A new report by Greenpeace raises alarming questions over diversion of water from irrigation for thermal power plants in the region which is grappling with an acute agrarian crisis.

While ‘Coalgate’ grabbed headlines and stalled Parliament, a new report by Greenpeace raises alarming questions over diversion of water from irrigation for thermal power plants in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra which is grappling with an acute agrarian crisis.

It was ironic that after a much publicised visit to Vidarbha, Prime Minister . Manmohan Singh’s relief package to the region in 2006 promised irrigation covering 1.59 lakh hectares in three years, at a cost of Rs. 2,177 crore. However, the government has proposed at least 71 coal-based thermal power plants which could add to the existing water woes of the region. The Greenpeace’s report, “Endangered Waters, Impacts of Coal Fired Plants on Water Supply,” launched in August, says, “If all approvals are granted, a total of 71 thermal power plants, with a collective capacity of nearly 54,697 MW will have been advocated for Vidarbha region by the State government. This is a total water allocation of 2,049 million cubic metres (mcm) of water per year, or the equivalent irrigation water for approximately 409,800 hectares of arable land.”

Quoting figures from the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation, Greenpeace says till December 2010, 33 power plants were approved by the State government in a region, where the irrigation backlog is the highest in the State, at over 70 per cent. Of this 11 have got environmental clearance, according to Jai Krishna, one of the report’s authors. Greenpeace obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) act, the minutes of about 20 of the 28 meetings of the High Power Committee (HPC) of the Maharashtra government on water allocation. In 11 of the meetings, it was revealed that 398.87 mcm of water was diverted from six irrigation projects to thermal power plants. In 2008, the Committee approved the diversion of water from the Upper Wardha dam to two power projects in Amravati. The amount of water for irrigation was reduced by two -thirds and there was slight drop in drinking water allocation to farmers as well, RTI documents indicated. Amravati had a backlog of 99 per cent in irrigation projects in the State in 2009-10. A massive farmer’s protest led to vague assurances of less water being diverted to one project, says Mr. Jai Krishna.

There is no cumulative impact study of all these power plants coming up in a single region and the limited water resources in the area. The Greenpeace report says, “There is no evidence that the cumulative impact of existing development on water resources is taken into consideration when setting capacity targets, or granting water allocations and environmental clearances to thermal plants and other similar development projects.”

The Greenpeace report is backed by a study by The Department of Civil Engineering of the Indian Institute of Technology , Delhi, which has analysed the present and future water demands to be placed upon the river Wardha in western Vidarbha. Data from the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation says that 27 thermal power plants, with a total water requirement of 555.52 mcm per year, are proposed to be set up in the Wardha sub-basin area alone.

The IIT study, ‘Impact of Water Resources Projects - a case study of Wardha,’ is authored by A. K. Gosain, Rakesh Khosa and Jatin Anand. As pipelines are laid to water bodies generally within 50 km, if the resource is not available directly at site, water consumed by power plants will have a direct impact on the amount of water available in that area. Given the extremely large irrigation backlog existing in Vidarbha, and the connections between this backlog and the farmer distress and suicides that haunt the region, allocating such a vast amount of water to thermal power plants would be catastrophic, says Greenpeace.