Thursday, July 29, 2021

India's Water Shortage and Coal Mining


In many parts of coal-rich Ramgarh district in Jharkhand state of India, mining of the polluting fossil fuel has sucked much of the water from once-plentiful sources.

As a child, Fagu Besra swam in gurgling streams and drank "sweet and cold water" from the wells in his village of Pundi.

"Water never dried up in our streams and canals even in the summer months. Our wells had water even though they were just 10 feet (3 metres) deep," Besra, 50, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Today, none are left. "We now get water from borewells that are 700-800 ft deep," added the political activist who campaigns against displacement of people by mining operations.

As in countless other villages in India's coal mining hubs, Pundi's residents must dig deeper, tap nearby rivers or buy water shipped in by tankers to tackle worsening water scarcity.

Himanshu Thakkar, of the nonprofit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said that when coal mines are dug, they fill up with groundwater, which then has to be pumped out." This has led to depletion of groundwater in all mining areas, in addition to pollution," he said. Loss of vegetation to make way for mines also hampers groundwater recharge, campaigners and researchers say.

As India pushes to expand its coal mining, environmentalists fear the problem will only worsen in the coming years. India is already the world's second-largest coal producer after China, but it is not mining enough to meet the power needs of its domestic industries. That is why the government is ramping up coal production, setting a target for state-run Coal India Limited (CIL) - the world's largest coal mining company - to produce 1 billion tonnes annually by 2024, up from about 800 million tonnes now. Its plans to boost coal production include supplying water to local people as part of efforts to protect communities and the environment. Researchers say those efforts fall far short of mitigating mining's effects on natural resources.

"Groundwater is India's water lifeline. The situation will keep getting worse. We need to protect natural recharge areas... (but) we haven't even begun to do that yet," said Thakkar.

In 2018, the government policy think-tank NITI Aayog warned nearly 600 million people faced "high to extreme water stress", describing India's water crisis as the worst in its history. According to data submitted in parliament last year, more than 60% of monitored wells had registered a decline in groundwater levels. Indian cities rely on tanker services in hot summer months, but those living in mining hubs have a much bigger struggle.

Ilyas Ansari, 35, of Chepa Khurd village about 50 km from Pundi, has campaigned against coal mining in his area for years. Its soot-covered homes and declining harvests tell of the damage done by coal mining, villagers say. 

"We grew wheat and sugarcane. Now we don't even have drinking water," Ansari said.

This year, Chepa Khurd villagers dug two borewells, about 275 metres deep, and split the cost between themselves.

"We get water tankers but that is not potable water and we can only use it for washing clothes and bathing," Ansari said.

In Payali Bhatali village, a major coal mining hub in western Maharashtra's Chandrapur district in central India, tap water comes from the nearby Erai river, the only water source since local wells ran dry about two decades ago. The government dug a well next to the river and set up pumps to send it to households through a pipeline via a water treatment plant. While the system ensures a supply of clean water, it is far less reliable than the former wells. Unscheduled power cuts interrupt pumping and limit supply.

 "We have power bills of about 400,000 Indian rupees ($5,360) pending... and this power consumption is entirely for the water treatment plant operation," said Subhash Tukaram Gaurkar, a senior member of the Payali Bhatali village council.

Pumping water from rivers is a method being used more frequently in coal-mining areas, despite its shortcomings. In Jharkhand's Ramgarh district, officials are racing to get 150,000 rural households supplied with taps by 2024, a target set by the federal government in a water plan for rural India. Rajesh Ranjan, an executive engineer with Jharkhand's drinking water and sanitation department, said about 54,000 households were reached by July, piping in water from rivers. But Suresh Chopane, president of the Chandrapur-based nonprofit Green Planet Society, warned the rivers were dying.

"They are feeding industries and cities. This is not sustainable," he said.

Water scarcity in coal-rich areas is usually resolved once mining activity ends.

"The water begins to store in the (former) mining area, surrounding groundwater regimes are recharged again and the mining area is full of water," said Jayant Bhattacharya, professor of mining engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.

Parched villages in India's coal-mining hubs hunt for water (

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