Sunday, August 5, 2012

Random Monsoon and Sustainable Growth: Management of Power for Water

After a relatively long drought-free period, India is faced with the likelihood of a significantly deficient monsoon, if not a drought, this year. Coming on top of the slackening economic growth which is forecast to decline from a peak of around 9 percent reached in recent years to a current expectation of around 6 percent, the specter of drought is something which India could have lived without. In the past, declines in the initial month of June used to have been made up more than bountifully from the month of July. This time around, the deficit continues to be adverse even in the month of July, with the latest overall deficit forecast being placed at 15 percent by the India Meteorological Department. Not surprisingly, the common man and the businessman alike are worried about the likely impact of the truant monsoon on the economy.

Rains, the world over, have a significant impact in determining the quality of life; not merely for the farmers but also for the public at large, and the industries in particular. This is more so in emerging economies like India. The upstream and downstream linkages in terms of water for cultivation, drinking water, industrial water and electric power are substantial. While alternatives exist for generation of power, there is no alternative to water that is needed for irrigation, industrialization, drinking and household work. While groundwater serves to augment rain fed user needs, groundwater tables are highly dependent on copious rainfalls. Groundwater conservation and rainwater harvesting have helped in countering the rapid declines in groundwater tables but there has been no substitute for annual rainfall being timely and in adequate quantities for the health of the society and growth of the economy.

Forecasted, forewarned

The key to planning is forecasting. Despite the enormous technological development, prediction of monsoons is yet an imperfect science. The prediction of seasons is challenging mathematical modeling while prediction of seasonal or unseasonal rains is a proactive tracking science. More than that, in the context of global warming, the traditional seasons have been witness to unpredictable shifts, and the intensity of rainfall has been subject to much volatility. If the developed world has caused global warming, the developing world has borne its impact. Not recognizing the impact, however, the developing world has been following the earlier Western development path, with smoking factories and dated utilities, enhanced consumption of energy and reduction of green cover. Quite apart from a moderation of these trends, what is required is a robust globally integrated weather forecasting system, as opposed to India-specific weather tracking system.

The atmospheric and ecological variables that generate and influence the monsoons are far too many. While some of these such as natural solar heating, natural winter chilling, artificial atmospheric warming (real, man-induced!), draw of moisture from the seas, and other open water systems, soil conditions, plant conditions are visible they are so interactive, and are also so pervasive that they defy easy quantification. Over and above that, each severe weather phenomenon, be it a storm, cyclone, typhoon, hurricane or tornado modifies the cloud formation and travel, and accentuates or attenuates the monsoon seasonality and volatility. There is, therefore, a need for a concerted globally integrated research to identify appropriate primary and secondary variables and simulate predictive models. NASA and the US universities have invested, and continue to fund, millions of dollars to develop predictive models. In India, higher technological institutions (such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Indian Institutes of Technology through their specialized centers) conduct scores of projects to observe and conclude on these phenomena. The Indian Meteorological Department must explore how these scientific and technological initiatives can be better funded, better scoped, and better integrated to deliver more effective weather forecasts.

Declines, lagging growth

NASA has described the habitability criteria as “extended regions of liquid water, conditions favorable to the assembly of complex organic molecules and energy sources to sustain metabolism”. Clearly, monsoon and rainfall determines how habitats can form and sustain themselves. Yet, given that 70 percent of our planet is sea, and another 25 percent is either cold or hot deserts, and probably only 5 percent of the land is habitable, the rain-habitat nexus needs greater study. While 100 percent of rainfall occurs all over the planet, only 5 percent of the rainfall probably falls over the habitable region which has 100 percent of population. The need for rainfall to be adequate and predictable in habitable regions is self-evident. Yet, while the population has been doubling itself every four decades, especially in the larger and more populous countries such as China and India, the rainfall (or global precipitation) has at best been static, according to research studies. The need for the world to manage more of living with less of water is even more compellingly evident. It is, therefore, disturbing that all analysis of rainfall is carried out more in terms of historical trends rather than growth requirements.

Rainwater conservation and optimal utilization of water are the twin parameters of sustainable habitability expansion in future. The real challenge lies in retaining and harnessing the millions of cusecs of water that is showered in the catchment areas of rivers and their tributaries as well as the smaller rivulet and lake systems of the country. The largest dam in India is the Indira Sagar Dam in India which has a capacity of 12.22 billion cubic meters. In contrast, the Three Gorges dam in China has a capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters! Before 1949, there were only 22 dams of any significant size in China. But now China has more than half of the almost 50,000 dams in the world that are classified as "large" because they have a height of at least 15 m or a storage capacity of more than 3 million cubic meters. In contrast, India has less than 2000 large dams today, though it had probably 300 of them (15 times more than in China) in 1947! Evidently, India has had a large lag in dam construction vis-à-vis China, and with a renewed determination of the governments, hopefully has still a huge unexplored potential, given the saying that India is a land of rivers. Not that dams do not come with their formidable financial and human costs and the tragedy and trauma of human resettlement. The benefits probably outweigh the costs to a significant measure, if the human elements and ecological protection are taken care of. The dependence on water in dams should not lead to any slackening of use of water in irrigation, industries and living. Given that 70 percent of fresh water usage is for irrigation purposes, low-water irrigation is a model that India needs to vigorously pursue. Israel is a role model in this context. Israel’s agricultural sector turned out a sustained growth in agricultural production based on close cooperation of scientists, farmers and agriculture-related industries. Israel has developed advanced agricultural technology, water-conserving irrigation methods, anaerobic digestion, desert agriculture and salinity research. Greenhouse technology ensures instant, year-round supply of high quality produce, while overcoming the obstacles posed by adverse climatic conditions, and water and land shortages. Technologies include computerized greenhouse climate control, greenhouse shading, drip irrigation, fertigation, water recycling, and biological control of plant disease and insects. Control of production parameters and titration of water use is the primary strategy.

For other industrial uses, several measures such as substitution of water cooling by air cooling, reduction in use of water for cleaning without compromise to quality, use of dry methods and delivery systems in water intensive industries, and water-efficient industrial processes (for example, low solvent manufacture of bulk drugs and low coolant usage for metal cutting) support water conservation. Metered usage of water, and evaluation against best practice requirements should be part of performance management of any industrial operation. Researchers in such industries must also aim at water efficiency in product and process development. For domestic, commercial and public uses, municipal utilities must aim at supply and regulation of high quality water to ensure public health. It is possible to conserve rain water in urban habitats with determination. In Tamil Nadu, mandatory rainwater harvesting in urban dwellings has resulted in a 50 percent increase in groundwater table. This strategy and achievement is a role model for other parts of the nation, and individual dwelling units. In India, this needs to be supplemented by enhanced availability of water for sanitation. The efforts by Bill Gates Foundation and others in this area must be supported and supplemented by the governments.

Power for water

India has nearly 20 percent of its total power requirement drawn from hydro-power. While hydro-power is an optimal solution when rainfall is copious, it risks both agriculture and industry in drought years. In fact, the power cuts routinely applied in India in summer months is solely related to the drop in hydro-power generation in water-starved summer months. India would do well to enhance its share of safe nuclear and clean thermal power, leaving water to largely its irrigation course. Hydropower in such instance would be the bonus and insurance. India’s total installed power generation capacity is reportedly 205 gigawatts (GW) while the expensive captive back-up generation capacity is another 60 GW (about 30 percent). The power blackouts that have happened in most parts of the Northern India on July 30 and 31, affecting over 670 million people in total for about 22 hours, are indicative of the urgent need for a steep increase in power generation capacity in India. However, in the new strategy, rather than depend on conventional hydropower generation as an adjunct newer and innovative methods have to be explored.

Given India’s long coastline of around 7500 kms there is a significant scope to pursue tidal and wave power projects and reduce the dependence on rain water power generation. Researchers believe that there exists enormous potential for non-conventional hydroelectricity generation from tidal and wave projects, as well as from small in-stream projects that will not require new dams. Thus far, few of these hydrokinetic projects have reportedly been realized. France’s La Rance Tidal Barrage, with a 240-megawatt maximum capacity, was the first large tidal power plant. It began generating power in 1966, and is still operating today. In South Korea, a 254-megawatt project was completed in August 2011. Now the world’s largest tidal operation, it has the capacity to provide electricity for half a million people on the country’s west coast. New Zealand also recently approved a coastal hydropower project. Wave power is also drawing the attention of both engineers and investors. Firms in France, Scotland, and Sweden, among other countries, are working to capture this emerging market. Estimates from the World Energy Council indicate that worldwide, wave energy has the potential to grow to a massive 10,000 gigawatts, more than double the world’s electricity-generating capacity from all sources today. India can take the lead and demonstrate how innovative hydro-kinetic (wave and tidel) power generation can conserve scarce rain water for the more important uses, including building an insurance for other non-power uses, and in any case, conserving water in the scarce months.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 5, 2012

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