Mahanadi: Coal Rich, Water Stressed

Mahanadi: Coal Rich, Water Stressed Featured

By;Ranjan Panda

Posted; Odishabarta 

Sambalpur,15/01/19:“While the tribunal has already been formed, the states should not shut the door to dialogue. The need of the hour for Mahanadi is a joint strategic action between both the major riparian states to help the river survive the stress and get rejuvenated.” 

The Mahanadi is already struggling for its life because of excessive exploitation of the water by industrialisation and negative impacts of climate change. The river certainly cannot afford such a conflict. The history of India’s inter-state disputes tells us that scarcity, or a perceived notion of scarcity, lets the conflict continue for years without an end in sight whenever it starts.

The research found out that while the inter-state dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh centred on reduced flow of water at the Hirakud reservoir because of the dams and barrages constructed upstream, the impact of coal mines and thermal power plants (TPPs), and other industries did not come up for discussion. This is because both the states have committed themselves to mining and industrialisation in the name of ‘development’ and have been promoting the Mahanadi as a ‘water surplus’ river for inviting more investment into mining and industrial sector. The research tries to highlight some such real issues being faced by people affected by mining and thermal power plants.

Being the youngest inter-state river water dispute of India, this case offers a lot of opportunities to understand the new dimensions of conflict that the earlier conflicts had not dealt with at least while being fought in the tribunals or courts. Impacts of coal fired power plants and climate change are such new dimensions.

When the ISRWD Act was promulgated, there was not much concern about water scarcity in general and ground water in specific. Even the concerns with regard to climate change impacts were also not addressed. While these aspects started to be highlighted in various disputes at later stage of their arguments, the climate change aspect has just set in conflicts such as the Mahanadi. Of course, not much by government but by people like us.

The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 have utterly failed to play their parts in managing ecological status and pollution levels of our rivers. Interestingly, these laws should have also played a major role in inter-state rivers by bringing in ecology protection and pollution control of river basins. However, they have been used mostly as instruments to clear more industrial projects, forest diversion, dam projects and other so called development projects that have ultimately caused decay in our rivers.

Dams the major conflict area 

Dams are built for thousands of years.  Water management approach of the country has basically been centred around large dams under the ‘Control Approach’. That is the reason most of the interstate river water disputes are centred around such dams. Control gives rise to conflict. Engineers are the most important influencers to ‘develop’ river basins by constructing dams, barrages, projects in which common people and other sectoral experts linked to rivers do not play any important role.  It’s all about ‘controlling the Nature’. 

Mahanadi conflict also revolves around dams and barrages and so far the debate is centered only around reduction of flow due to these structures. No doubt, the reduction of flows because of upstream dams or barrages or even because of heavy upstream water use (apart from affecting the availability of water) can have serious environmental/ecological impacts in the downstream areas, but they are not limited to that. In a basin like Mahanadi and many other basins where there is vast destruction of forests and hence top soil, there are many more ecological concerns.The Mahanadi conflict, therefore, has a lot more to solve than just reduced water flow. Just depending on the tribunal order may not serve the whole purpose. 

Why the Tribunals won’t bring real solutions? 

Tribunals in India don’t adhere to any specific principle of judging water conflicts. Even when a tribunal addresses a conflict based on the principle of ‘optimum utilisation of resource for all inhabitants’, there would remain many gaps – in so far as ensuring rights of the resources to local communities – because the ‘optimisations’ are largely dependent on the ‘water development’ models promulgated by the state machineries which are influenced by engineering designs that revolve around ‘control of the resources through large structures.’ 

The Mahanadi dispute has now gone to a tribunal.  However, Odisha – the self-proclaimed ‘victim state’– should understand that inter-state water disputes are lengthy affairs. Interstate water disputes in India often prolong over long periods and tend to recur. Take for example the Cauvery Tribunal which took almost 17 years to give its final award. All other tribunals also took long years but disputes have every chance to recur. 

Odisha – Chhattisgarh Conflict started in June 2016 

Odisha’s complaint basically is centred on six barrages that Chhattisgarh was building upstream without consulting them, and that the central government was favouring the upper riparian state in this alleged illegal act. Odisha wanted an immediate halt to all such constructions and do an assessment of their impact on the Mahanadi flow that, according to Odisha, has already reduced a lot over the decades.  “The annual flow of water in the Mahanadi in Odisha is 20 million cubic feet and if water is intercepted for storage by the upstream state, the flow will fall sharply,” the state’s engineer-in-chief had said then when he had been asked to investigate into Chhattisgarh’s illegalities. 

Odisha apprehends that when all these barrages start operating in tandem, Mahanadi will be converted to an elongated pool, with storage potential of just 829 MCM of water during non-monsoon period. These barrages may actually reduce the non-monsoon flow in a normal year to the tune of 1,074 MCM and can also arrest base flow during weak monsoon years. The Odisha government’s apprehensions seem to be right and justified. Most of these barrages have been built under guise of irrigation but huge quantity of water has already been allocated to industries. These are in fact major projects as can be visible from the gates, height and catchment area interception of the barrages. 

Mahanadi and Coal – 

Odisha and Chhattisgarh are two of the richest mineral bearing states of India. Chhattisgarh ranks second in the country in coal production and contributes over 18 per cent to the total national production. The Chhattisgarh government sources say they have signed MoUs for about 1,40,000 MW of coal fired power plants including the captive power plants (CPPs). Most of these have come up, or will come up in the Mahanadi basin. 

With 75.799 billion tonnes of coal reserve, Odisha occupies almost 24.72 percent of coal reserves in India. In the Ib Valley coalfields, which covers almost entire Mahanadi catchment, holds 24.830 billion tonnes of coal. Various estimates show that Odisha is planning to generate about 58,000 MW of coal fired power. 

Mahanadi coal field areas are critically polluted both in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. People who have sacrificed for mines are now languishing in pitiable conditions without most of basic amenities. Drinking water sources face acute pollution. Visiting villages like Darlipali in the coal belt of the basin, one gets a confirmation that the inter-state river water dispute is going to become worse in the future. 

Kelo dam built in 2012 on Bad Kelo river that joins the Mahanadi just ahead of the Hirakud reservoir obstructs a major tributary of Mahanadi thereby affecting hundreds of villagers downstream Odisha whose lives and livelihoods are completely dependent on this river. Industries are drawing water from this dam built as an irrigation dam. 

The Odisha government’s current concern, however, is that due to blockage of water by Chhattisgarh it might face problems in supplying water to industries. It is implied from the villagers’ views and Odisha’s moves. 

The irony is that most of these villagers, be it in Ib basin or Kelo basin, had been displaced by the Hirakud dam project in 1950s and they are yet to get basic minimum amenities. Chhattisgarh villagers are fighting similar battles. 

Coal fired power plants – 

Hirakud Reservoir, the major dam project over Mahanadi and the genesis of conflict between the two states, is surrounded by a lot of thermal power plants. The existence of so many power plants and the fly ash dumping by the same has been a major worry for the local people as well as for the health of the river and reservoir. 

If Odisha achieves its plan to generate 58,000 MW of coal fired power in the coming decade or so, the total water requirement will be 1,624 MCM water per year, which would mean a direct diversion of water from 3,24,800 ha of farm land. Further, if we calculate this against the domestic water requirement then the plants will be using about 32.5 per cent more water than the domestic water requirement. 

Then coal fired power plants are biggest Green House Gas (GHG) emitters. Considering that 1,000 MW thermal power would generate 5 million tons of carbon, the Government itself admits that Odisha’s energy sector will generate 9 billion tons of carbon over a 30-year period. This is almost 30.7 per cent of the total GHG contribution of India (at current levels). So, the thermal power plant belts of the state will not only eat up all the local water sources but also generate heat and pollution to the extent that these areas will experience drastic reduction in agricultural production and hence push thousands of villages to food insecurity. 

Similar path of growth and industrialisation being pursued by neighbouring Chhattisgarh will make Odisha further vulnerable, as many of its plants will draw water from the Mahanadi. The cumulative impact of thermal power generation in both these states will have multiple devastating impacts on the region’s ecology and will make us further water insecure. The fly ash disposal will need thousands of hectares of land and will thus render a lot of land barren. Besides they will suck up a lot of water from the basin. A state that is already on a fast track of desertification due to heavy land degradation will have multiple challenges to face. 

Mahanadi conflict and marginalisation of local communities – 

There have been constant fights for water between industries and farmers both in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. 

One needs to understand the biggest ever conflict over water that is going on between farmers and industries.  478 cusec of water in Odisha is allocated to industrial units from Hirakud reservoir which would have given irrigation to 4,78,000 acres of command area irrigation. 

The original plan of irrigation from the Hirakud Dam project was to cover nearly 1,84,000 ha of land. But it was reduced to about 1,54,000 ha of land in the Hirakud command area. While Hirakud has failed to meet its irrigation targets, the industrial allocation of water has increased by manifold. 

Farmers of the basin are now affected by multiple factors such as global climate change is certainly playing havoc and the impacts are being aggravated by local climatic variations that may have been fuelled by the industrial development around the Hirakud reservoir. 

Hirakud reservoir has led to a process of desertification around it. Hirakud reservoir, like many other large reservoirs in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, is home to one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The ecological damage that the vast reservoir has caused has been largely overlooked over the years. The reservoir submerged a vast stretch of rich and diverse forest, which included Jamda reserve forest and a large portion of the present Debrigarh reserve forest. 

The increased pest attack on farmlands is an indicator of climate change impact. 

The Mahanadi basin is creating a dangerous cocktail of heat, pollution and empathetic system for the farmers. At the one end, the basin has been opened for rampant coal mining and industrialisation including coal-fired power plants that is contributing to both global and local warming, and at the other end, it is not providing ample support for the local communities to cope with the disasters. While the irrigated belt of the basin are facing problems because their share of assured irrigation water is now being diverted to industries, the communities from the non-irrigated belts are fighting with increasingly scarce and inaccessible water resources. 

Concluding remarks – 

The Mahanadi conflict, like all other inter-state water conflicts, has become more of a political fight between ruling parties of both the involved states. A number of actors have already played a role in exacerbating the conflict. They include bureaucrats, opposition political parties, technocrats, organisations fighting for human and environmental rights, so on and so forth. There is a common perception among some sections of society, both in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, that the governments’ involvement in the fight is more about votes than the real water crisis in the basin. 

To find a solution to the crisis, both the governments first need to admit that Mahanadi is a deficit river.  Both the Chhattisgarh and Odisha governments have been treating the Mahanadi in the same way by according industrial houses more priority than irrigation. 

As it happens in most of the cases, the conflict – that starts from a perception of scarcity – has led to a bigger political battle than real efforts to solve the problem. 

At the moment, the solution of Mahanadi conflict seems to be hanging around the formation of a tribunal. However, many experts who have worked on the ISRWD Act believe this is a toothless Act and ultimately the Supreme Court comes into deciding the fate of such disputes. Some of them have even suggested repealing the Act altogether. 

While the tribunal has already been formed, the states should not shut the door to dialogue. The need of the hour for Mahanadi is a joint strategic action between both the major riparian states to help the river survive the stress and get rejuvenated. Statistics provided by Odisha confirms that there has been reduced flow of water at Hirakud and that means a great danger for farmers, fisherfolk and other people downstream, especially in the non-monsoon periods. However, there is no comprehensive study at the moment to tell us how exactly that is an impact of the dams and barrages built by Chhattisgarh. 

The water yields show decreases of more than 10 per cent for the Mahanadi. (A recent IIT study) This is mainly because of significant decreases in rainfall caused by climate change. The government’s own sources find a substantial increase in temperature in the Mahanadi basin. While in the year 1999-2000, the minimum and maximum temperature of the basin ranged between 7 degree Celsius and 45.5 degree Celsius, it went up to a range between 13 degree Celsius to 48.8 degree Celsius by 2012. Consistently increasing temperature affects water retention capacity of a basin negatively. 

It therefore means that one cannot singularly hold the dams and barrages of Chhattisgarh responsible for the decrease in water flow to Odisha. And it also brings to the fore the need of dialogue between both the states to combat climate change in a joint strategy. At present, the basin seems to be both a major contributor to climate change as well as is bearing a huge impact of the same. 

Dams do a lot of damage to rivers and the damage to Mahanadi system had already started with the Hirakud Dam seventy years ago. Dams alter the flow pattern in a river, which in turn affects its aquatic biota. Scientific studies have found out that the populations of the sensitive species in the reservoirs and downstream of the dams/ barrages decline manifold. In Mahanadi, as our study finds out, fisherfolk have observed drastic reduction in fish catch and diversity both. That is mainly due to the Hirakud Dam, they said. 

Chhattisgarh has been asking Odisha to utilise the water that is “getting wasted” into the sea. 

There is also a constant lobby inside Odisha – especially among the politicians-bureaucrats-engineers-contractors lobby – to construct one of the two more dams on the Mahanadi main river as that had been envisaged in the original Hirakud project. Besides, there has been a constant attempt by the Odisha government to construct a dam at Sindhol, just a few kilometres below Hirakud, which has somehow been halted so far due to strong protest by local people and ecologists. 

One (Tikarpada) of the two dam projects conceived in addition to Hirakud in original project has now been shifted to Manibhadra at a location above the Satkosia gorge. To explain its position as a victim state, Odisha has claimed that reduced water flow in the Mahanadi will badly affect the Satkosia gorge’s ecology. The central government has been pushing for the project at Manibhadra as part of the Mahanadi-Godavari link of the grand Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) programme and the state government has not yet refused the proposal in concrete terms. Locals are opposing the same. 

Both the riparian states have asserted their rights to grab water from the river to feed the increasing demand of the industries, coal fired power plants and urban areas. Farmers are losing their rights over Mahanadi water. What the Mahanadi needs is ecological rejuvenation, and not dam building. Conflict mongering people must, therefore, refrain from such demands. Or else, Odisha will have to engage itself with many battles: one with Chhattisgarh, and several with its own people – farmers, fisherfolk, forest dwellers and ecologists. Let the conflicts lead to cooperation, not dams! 


A two pronged solution could be approached: 1. Legal recourse that the states can take under the current law, and 2. Peace and cooperation building for river basin management. 

Legal recourse – 

The Mahanadi dispute is already in the tribunal. However, the fact that the Act under which this tribunal has been formed has been put to serious questions. A larger debate on this is needed at national level to change and/or update this Act or bring in new Acts. Even a common tribunal, that is to be formed under provisions of National Water Policy, is not going to solve the conflicts. 

It is time to recognise the ‘rivers’ right to life’ in line with the right enjoyed by Indian citizens, and help them flow freely in healthy conditions. The governments should help cater to the needs of riparian communities, maintain biodiversity and other priorities in a sustainable manner. 

However, as experts believe and many cases described in our study report amply depict, just a legal discourse is not going to solve a river water dispute. River basin management needs to be approached in a holistic manner. 

The NWP 2012 has already dealt with a set of recommendations in this regard by talking about various aspects that need to be taken care of in case of river management. The NWP says: “There is need for comprehensive legislation for optimum development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to facilitate inter-sate coordination ensuring scientific planning of land and water resources taking basin/ sub-basin as unit with unified perspectives of water in all its forms (including precipitation, soil moisture, ground and surface water) and ensuring holistic and balanced development of both the catchment and the command areas. Such legislation needs, inter alia, to deal with and enable establishment of basin authorities, comprising party states, with appropriate powers to plan, manage and regulate utilization of water resource in the basin”. Of course basin authorities have not been effective in India so far. 

The problem with the tribunals is that they have accepted the term ‘river development’ in a way that means building more dams and projects that alter the flow and impact the ecology of the rivers. It is therefore very difficult to say what course a river water dispute will take in the court of law under an act that itself has been considered weak and even unwanted. 

The NWP however has many positive prescriptions to make that may add to river conservation and rejuvenation. “Conservation of rivers, river corridors, water bodies and infrastructure should be undertaken in a scientifically planned manner through community participation…..; and, encroachments and diversion of water bodies (like rivers, lakes, tanks, ponds, etc.) and drainage channels (irrigated area as well as urban area drainage) must not be allowed, and wherever it has taken place, it should be restored to the extent feasible and maintained properly.”   

A joint action plan between both the major riparian states of Mahanadi is needed to preserve all the surface water bodies. 

Way back in 1975, the Central Water Commission (CWC) had circulated a “Model Bill on Flood Plain Zoning” for the state governments to take it up as a model for freeing flood plains from encroachments by empowering the authorities appropriately. This needs to be revived and both states need to work together on freeing floodplains from all sorts of encroachment and constructions. 

Under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, a river zone regulation was to be promulgated to protect riverbeds from any harmful constructions in future. It is yet to be done. Both Odisha and Chhattisgarh need to take this up as an urgent action and work towards bringing in force a strict river regulation zone which can help in proper river basin planning and management, and hence help the rivers from decaying further and also in reducing flood furies. 

Disputes in case of a conflict like the Mahanadi also have many of their seeds in how both the states are dealing with the Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006. Forest areas managed in the basin both by the government and communities need a synchronised effort without which it is not possible to protect the ecology and water retention capacity of the basin.  In fact, community rights over forests can play a vital role in river rejuvenation. That is why both the states should work towards recognising right of local communities including the indigenous communities on forests in the basin. 

The central government is diluting norms and allowing thermal power plants to pollute more. The need of the hour is to bring in strict regulations to stop pollution of the river and work towards enforcing them. 

A cooperation agenda with which both governments and other stakeholders can work – 

No further large dam building and no to interlinking of rivers (ILR) - 

The Odisha govt, to make its argument strong against Chhattisgarh, mentioned about “ILR being a dream project of the central government that may be affected ifChhattisgarh continues with its dam and barrage plans.” 

That is ironical as Odisha is fighting with Chhattisgarh against dams with an argument that reduced water flow will impact ecological hotspots in the lower basin negatively. But by encouraging the ILR, it supports more large dams in Odisha such as the Manibhadra that communities in Odisha are opposing. Large dams and river linking project will further aggravate conflicts and marginalise the local communities, as has been the case almost everywhere. The Mahanadi states should therefore agree to not build any further large dams and say no to the ILR plan as the Mahanadi is already a stressed river and has no water to be flown to the Godavari. 

Commonly agreed scientifically verified facts about the river water - 

Both the state governments have contradictory sets of data that have been presented to suit their positions. The need is for considering rights of the local and indigenous communities to the resources that are dependent on and part of the larger ecosystem of the Mahanadi basin. As such also, Indian governance is yet to demonstrate any foolproof mechanism to verify opposing facts and figures by warring states. Without having a comprehensive assessment of the basin’s water holding scenario vis-à-vis rights of people over these, any strong monitoring can hardly be guaranteed. 

It is important to have at least a baseline of commonly agreed facts and scientifically verified indicators of water management and utilisation that can be available for monitoring progress of the cooperation agreements or tribunal orders. 

Comprehensive ecological impact assessment and ecological restoration of catchment areas - 

The Odisha government’s position on ‘ecology’ in the conflict so far can be a good point to be taken up by the tribunal. In fact, among all the inter-state disputes, this seems to be a new dimension in the Mahanadi conflict, as far as the major focus of the ‘victim state’ is concerned. 

Odisha has also been projecting the Mahanadi delta as an ecologically sensitive zone, and rightly so. However, Odisha too has not done enough to maintain the basin ecology that started getting destroyed with the construction of the Hirakud Dam. Then, many issues raised by Odisha with regard to problems in its ecological hotspots are also creation of the Hirakud Dam. Now, Chhattisgarh dams and barrages will add to the woes. Odisha and Chhattisgarh have wasted the opportunity of protecting the Mahanadi catchment jointly. 

Green energy agenda - 

India‘s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) targets to lower the emissions intensity of GDP by 33 per cent to 35 per cent by 2030 (below 2005 levels), to increase the share of non-fossil based power generation capacity to 40 per cent of installed electric power capacity (equivalent to 26-30 per cent of generation in 2030), and to create an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5-3 GtCO2e through additional forest and tree cover. 

To meet INDC targets as well as to take real green actions, India needs to bring in a strong integrated approach of GHG emissions by linking all sectors. While the focus on reducing emissions from fossil fuels is essential and must be the major focus, destruction of environment due to the existing coal fired power plants and other industries have to be looked into in sync with this. 

The Mahanadi basin is perfect example of how coal fired power plants have put the resources and people to severe stress. The governments should immediately work out a green energy plan for the basin and phase out coal by a fixed target year, may be by 2030. 

Climate change, drought proofing and ecological rejuvenation of river - 

It is already established that the Mahanadi river basin is being seriously affected by climate change. Drought has become a regular phenomenon in the river and both states are doing a lot of drought relief operations. 

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. For this to happen, all their irrigation, forest conservation, food and nutrition security programmes need to be integrated with each other. 

Flood management – 

Now, with growing conflicts and more number of dams and barrages, it becomes important to have a better coordination mechanism on flood management operations. The Odisha government has recently announced a real-time monitoring system of flood data in the Mahanadi. However, we cannot assess its effectiveness unless they coordinate with Chhattisgarh dams and review the rule curve. 

Sea rise and cyclones - 

The Bay of Bengal, in which Mahanadi falls, is one of the most vulnerable seas to climate change. What is worrying is the fact that fossil fuel based industries and power plants that are responsible for causing more cyclones are a dual problem for this bay: 1. Because of the global climate change, and 2. Because the mad rush for coal fired power plants in the Mahanadi basin, which may be a local driver of it. The rise in sea surface temperature (SST) is largely driven by global temperature rise due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere. According to scientists, rise in SST is a major cause of increased intensity of cyclones that ravage the Bay of Bengal from time to time. Worrisome also is the fact that mangrove forests, the richest among which are found in this bay, are also shrinking fast due to “development”. Mangrove forests act as a natural shield against cyclones. 

Both Odisha and Chhattisgarh need to work in tandem by integrating their climate change action plans, to mitigate these challenges faced by the Bay of Bengal that is already affecting the coastal communities in Mahanadi delta heavily. Sea rise, increasing damages by cyclones, relocation and rehabilitation of people affected by inundation of the sea, saline ingression, etc., are some of the aspects which need urgent attention in a Mahanadi cooperation agenda. 

Recognising community right over resources and ensuring their participation in river management - 

There is no scope for participation of affected communities in river basin management. In fact, there is no law that governs participation of communities in this. The NWP 2012 has a mention about need for community participation but the governments keep following business as usual approach in taking up all development projects. 

When it comes to the coal belts of the Mahanadi, on which majority of our field study focussed, people are forcefully evicted from their land, forest and water resources in the name of ‘development’ and then have no participation whatsoever in how these development projects work. The government mechanisms to monitor the compliance of rehabilitation, environment legislations and pollution of water resources are also flawed and the institutions show a great deal of complacency and inefficiency. 

This needs to change. People should not only be ensured right to the resources but also right to basic amenities such as drinking water. Diversion of irrigation water to industries should be made under a sustainability framework that makes the distribution between all stakeholders equitable without marginalising the local and indigenous communities.



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