Earlier this week, over 370 million Indian citizens found themselves without power for several hours in what’s been described as “a massive electrical grid failure.”* Throughout most of the day on Monday, transit systems were in disarray—stranding commuters and causing traffic gridlocks—while hospitals and airports switched over to backup power. But one critical public service was left in the lurch as water utilities and water treatment plants braced themselves for a disruption in service as the grid failure rippled across much of the northern India.
The extreme power supply demands of India’s water infrastructure—“hundreds of megawatts” according to Delhi Jal Board spokeswoman Sanham Cheema. The blackout forced water pumps to a standstill, and underground reservoirs around New Delhi were immediately affected by the power failure. Meanwhile, the effect on water treatment plants is expected to be widespread, particularly because these treatment plants run on a 24-hour clock, meaning that, as Cheema warns, “even slight disruptions can affect them.”
Although power was restored to most residents and businesses by the end of the day on Tuesday, for many the outage is a harbinger of things to come. The Confederation of Indian Industry seized the opportunity to demand that the Indian government “fix the power sector, ensure a steady supply of coal for power plants and reform the electricity utilities.”
Meanwhile, businesses were forced to shut down, buildings were unable to supply water to residents due to pump failures, and many of the nation’s poorer residents ate by candlelight and sweltered in near 100°F weather. For businesses with backup power systems in place, the blackout’s impacts were softened as generators kicked in to pick up the slack.
The blackout is an extreme consequence of the country’s tricky power resource balance. As India morphs into an international economic powerhouse, demand continues to increase while supply struggles to catch up. The grid failure was the worst to hit India in about a decade, but experts warn that brownouts and blackouts could occur with increasing regularity.
Meanwhile, government officials were quick to point out India is not alone when it comes to grid failures and power shortages. As the Washington Post reports, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shine “deflected criticism, pointing out that the United States and Brazil also had huge power failures in recent years.”
“I ask you to look at the power situation in other countries as well,” said Shine.
Regardless of the political motivation behind his warning, we’d all be well advised to listen to the substance of Shine’s statement. The truth is that around the world water, energy, economic growth, and dwindling resources are all combining to create a perfect storm. We’d better batten down the hatches, because we could be the next nation in the water/energy nexus crosshairs.
*(Update: News agencies are now reporting that the number of residents effected by the power outages in Indian have topped 600,000,000 nearly half of the nation's population.)