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The Tehri hydroelectric dam, India’s tallest, has no usable water in the large reservoir behind it while other dams are also running dry as a crippling drought tightens its grip on the country.
Weekly data on 91 large reservoirs, posted on Thursday by the Central Water Commission, shows that the Tehri dam on the branch of the upper Ganges called the Bhagirathi is now holding zero per cent of its “live” or usable storage capacity of 2.6bn cubic metres. When operational, the dam can produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity.
Total usable water available in the 91 reservoirs monitored was just under 31bn cubic metres, the CWC said. That is 19 per cent of their capacity, two percentage points less than last week and well below last year’s level and the average of the previous decade.
Piyush Goyal, power minister, told parliament that several of India’s thermal power stations, most of which burn coal, had also been forced to shut down for lack of the water needed for cooling and other systems.
He insisted that India still had sufficient electricity supplies overall to serve the country’s 1.3bn inhabitants, in spite of shutdowns at power stations such as the 1,130MW Parli power station in the drought-affected Beed district of the western state of Maharashtra.
A large coal-fired power station at Farakka in West Bengal, which relies on cooling water from the Ganges, had to suspend operations in March for lack of water in the canal that supplies it.
At least 10 of India’s 29 states have reported severe drought in parts of their territory after two successive poor monsoon seasons in most of the country. The first rains of the 2016 season are not expected to reach southern India for another month. Daytime temperatures have already reached the high 40s in centigrade in some districts.
Drought has become a contentious political issue, with opposition parties accusing the Bharatiya Janata party government of Narendra Modi, the prime minister, of failing to promote rural employment schemes to help affected peasant farmers.
Emergency supplies of water are being delivered by tanker and even by train to dry villages and towns.
On Thursday, however, the Uttar Pradesh state government rejected an offer from Delhi for a trainload of water for the stricken Bundelkhand region, demanding 10,000 road tankers instead — possibly so that the state, not the central government, would be seen to be providing relief to the inhabitants.
Environmentalists claim that successive governments have failed to improve efficiency of water use or constrain demand, both of which they say are needed to replenish rivers and reservoirs as well as the groundwater from which many farmers pump their supplies for irrigation.
In 1951, shortly after independence when the population was 350m, the average Indian had access to 5,200 cubic metres of water a year.
By 2010, that had fallen to 1,600 cu m, a level regarded as “water-stressed” by international organisations. Today it is at about 1,400 cu m and analysts say it is likely to fall below the 1,000 cu m “water scarcity” limit within 30 years.