Delayed monsoon rains highlight fragility of the water supply in the deeply agrarian South Asian country.
As a child, Fagu Besra swam in gurgling streams and drank “sweet and cold water” from the wells in his village of Pundi in eastern India. Today, none is left.
As in so many parts of coal-rich Ramgarh district in Jharkhand state, mining of the polluting fossil fuel has sucked much of the water from once-plentiful sources.
“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 by phone.
“We now get water from borewells that are 700-800 feet [213-244 metres] deep,” added the political activist who runs a campaign against displacement of people by mining operations.
Himanshu Thakkar, of the nonprofit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said 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 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.
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.
But campaigners and researchers say those efforts fall far short of mitigating the effects of mining 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.
Worst water crisis in history
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 percent 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 bigger struggle.
Ilyas Ansari, 35, of Chepa Khurd village about 50km (31 miles) 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 (902 feet) 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 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 20 years 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.
Meanwhile, the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it hard for the village to keep the plant operating.
“We have power bills of about 400,000 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.
The village has requested that coal mining firm Western Coalfields Limited pay the outstanding amount, he added.
“People have lost jobs due to COVID-19 and have no money for food. How will we pay these bills?” Gaurkar asked.
Western Coalfields, one of the CIL’s eight subsidiaries, could not be reached for comment by phone. But CIL officials told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that corporate social responsibility rules require the company to supply water.
To that end, it establishes infrastructure and covers the cost of its operation and maintenance for a fixed term, but paying electricity bills would require separate allocations depending on the availability of funds, officials added.
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 tap water by 2024, a target set by the federal government in a 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.
Mining pit water
B Sairam, CIL’s executive director of community development, said the company provides water that collects in mines for community use, including for drinking and irrigation purposes.
It provides about 220 million cubic metres (58 billion gallons) of water from mine pits every year to local communities, discharging it into nearby ponds and constructing recharge pits to replenish groundwater.
“We supply water both through tankers and pipelines at an annual investment of more than 90 million rupees [$1.2m],” Sairam said.
Mining experts 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.
Ranjan, the Jharkhand water official, said water from two CIL mine pits was being treated to provide drinking water.
In Pundi, villager Besra said a big tanker was being set up to supply water from closed mines belonging to Central Coalfields Limited, another CIL subsidiary.
“But the water scene from my childhood will not return. The water flowing from the canals was pure. That is no longer possible,” he added.