Photo: Anette TjomslandBy: Dan Morrison
The Great Indian Outage, stretching from New Delhi to Kolkata, comes just a day after 300 million people in northern India lost power for much of Monday.
It is a disaster that’s caused untold damage to India’s economy, its prestige, and its well-being – think of the millions of patients in hospitals, the commuters stuck on trains, and farmers in need of irrigation. Hundreds of miners in the states of West Bengal and Jharkand were trapped underground by the blackout. Some 300 trains were reportedly stalled across the country.
There’s more damage to come, I fear: Forces that have been bridling against environmental regulations and science-based activism will use the Great Outage as a cudgel to demolish future restraints on dam construction, coal mining, and other projects.
India’s humiliating power failure is sure to birth a slogan as reductive and wrong as America’s own “Drill Baby Drill.”
The irony is that this outage was likely caused in part by mismanagement at the Bhakra series of hydroelectric dams in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh states in northern India, according to Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
“Had these dams been operated more rationally, keeping in mind the emerging realities and forecasts, the situation in Northwest India would have been different,” Thakkar told me. “Higher [water] levels in these dams would have meant more power generation for each unit of water release and at the same time more water for agriculture, thus less water [for irrigation] pumped from aquifers, and thus less demand of power.”
Earlier this month, Thakkar’s organization published a short paper [pdf] criticizing dam administrators for allowing water levels to become alarmingly low.
Thakkar says the answer to India’s current power crisis isn’t more hydroelectric dams, as most currently existing dams aren’t built or operated for maximum efficiency. Instead, power can be saved by harvesting rainwater.
“Since most of our water is coming from groundwater, we need to store the rainfall in aquifers that are fast depleting,” he says. “This would have multiple spin-off benefits.” With healthier aquifers, farmers wouldn’t have to run electric-powered pumps as much to adequately irrigate their crops – a major drag on the power grid.
“More dams won’t help achieve that,” Thakkar says, adding that farmers should shift to less water-intensive crops. “It is amazing that, among all the crops, [acreage devoted to] sugarcane has gone up in this drought year!”
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