Home / Politics / Policy /  Cauvery face-off puts spotlight on water wars

Bengaluru/Chennai: Protesters on Wednesday painted buses bound from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu with the slogan: Cauvery nammadu (Cauvery is ours). Elsewhere on the Mysuru-Bengaluru, highway protesters turned up with empty pots.

The message of growing defiance, two days ahead of a bandh called by activists, was more than just obvious.

Mandya, some 100km from Bengaluru, the heartland of the river Cauvery and the current protests, is already shut down. The agitation is set to intensify, with schools, shops and colleges likely to remain shut at least till Friday.

This is a familiar scene that has played out again and again over the past several decades. The immediate trigger this time was Karnataka’s decision to comply with a Supreme Court order to release 15,000 cusecs of water from the Cauvery every day over the next 10 days to Tamil Nadu.

This, however, is not a one-off dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—the latest flare-up puts the spotlight on the growing incidence of water wars among states and, in some instances, within regions in a state.

The dispute

Riparian states warring over water is not new to India—the environmental magazine Down To Earth said in a 2002 article that nearly every river in the Indian subcontinent is contested.

If southern Karnataka is unwilling to share the Cauvery waters with Tamil Nadu, northern Karnataka is fighting with Maharashtra and Goa for the immediate release of water from the river Mahadayi.

Tamil Nadu, even as it battles Karnataka over the Cauvery, opposes Kerala’s plans to build a dam over the Bhavani and to repair the more than 100-year-old Mullaiperiyar dam over the Periyar.

Meanwhile, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are locked in a dispute over sharing the waters of the river Krishna.

And up north, Punjab and Haryana are fighting over sharing the Sutlej waters.

Given the scarcity of water, these disputes are not surprising. The average annual water availability in India has been assessed by the Central Water Commission as 1,869 billion cubic metres (bcm).

However, due to topographic, hydrological and other constraints, the amount of water that is actually usable is estimated to be about 1,123 bcm, made up of 690 bcm of surface water and 433 bcm of replenishable ground water.

In a report in 1999, the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development estimated that the total water requirement—for various purposes—for 2025 and 2050 would be about 843 bcm and 1,180 bcm respectively. At the same time, with its growing population, the per capita water availability in India is shrinking every year.

Simply put, some states get more water than others but others may lay claim because historically they have had better access to it.

How much to share?

Veena Srinivasan, noted expert on water and research fellow at environmental think tank ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), says that theory defines the sharing formula in extremes.

The Harmon Doctrine, she says, prescribes no sharing. Similarly, the principle of territorial integrity claims sharing should be based on historical river flows.

“Since the former one would practically favour upstream regions whereas the latter one downstream regions, it would be impossible to practise any of these two extreme solutions. And also, water is a state subject. The two constituencies of two state governments would be completely different," she says.

In reality, as Srinivasan observes, the dispute has to be settled politically—which is why India has so many tribunals, institutions seeking to strike a compromise between states.

But the problem with tribunal awards, says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, is that their ad-hoc solutions are difficult for states to implement, especially during times of water shortage.

“The problem arises during distress, like it is now in Karnataka (the state is going through its sixth consecutive season of deficient rainfall). In fact, if you look at Tamil Nadu’s plea in the Cauvery issue specifically, these kinds of distress were supposed to have been taken care of by a management board overseeing the implementation of the (earlier tribunal) award," he says.

An award is an allocation of water to be shared between two states, set by a tribunal.

“This management board is not formed, which leads to the SC indulging in ad-hoc orders. What happened because of it? Karnataka asked for 10,000 cusecs (of water) and Tamil Nadu asked for 20,000 cusecs and the SC ordered 15,000 cusecs. Why this balancing act?" asks Thakkar.

A long-term solution will require farmers—key stakeholders in the dispute—on both sides to be engaged in the negotiations from the very start.

The last time the Cauvery issue peaked, during 2006-07, an initiative called the “Cauvery Family" was floated by S. Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies to familiarize farmers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu with the problem, though it did not meet with much success.

“To begin with, states must start doing careful accounting of each drop of rainwater they get to ensure transparency in their claims to give or receive water," says Srinivasan, “which is a standard modus operandi with very good science to back up in the Western world."

Thakkar also says that states need to look at their optimal usage and share waters in a participatory and bottom-up manner.

“And of course, instead of looking at rains as the primary resource and then fight over the river basin, we need to look at sustainable management of water, especially in cities," says Thakkar.

Mayank Aggarwal in Delhi contributed to this story.

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