Two states and a river: More power or more water?

The latest addition to India’s interstate river water conflicts, the Mahanadi will soon go water deficit if Odisha and Chhattisgarh don’t control their hunger for coal-fired power.
The Hirakud dam (Image: Makarand Purohit, India Water Portal)
The Hirakud dam (Image: Makarand Purohit, India Water Portal)

A new study, Mahanadi: Coal Rich, Water-Stressed sheds light on how both Odisha and Chhattisgarh have locked horns over the distribution of waters of the Mahanadi river. The 851-km-long river originates in the Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh, flows through the state and then Odisha before joining the Bay of Bengal at Odisha’s coast. Of late, Odisha has been complaining about the reduced flow of water at the Hirakud dam—Asia’s longest earthen dam—because of the dams and barrages constructed upstream by Chhattisgarh.

“Yet, coal-fired power plants that have put the water resources and people to severe stress have never come up for discussion between the two states. Instead, the state governments are using the river for political mileage and stoke the issue during election times,” says Ranjan Panda, the author of the study while releasing the report at an event in New Delhi recently.

Mahanadi river, local communities gasp for life

The study, undertaken with support from Heinrich Boll Stiftung, India, claims that Chhattisgarh's projects are not the only reason for the decrease in the Mahanadi river's water flow. “An IIT study showed that the water flow has decreased by around 10 percent in the Mahanadi. This is mainly due to the decrease in rainfall caused by climate change. The government's own sources found a substantial increase in the temperature in the Mahanadi basin. Increasing temperatures affect the water retention capability of a river basin. It, therefore, means that one cannot hold the dams and barrages of Chhattisgarh responsible for the decrease in the water flowing to Odisha,” the study says.

Coal-fired plants, the main culprits

The Mahanadi river downstream of Hirakud dam at Sambalpur. (Image: Priya Ranjan Sahu)Speaking at the event, Panda who is the convener of Water Initiatives Odisha, points to how the two states have been promoting the river as a “water surplus” one and have committed themselves to mining and industrialisation in the name of “development”.

"If Odisha executes its plan to generate 58,000 MW of coal-fired power in the coming decade, the water requirement will be 1,624 MCM per year, which means diverting that water from 3,24,800 hectares of farmland. If we factor in domestic water requirement too, then the plants will be using about 32.5 percent more water than is required for domestic use,” the report says. Coal-fired power plants are a major guzzler and have put water resources to stress in the Mahanadi basin. “In all these, the real issues faced by people affected by mining and thermal power plants have been put on the backburner,” adds Panda.  

The waters of the Mahanadi were colonised by the state in the Hirakud dam with no scope for participation of affected communities in the river basin management. Due to the barrages and dams upstream, the total inflow of water to Hirakud is 16,211 million cubic metre against Odisha’s requirement of 18,175 million cubic metre and the ecological flow need of 9,621 million cubic metre.

The original irrigation plan from Hirakud was to cover nearly 1.84 lakh hectare, which stands at 1.54 lakh hectare now due to the substantial increase in water allocation to industries from the reservoir. People were forcefully evicted from their land, forest and water resources in the name of development in this coal belt of India. Odisha and Chhattisgarh have 24 percent and 16 percent respectively of India’s coal reserves.

“The first major protest was in October 2006 when 30,000 farmers in Odisha formed a human chain along the Hirakud dam demanding that the state scrap its plan of giving away 478 cusec water to industries, fearing that it would further shrink the irrigation coverage. The assurance was provided to farmers by the then chief minister that not a single drop of water meant for farmers would be diverted to industries, but water diversion to industries continued unabated. The river has been completely sold out to industries by both Chhattisgarh and Odisha governments,” says Richard Mahapatra of the Centre for Science and Environment, a panelist at the event.

Two states at loggerheads over Mahanadi waters

The recent conflict between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over Mahanadi waters is the latest addition to India’s long list of interstate river water conflicts. The conflict started in July 2016 when Odisha objected to the construction of some barrages in upstream stretches of the river in Chhattisgarh. This, Odisha argued, would deprive its farmers of water, while Chhattisgarh maintained that it was well within its rights to build the barrages to expand irrigation facilities for farmers in the state. Soon, this snowballed into a major political fight and Odisha sought the Centre’s intervention in the matter. In the meantime, developments in the Mahanadi basin continued to create a dangerous cocktail of heat and pollution.

Dialogue, not tribunal can resolve Mahanadi issue

Tribunals may not be effective in dealing with issues of reviving a river, or giving rights to farmers or fisherfolks and other indigenous communities. (Image: Manas Nayak; CC BY-SA 4.0)Following a Supreme Court order to sort out the longstanding dispute between Odisha and Chattisgarh, the Centre formed a Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal early this year over the sharing of water from the river. “The two states do not have a legacy of water conflict. Being a very recent interstate river water dispute of India, the case offers an opportunity to understand the conflict and its new dimensions. Odisha has a rich and glorious legacy of mobilisation of local people resisting displacement and other forms of social exploitation,” says Mahapatra.

The report states that the two states should build interstate cooperation and keep the door open for dialogue instead of fighting the issue at a tribunal. “Tribunals have not proven effective so far and will not be able to deal with issues of reviving a river or giving rights to farmers or fisher folks and other indigenous communities. Tribunals do not adhere to any specific principle of judging water and may, at the most, work out a formula of water sharing out of the existing water. This formula may or may not be adhered to by the states in conflict,” says Panda.

Also, interstate disputes are long drawn out processes where scarcity, or a perceived notion of scarcity, let the conflict continue for years without an end in sight. “The two states should reject the idea of large dams, of interlinking of the Mahanadi with the Godavari and work towards recognising the Mahanadi’s “right to life”. Odisha and Chhattisgarh should sit together for talks and form a joint, strategic action for the proper management of the Mahanadi's water. They should not allow the Mahanadi conflict to become a political fight between ruling parties of both the states,” Panda says.

The report warns against conflict mongering without seriously looking into the consequences. It puts forth a two-pronged approach to deal with the Mahanadi crisis—the legal recourse and the peace and cooperation building, while preferring the latter. There is also a need to collect more authentic data about the river basin’s water-holding aspects, the report says.

The governments should immediately work out a green energy plan for the basin and phase out coal-fired power plant by a fixed target year, maybe by 2030. Besides, there is a need for both states to work together on climate change mitigation and suitable resilience-building programmes that enhance the coping capacity of communities towards drought. The report also suggested the need to recognise community rights over resources and to ensure their participation in river management.

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