will find that the planners were always confronted with huge shortages of power. Therefore, the priority got directed on options which could yield faster results. Though it was a short sighted approach, yet, larger reliance on quick yielding varieties such as coal based generation, gas based plants received preferences over long gestation hydro electric schemes.

  5. As a result, in last over thirty years, hydro electric potential kept on coming down from more than 40% to about 25%. In the Tenth Five Year Plan we could reverse, though marginally, this ever declining hydro electric capacity ratio.

  6. One of the other reasons of less than deserved attention to hydro energy has been the response of society to this important natural resource. In several parts of the world, including many regions of India, local people, NGO's and other stakeholders have been generally opposed to large hydro electric schemes - in fact, any large water reservoir system.

  7. It is true that invariably Hydro Schemes are associated with adverse impact on forests, sometimes on wild life and in case of Storage Schemes, on large populations who need to be resettled and rehabilitated. None of these reasons, however, could have been allowed to over way and ignore the huge benefits that these Schemes could yield for larger interests of society.

  8. Somehow the people belonging to the group which see the disadvantages associated with Hydro Schemes more, and in a disproportionate manner, as compared to the long term benefits that these Schemes bring, have succeeded and those who find merits have remained subdued in their articulation. And, as a result, the phenomenon of Hydro Schemes getting relegated to lower priorities in energy development strategy of various countries has continued, with a consequence that the world as a whole has succeeded in harnessing only 20% of the potential.

  9. One of the other important factors which have contributed to this state of affairs is the negative role played by petroleum lobby. Throughout 80's and 90's this lobby with supports from a large number of NGO's continued to play up the adverse effect of Hydro Schemes and decried the large storage based hydro electric projects. They succeeded all these years.

  10. Only in the recent three to four years, when the myth of petroleum fuel, its significance, its behaviour in terms of availability and in terms of price volatility has been exploded, the world as a whole has woken up to the ground realities and have started thinking in terms of other options as well. They are now remembering the need of nuclear and relevance of hydro electric systems.

  11. We tried our best in various global interactions and international institutions that all the hydro electric schemes irrespective of their nature (run-of-river or storage) and size, should be recognised as Renewable Energy generation. For years together, we failed to convince most of these global institutions. One does not know why and for what reasons they continued remaining stuck up on the mindset that only small Hydro Schemes such as mini and micro hydel projects could at best be treated as renewable and storage schemes and other large hydro projects should remain uncovered. It is as late as 2005 that we could succeed with the World Energy Council which in their Annual Report took up this position and recognised hydro power projects as renewable source of energy.

  12. On Policy advocacy front the track record in India is even weaker. Our efforts to explain the virtues of water energy with people, the advantages of dams in controlling floods and mitigating the hardships, and benefits of Integrated Schemes for drinking water and irrigation, have in fact been much less than they should have been. Neither the initiatives of the Government nor the efforts of the public and private sector companies have been properly conceived, structured nor have we adopted any well planned strategy to communicate and convey to the people at large that these Schemes are not only in the interest of societal benefits but they have a major role to play in addressing adequately the climate change issues. Handful of NGO's, with less informed knowledge inputs, come out with articles and books and are also successful in communicating to the public about the ill effects of hydro electric schemes in general and storage based schemes in particular, without even mentioning the advantages that these projects will fetch for the society.

  13. Therefore, there is an urgent need in India, as a matter of fact throughout the world, that we articulate the correct picture of water energy, compile how flood devastations can be prevented or atleast minimised, how drinking water problems in many parts of the world can be solved and how agricultural produce can be improved through regulated irrigation. This requires a multi pronged approach. Only individual companies cannot do this nor only Government can be expected to play this role. It is the combined efforts, in a well co-ordinated fashion, of Government agencies, companies, energy professionals, other academics and consultants and a number of NGO's who carry conviction on this subject, that can produce the desired impact of a lasting and effective communication.

  14. Having established the need for appropriate Policy advocacy in favour of development of water energy, it also needs to be brought out that there are a lot of gaps - in fact, failings - on the part of project developers as well. If we had taken up appropriate measures of rehabilitation and resettlement, with a human touch, would have created alternate townships with modern facilities, would have put in place required infrastructure so that inconveniences caused to the affected people in the area are minimised, if not eliminated, the response of society towards Hydro Schemes may have been different. We should have taken measures which should have inspired confidence among the people to a level that they would have identified their own interest with the interest of the project. We know that hydro electric projects deliver power which in the long run is perhaps the cheapest option. Therefore, somewhat, higher expenditure on rehabilitation and resettlement needed to be taken into account from that prospective. And, if that had been done, the hardships experienced by people could be totally minimised. In such a situation co-operation of local population would have made all the difference not for a project, not for a large number of hydro projects but for hydro energy as a whole.

  15. The issue is not only limited to providing a budget, even a higher budget, in the capital cost of the project, for rehabilitation, resettlement and local infrastructure. In fact, the problem is more deep rooted. There are examples where budget provision existed, adequate amount of fund was available. But, the results emerged totally unsatisfactory because of complete chaos and total mismanagement in implementation of various housing schemes, infrastructure development and other related facilities. There are also good examples where modern townships with reasonable facilities have been reciprocated by local people with better response. We need to identify role models and benchmarks of excellent rehabilitation practices. They need to be duplicated and replicated. These, together with dissemination and proper communication across the country, will lead to enhancement of confidence of people in the authorities, project development agencies and in the rationale of hydro electric schemes.

  16. On this issue the magnitude of grievances, frustrations and, therefore, resistances got compounded also on account of a very indifferent role played by the concerned State Governments where hydro electric projects have been developed in the past. The Government of India Policy provides that the State Governments would be given 12% of power generated in these projects free of cost. The objective and the spirit of this Policy is very laudable. It is meant to use the revenue generated by the State Governments from the free power allocated to them for improvement in local area infrastructure and community development activity. Experiences of last few decades of hydro electric project development indicate that negligible amount, almost nil, has been spent on these developmental activities by the concerned State Governments. Therefore, if the people of the area and the local affected population are frustrated and disappointed and therefore are resentful of these Schemes, if it is not illegitimate, we cannot say it is totally misplaced. We need to identify with their sense of anguish and frustration. Even now, State Governments need to put their acts together.

  17. Similar is the fate of the utilisation of funds created for compensatory afforestation. Project developers, as per the Policy of the Ministry of the Environment and Forest, need to deposit substantial sums of money meant for creating forests, if they have to use the forest land for developing their projects. In recent years, as per the directive of the Supreme Court, the fund as computed on the basis of Net Present Value (NPV) work out to handsome amounts. An analysis of utilisation of funds so deposited with the State Governments indicates that not even 25% of these amounts have been properly used for developing the forests. How then shall we be in a position to convince people and the NGO's that preservation of forests is being pursued seriously? Here again, a lot is required to be done by the State Governments to set right the present state of affairs.

  18. There are a large number of projects where the cost estimates are very high. Invariably these projects have good components of flood mitigation, irrigation and drinking water supply. The present Policy of loading of costs on power projects leads to these projects becoming unviable. If allocations are appropriately realigned to reasonable levels in respect of flood control, irrigation and drinking water, the power project viability can be re-established. These projects are needed for electricity, but they are badly needed to control floods and to provide much needed supply for irrigation and in many cases for drinking water in towns and cities. Unless there is proper appreciation of these needs and of the hardships, our approach towards proper allocation of costs to different components will not change. They need to change for larger interest of society.

These are some of the important issues which confront us in taking appropriate views and adopting appropriate measures in management of our water resources. An attempt has been made here to list out a few important aspects without attempting to present an exhaustive list of issues and challenges. The top most among the issues brought out in this paper is, no doubt, the challenge of creating a favourable and positive approach towards water energy which cannot be done unless we restore among the people the lost confidence by implementing suitable measures for rehabilitation and resettlement.