For most of the inhabitants of Southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, Cauvery is not just a river but a life giver, providing waters for both irrigation and drinking purposes. With the waters being fully utilized, it is of little surprise that the sharing and re-sharing of river waters has often been an emotional and contentious issue for over two centuries with jingoistic, parochial, linguistic and partisan politics overshadowing any sane or equitable solution.
River water disputes rarely yield to simple solutions. Out of India's 18 major rivers, 17 are interstate. Thus, when rivers do not respect political boundaries, river water disputes are bound to happen. In case of Cauvery river basin, Tamil Nadu has been an historical favorite. A bias perpetuated over a century in both 1892 and 1924 agreements (brokered by colonial rulers) was largely in favor of Madras Presidency, a key constituent and financial contributor of British Empire vis-a-vis the princely state of Mysore.
Thus, Tamil Nadu till today has steadfastly stuck to legal claims based on 1892 and 1924 agreements and relied on concept of "natural flow", " prescriptive rights", and "prior appropriation". In Karnataka's view point, earlier agreements were unequal to which it obliged under compulsion and cites as one of the reasons it lags behind Tamil Nadu in irrigation development.
The Cauvery basin drains an area of over 81000 sqkm, over 34000 sqkm lies under Karnataka, over 43,000 sqkm in Tamil Nadu and rest in Kerala and Puducherry. After the 1924 agreement of pre-independent India came to an end in 1974, negotiations for river water sharing started and finally year interstate Tribunal i.e. Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) was set up in 1990, that passed an order in 1991 and final order in 2007.
It awarded Tamil Nadu 419 TMC, Karnataka 270 TMC, Kerala 30 TMC and Puducherry 7 TMC during normal rain years. Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka challenged the decision in Supreme Court. Another contentious clause was that in distress years, when availability of water is less; the share of water shall be reduced proportionally. The tribunal, however, did not specify quantum and timelines for release of water to Tamil Nadu when inflows are weak. It has aggravated this year because , even though many parts of Karnataka received excess of 40% of rainfall, but the main catchment area of Cauvery basin in Kodagu district has got 33% below normal rainfall from Southeast monsoon. This implies that the water in four major reservoirs in Karnataka i.e. Krishna Raja Sagar, Kabini, Harangi and Hemavathi is less than normal to meet the demands in the area and Bengaluru city. In this event, Karnataka that initially maintained would release 10000 cusecs later refused to release any water. Over various hearings, Supreme Court bench reduced the quantities from 15000 to 12000 to 6000 cusecs to which Karnataka refused. However, on 4th October, 2016 it finally grudgingly released 6800 cusecs when the apex court asked it to not defy the order. It gives a reason that how Karnataka would be compensated when Tamil Nadu also receives rain from North East monsoons in later months and have sufficient water to meet their needs.
Thus, any sharing agreement to be sustainable requires continued goodwill and cooperation among all parties.
Firstly, the Tribunal should arrive at an allocation of available water taking into account scope for economy and efficiency in water use, legal, factual, equitable, hydrological, agro-economic and other relevant factors.
Secondly, the problem of water sharing should be viewed in a dynamic instead of static, zero some perspective. Joint efforts must be undertaken to augment availability to decrease wastage. They can undertake catchment treatment activities, afforestation and soil conservation to improve moisture yield and controls siltation. Another area of mutual interest should be control of pollution, eco-degradation and judicious development of hydrological projects.
Thirdly, efficient irrigation practices like modernisation of irrigation systems, changing cropping patterns, crop diversification viz. shifting to less water guzzling varieties of sugar cane and rice should be incentivized. For example, switch to drip or SRI (System of Rice Intensification) - a low water, labor intensive method to increase yield could be practiced.
Fourthly, scientific water conservation and management measures rainwater harvesting, drainage improvement and building of additional storage capacity especially above and below Mettur region can be bolstered.
Finally, the root cause of this dispute is due to prolonged and inconclusive negotiations that have exacerbated differences. The basin states can initiate conciliation and submit a joint declaration to the Tribunal. The award of the Tribunal should be guided by Helsinki Rules, 1966 taking into account interest of all four riparian states to secure timely and equitable water availability.
Water sharing disputes across the country or even beyond are bound to increase with escalating demand, increasing pollution and reduction in available potable water. Climate change is likely to worsen the situation with changing monsoon patterns, increasing temperature, melting of glaciers and rising sea levels. It is thus need of the hour to sort these differences amicably through dialogue and negotiations such that they do not dilate into an ugly situation over this precious resource.
- Neda Fatima