Cauvery dispute: Whose water is it, anyway?

A solution to the Cauvery crisis lies in how we perceive our rivers


Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

The water wars between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are not a recent development. They have been around for as long as three decades and each time they have been used by politicians and extreme elements to stir passions based on state identity. While the media remain focused on the violence in Bengaluru, what got missed out was the cause and possible solutions. This writer reached out to different water experts to find out what could be the way forward to end the Cauvery crisis.

But first, one must understand why this crisis erupted in the first place. The Cauvery river, which flows through southern Karnataka and then into Tamil Nadu, has been a point of conflict for decades. Its water was originally divided according to nearly century-old agreements. Over the years, both states have blamed each other over how much water is used for irrigation and asked for a judicial review.

The latest trigger was an order by the Supreme Court asking Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu, following which the violence broke out in Bengaluru.

In their article titled “A river on fire”, authors K.J. Joy and S. Janakarajan emphasize the need for “communication, based on sound scientific information, involving farmers as well as other stakeholders” as the only way to resolve the Cauvery dispute.

And it was keeping this dialogue in mind that the Madras Institute of Development Studies initiated a multi-stakeholder dialogue (MSD) in 2003 to start communication between farmers from both the states. The Committee of the Cauvery Family, which evolved from MSD, has met 17 times so far in different parts of the basin in both states to get first-hand information on the situation. The authors point out that “though the efforts have not helped in reaching a solution, they have provided valuable lessons on the need for dialogue when other efforts fail”.

Himanshu Thakkar from South Asia Network for Dams Rivers and People, in an email to this writer, has made a number of suggestions about viable solutions.

One of the causes of the Cauvery crisis is linked to the way we do agriculture in both states. That’s why Thakkar suggests:

1. Disincentivizing and discouraging unsustainable cropping patterns.

2. Incentivizing sustainable cropping patterns using less water.

3. Making rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge the focus of water resources development/management.

4. Transparency in water resources management: put all information about rainfall, water flows, storages, levels, releases, water use, etc. promptly in the public domain on a daily basis.

Thakkar laments that while many committees are set up to look into the matter, what happens in these meetings, how often they meet and what conclusions they reach are never made public. It is this deprivation of information that allows politicians to exploit the situation and stir violence.

Thakkar is right: data put out by Indiaspend shows that Bengaluru, which is almost entirely dependent on the Cauvery, wastes almost 49% of the water it receives. Better management of the city’s water resources could help in reducing the water wars.

Manoj Mishra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, who has campaigned extensively on river issues, told this writer that the problem arises from the way we perceive our access to river water. And, it is this perception that causes problems.

“A real or imagined ownership over an entity which is also contestable becomes the seed of all conflicts. These get compounded when the entity in question is something like ‘water’, a life-sustaining nature’s endowment,” says Mishra.

As a solution, Mishra suggests the setting up of a River Commission with a clear mandate of returning all rivers to a flowing state. The Cauvery, for instance, has over 100 dams constructed on it as it flows through Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

He further suggests that the task of this river commission would be to ensure environmental flows downstream of existing structures on the river reaching to the very sea, the kind of crops that can or cannot be grown within the basin and allocation of fresh (and recycled) water for irrigation purposes.

Both Mishra and Thakkar emphasize the need to focus on the river for the sake of the river rather than the end-consumers.

Just this September, in one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases, in a landmark judgement, the Te Awa Tupua river was given a legal voice by recognizing it as a living creature with rights and interests of its own. Ecuador, too, four years ago, under its constitution granted rights to its rivers and forests. In most legal systems today, rivers have no rights at all; it is the people who use its waters that have rights. Our rivers are living, breathing entities. Perhaps in this change in perception lies a solution.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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