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Climate change and the tussle between industry and agriculture over decreasing amount of water from the Hirakud dam on the Mahanadi River in Odisha is a recipe for repeated disasters and perennial unrest

Hirakud dam (Photo by Joydeep Gupta)

Hirakud dam (Photo by Joydeep Gupta)

Jharsuguda in western Odisha is in the heart of India’s coal, steel and aluminium industries. To a great extent the profits from these industries go far away while the damage to land and water stays there, and flows downstream.

India’s sixth largest river Mahanadi (Great River), which flows through this region, was wounded before the industries were established. Now, the situation is worse. See the previous report in this series: Coal power plant blights lives

The first wound to the river came with the construction of the Hirakud dam, which began operation in 1957. The dam was supposed to stem flooding in coastal Odisha, supply irrigation water to thousands of farmers, and provide electricity and drinking water, says Arthabandhu Mishra, retired professor of life sciences at Sambalpur University. It’s failing on all three counts, he adds.

According to the original plan, coastal Odisha would be saved from flood by the joining of two hills at the Hirakud dam site, thus creating the 25-km-long earthen, concrete and masonry dam. It is so long that one cannot see from one end to the other.

But the floods on the coast were not fully controlled after the dam was built, partly because nobody calculated the flow of the Mahanadi’s downstream tributaries, according to Mishra.  The flows in those rivers were not being recorded at the time, so engineers “were just guessing,” he says. “But that doesn’t work.”

Major floods

Major floods in coastal Odisha have continued since the construction of the dam — in 1961, 1982, 1994 and 2001 — due to a variety of flaws in the system. Even when the dam was being planned, concerns were raised about the lack of proper technical and feasibility studies. But India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to go ahead. India’s planners of that era were under the spell of projects modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority, built in the 1930s during the heyday of American dam building. India’s central government currently favours a similar approach for managing its rivers, as envisioned in the interlinking of rivers scheme.

Historian Rohan D’Souza believes the historical choices about water and flood management in the Mahanadi basin can be traced to economic and political forces at work in colonial India and later in the young republic. Many embankments preceded the construction of the Hirakud dam. The failure of the embankments to control floods led eventually to the dam. The river became an entirely different hydraulic entity, harnessed for irrigation and hydroelectricity. As D’Souza says in his book Drowned and Dammed, the “majestic Mahanadi, from a flashy, capricious, torrential river, was to be physically transformed into a sequence of calibrated flows, intended in the final instance to be harnessed as a unit of capital.”

The land now covered by the 45-km-long reservoir behind the dam was once a rich agricultural area, says Mishra, who has talked to people who lived there in the 1950s. He heard stories about farmers refusing to leave their lands. Local police “had to lift people like luggage and throw them into trucks.  Horrible stories.”

Now farmers in Odisha are increasingly unable to benefit from the irrigation water the dam and its reservoir promised to deliver. Mishra says almost half the capacity of the reservoir has been reduced by silt deposits in the 60 years since the dam was built. Supplies of the promised irrigation water will continue to diminish as more silt accumulates.

Farmers lose to industry

Farmers desperate for irrigation water have had to contend with another threat – industries that also need water from the Mahanadi. Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the two states that share the river, both have rich coal seams. Coal-fired power plants dot the region, and more are on the drawing board. They vie with farmers for water; the farmers often lose out.

Ranjan Panda, a researcher and water activist from western Odisha’s largest city Sambalpur, says “the huge coal deposits along the Mahanadi basin across Odisha and Chhattisgarh have become its curse.” He cites the decisions of a committee formed in 1990 by the Odisha government, which decided to divert water to industry “despite the fact that the Mahanadi was already a water-stressed river, and at a time when farmers had not yet received the irrigation water promised to them.”

According to Panda, the system is skewed toward industrial allocations because industry “needs complete access to water 24/7, all year long. Farmers receive water in a controlled manner during two cropping seasons.” Farmers have begun to agitate about the large diversions to industry but have not seen additional water yet.

Climate change effect

Now climate change is reducing the total amount of water in the basin, so that both industry and agriculture are vying for an increasingly shrinking pool.

A recent study done by researchers at IIT Bombay shows that the Mahanadi’s flow has decreased more than 10%, due largely to a decrease in rainfall in the basin. Panda says officials have not been factoring such studies into the way they allocate water to agriculture and industry. Reduced rainfall combined with heavy silt deposits in the reservoir behind the Hirakud dam lead Panda to believe that the reservoir will be virtually useless in 20 years, leaving both industry and agriculture high and dry. The dam was designed to last 100 years, but many believe it will become useless much sooner than 2057.

Panda says he tried to alert officials in the region to the dangers of climate change in the early 1990s. At that point most people laughed at him. Now government officials are fully aware of climate change, Panda notes, but as yet there is little understanding of how climate change compounds the challenges of managing this or any of India’s river basins.

Tussle for water

Panda says government promises to industries have essentially transferred rivers in the Mahanadi basin from public to private hands. “Industrial houses and mining have been allocated water that was not part of the initial plan. Both Odisha and Chhattisgarh governments claim to be fighting for farmers in their respective states. But the real cause of the shortage of irrigation water seems to be the agreements both governments have signed for supplying Mahanadi water to a large number of thermal (coal-fired) power plants.”

Even hydropower generation is being subverted by industry’s need for water. Hirakud dam used to produce more than 300 megawatts, according to Panda, but now power generation is sacrificed to retain water for industries. “At times generation goes down to 10 megawatts or even lower—even though the reservoir is full. The water is there, but they are not generating power. We think they are holding the water for industry. Essentially, it’s become a privatized dam. It was intended to be at the service of the state and its people.”

Next: Water, energy, food needs have to be balanced

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