War for water in a 'Desert District'

War for water in a

The solar thermal power plant under construction in Anantapur district was welcomed initially by the local people. They thought the venture was...

The solar thermal power plant under construction in Anantapur district was welcomed initially by the local people. They thought the venture was 'developmental' in their backward area and the technology to be used was 'environmentally clean'. So they felt happy on those two counts. However, when they began to see later that it may affect the scarce water resources of their officially declared 'Desert District', they started to demand the Company to use less water-intensive technologies or search for alternative sources of water. Ashok Tankasala, who visited the area recently, takes a look at the issue.
Why is Ramanjaneyulu worried?
We are already having problem due to drought conditions for the last so many years. No water in the river. Bores are going down and failing. If the Company digs such a big well and draws water through such big pipes what should be our fate? ramanjaneyuluWhen I introduced myself to Talari Ramanjaneyulu, as a media man, he was instantly irritated. "So what? You will write about me and send me to jail!" He looked into my eyes straight accusing me of being "a Company man". It took a while for me to convince him that I was none of the kind and was genuinely a media representative. Ramanjaneyulu, a small farmer of Chitturu village in the Peddavadaguru Mandal of Anantapur district, had engaged a JBC and was busy getting a long trench filled with earth. The trench passed through his agricultural land. Lying around were water-pipes, some of which had already been lowered into the dug outs. The farmer was angry because "the Company people" had done all that when he was away from the village. "How can they do this in my land without my knowledge or permission?" He says when he noticed the happenings upon his return he confronted "the Company people". They promised to fill it up "but did nothing". Finally, not knowing how to deal with them, he felt compelled to engage a JBC on his own, spending a total of Rs 3,200 for a four-hour job. Ramanjaneyulu, with his young daughter listening to him keenly, and pointing his finger to his field a little away, wondered what may happen to it if the Company extracted water from the huge well built in the bed of River Penna. " We are already having problem due to drought conditions for the last so many years. No water in the river. Bores are going down and failing. If the Company digs such a big well and draws water through such big pipes what should be our fate? That is why all our people are agitated", he explained. The Company he was referring to is 'Concentrated Solar Power Project', or 'Solar Thermal Power Project', being set up by MEIL Green Power Ltd., at Nagalapuram village of Peddavaduguru Mandal in Anantapur district on the banks of River Penna. It is, as per its Project Design Document (PDD), is a 50 MW project with a financial layout of RS 765 crore. Normally speaking, a solar or solar thermal power project should not have become a matter of controversy. Using solar heat to generate power, unlike the polluting fuels of coal or oil, it is universally categorized as a 'clean energy'/ 'green energy' sector falling under Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) category. For this reason the project was submitted to the CDM Executive Board of the UNFCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) for incentives. However, the MEIL Green's Anantapur venture designed to use water regularly both for heating and cooling purposes, has attracted controversy. It is solely because the district is a drought-prone one. Because of this situation the local villagers backed by some activists and NGOs have been representing to the district administration to halt the work. They even organized an all-party meeting which expressed solidarity with them. In the last week of April Rajendar Singh, Magasaysay Awardee known as 'Water Man on India', also visited the site and addressed a letter to the Central Ground Water Board asking it to stop what he termed as an "illegal and immoral" venture. At the time of going to the press, several farmers and other protestors taken into police custody under non-bailable charges were languishing in the Anantapur jail.
Grounds for opposition
groundsThere are several reasons why there is opposition to the Anantapur Solar Thermal plant. Some of them are as follows:
  • Anantapur is a drought-prone district with an annual average rainfall of 510 mm. It is the lowest for any district in the entire South India. It was officially declared as a 'Desert District' 1995. Added to this, the average rainfall in the area where the solar plant is being constructed is still lower at 419 mm.
  • There have been no water flows in the river Penna after 2005. Ground waters in the region, even in the river bed area, have been going down. A good number of bore wells on either side of the river have already gone dry. They say the permissions given by authorities are against the WALTA Act, 2002.
  • According to villagers the Company has never told them that the unit required regular water supplies. They thought it was photo voltaic plant using solar heat alone. The Company claims that it was mentioned in public hearing that it was a 'thermal' one. But it is difficult to imagine farmers and other villagers not raising any questions regarding water extraction and usage, had they been told and explained that it was a 'thermal one, particularly in a severe drought prone area.
  • As per villagers they were told by the Company that the well in the river bed was meant for drinking water purpose. When the well turned out to be a huge one and 1 ft diameter pipes were being laid to carry water they got suspicious.
  • What will be the fate of their own small bore wells and agricultural plots located in the river bed and also along the river banks?
  • Then the very sight of five vast reservoir tanks, each spread over about 5 acres with a depth of about 20 feet, intimidate them to no end. They are "sure" that the Company will fill them with waters from the river well, various small natural channels around and continuous infiltration from the depths of the river.
  • Villagers are apprehensive that the water extraction will affect hundreds of bore wells, agriculture and drinking water availability in about 20 villages spread over Peddavadaguru and Singanamala Mandals.
The WALTA Act, 2002 says� walat9. (1) The Designated Officer, with the approval of the Authority, may prohibit water pumping by individuals, groups of individuals or private organizations in any particular area, if in his view such water pumping in such area is likely to cause damage to the level of ground water or cause deterioration or damage to natural resources or environment� 11. (2) For the purpose of sub-section (1), the technical officer shall take into consideration the quantum and pattern of rainfall, degree of extraction of ground water and any other relevant factor while advising the Authority.
'Water Man' calls it "illegal, immoral"
Rajendra Singh, Magsaysay Awardee, who is popularly known as 'Water Man of India', visited the area in the last week of April, 2013. He termed the extraction of ground water from the river as "illegal and immoral". His letter addressed to Sushil Gupta, Chairman, Central Ground Water Board, on 25th April, said: "The digging of infiltration wells and ponds would severely deprive the riparian rights of the local communities, particularly the farmers and also drinking water needs�.Establishing this kind of water intensive industry in Anantapur district is very unreasonable and unwarranted. So I request you to intervene immediately and stop the illegal and immoral extraction of the ground water from the river and protect the Water Rights of the farming communities in several villages." Singh also mentioned in the letter that he had come to know that "this kind of plants are being prohibited from drawing fresh water in the arid regions like California State of USA. They are allowed to use only recycled water."
The Solar Thermal technology
The technology of Solar Thermal Power generation is based on the principle of producing steam by concentrating the solar radiation from a large area onto a smaller area and the generated steam is used to drive a turbine in a similar fashion as in thermal plant. Project activity uses parabolic trough technology and the solar field for generation of power in the project activity. The purpose of the proposed CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) project is to generate zero-emission solar power and supply it to Southern regional grid. (Excerpted from the UN document prepared on Anantapur project)
Company's justification
companyThe MEIL Green Power Ltd stated that they have taken all required permissions from the concerned authorities for construction of the solar thermal power unit. The government papers confirm this. The Company also claims that they have been transparent in their dealings with the people, which the latter dispute. They also claimed that drawing of water for the plant was not going to affect the interests of farmers, a claim that has become contentious. In response to e-mail queries sent by this writer, the Company has forwarded certain papers and also their answers. The relevant parts are as follows: (From a paper): Why Solar Thermal Power (or Concentrated Solar Power) technology instead of Solar Photovoltaic technology? The selection of technology is done based on environmental and efficiency points of view. In solar PV technology, photovoltaic modules/panels are used to generate the power. These modules are made up of silicon cells. The efficiency of the solar PV plant will be around 16% to 19% and will reduce year by year. Solar module lifetime is estimated about 15-30 years. After the lifetime completion of these modules, disposal of that waste is harmful and will have impact on environment. In contrast to this, in solar CSP technology, parabolic glass mirrors are used to generate power. The efficiency of such plant will be around 24%. The glass mirrors used in this technology do not affect environment. "The quantity of water required for our CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) plant is 0.04 TMC. State Govt. has permitted to draw this water from two sources i.e. 0.01 TMC from river and 0.03 TMC from (Penna) canal source. The total solar plant is spread over an area of 600 acres. "In agriculture practice, to cultivate the area of 600 acres with dry crops approx. 0.06 TMC of water required for each dry crop. In contrast, it is very important to note that the water required for our entire plant operation is lesser than the water required for cultivation of one dry crop. "The water drawl of 0.01 TMC from Pennar river through infiltration well is return water. For storage of 0.03 TMC of water drawl from canal system, we have constructed our own storage system". (From e-mail response to our questionnaire): Stakeholders meeting was conducted on 17th May 2012 at the site. We announced that the project was solar thermal power plant only. Villagers asked about the effect of ground water due to infiltration well. We said that the plant needs only 0.01 TMC of water for 4 months of non-peak season (October to January) which will not deplete ground water. No objection was raised till completion of the well and for six months thereafter. Storage reservoirs are constructed to store the water for balance 8 months as no water is available during this period. Hence this construction is required to pump the water in the available four months and use it throughout the year. This storage water comes in the account of 0.01 TMC of allocated water only. However, this uncertainty comes down when the river gets charged by rains or with MPR (Mid Pennar River) dam water. Also the upstream Chagallu reservoir makes the ground water rise once the same is filled.
... And discrepancies
An examination of the Company's version and related papers show that there are certain discrepancies in it. They are as follows:water1) As per Tahasildar of Peddavaduguru Mandal the Company was given permission on 4-7-2011 itself to draw 0.01 TMC Ft. of water from river Penna. But the stakeholders' meeting (public hearing) to elicit their opinion was held by the Company about 10 months later in May, 2012. Can the government give such permission even before the public hearing? 2) As per a report submitted to a UN body, in the public hearing people raised four kinds of questions regarding the plant. They related to radiation, health effects, discharge of liquid effluents, contribution of company towards local development, and employment opportunities. But no queries were raised regarding the issue of water. Does it not sound curious? Basing on this the UN body concluded that "All stakeholders agreed that the implementation of the project activity would not have any adverse effect on environment and would result in the development of local communities." Thus it felt that there was "no need to make adjustment on design, construction and operation of the proposed project". Considering the above facts, can one say that it was a right conclusion based on full facts? 3) The average annual rainfall in the district is 510 mm whereas it is much less at the nearest Rainguage Station of Peddavaduguru- just 419 mm. The Deputy Director, Ground Water Department, Anantapur says the water allocations "hold good subject to the normal rainfall conditions". But the fact remains that Anantapur is drought prone and there have been no water flows at all in Penna over the last seven years. Bore wells of farmers have already begun to fail. On its part the Company admits that there is some "uncertainty" about the issue. But assures, "this uncertainty comes down when the river gets charged by rains or with Mid Pennar Dam water. Also the upstream Chagallu reservoir makes the ground water rise once the same is filled". The problems with this explanation are�in the absence of rains over several years the river cannot be charged. Since the Mid Pennar, located at about 40 kms upstream, itself is having poor water flows that is not going to help. Finally, Chagallu is not an upstream project but a downstream one. In any case, Chagallu never had water to recharge its own neighbouring lands. 4) Then there is one important question the Company did not answer. That is, did they consider experts' opinions that alternative technologies are available, which could reduce dependency on water and more importantly, fresh water?
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