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Cauvery dispute and its solutions

The river Cauvery has become a bone of contention between the states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu leading to protests, violence and shut downs. On one hand, Tamil Nadu is alleging that its farmers are being deprived of water as the volume of water being released by Karnataka is untimely and lesser in volume. On the other hand, there is a hue and cry in Karnataka for being deprived of even drinking water. With the reducing resources of freshwater and rising demand such a scenario is not unimaginable. The dispute brings to fore an issue which needs imminent attention, for such a scenario may be replicated for other rivers given the impending threat of climate change and practices of unsustainable development.

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The Dispute

Cauvery is the longest south Indian river which originates in Karnataka, flows through Tamil Nadu with major tributaries coming from Kerala and drains into Bay of Bengal through Pondicherry. The dispute therefore involves 3 states and one Union Territory (Pondicherry). The genesis of the dispute is 150 years old and dates back to the two agreements of arbitration in 1892 and 1924 between the then Madras presidency and Mysore. It entailed the principle that the upper riparian state must obtain consent of lower riparian state for any construction activity viz. reservoir on the river Cauvery.

From 1974, Karnataka started diverting water into its four newly made reservoirs, without the consent of Tamil Nadu resulting into a dispute. To resolve the matter, Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal was established in 1990 which took 17 years to arrive at the final order (2007) on how Cauvery water should be shared between the 4 riparian states in normal rainfall conditions. In distress years, pro-rata basis shall be used, it instructed. The government again took 6 year and notified the order in 2013. This was challenged in Supreme Court which recently directed Karnataka to release 12000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu prompting protests in the State.

Water Shortage Reasons

On the supply side, as the country is in a grip of a drought for last 2 years, the Cauvery basin reservoir in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is 30% and 49% lower than average of last 10 years. Second, there has been deforestation of the region which has reduced rainfall significantly. Third, the neglect and overuse of groundwater, traditional tanks and ponds have profoundly enhanced dependence on the river.

On the demand side, the need and definition of need has expanded. Rapid urbanization and increasing population around the river is the primary reason. Also, the cropping pattern of agriculture has shifted towards sugarcane which is highly water intensive and certainly unviable as of now. Given the supply demand mismatch, perhaps no formula can satiate the needs of all the parties. There needs to be a more scientific solution taking the long term in perspective.


The states need to shed the regional approach as the solution lies in cooperation and coordination, not in conflict. The planning must be done at the basin level to make the solution sustainable and ecologically viable. The long due creation of Cauvery Management Board and a regulatory authority to enforce the tribunal's orders must be done immediately. The solution should be people centric such as leveraging 'Cauvery Family'-a group formed by farmers of both states to disperse the clouds of hostility.

In the long term, there is a need to recharge the river through afforestation, river linking etc. Second, cleaning up of the pollution hotspots must be done with a stringent check on the industrial pollution. Third, an increased focus is needed on increasing water use efficiency viz. micro irrigation, awareness in people to prudently use water and water smart strategies. Fourth, cropping pattern must change towards millets, jowar and other indigenous crops which use much less water and are protein rich.

The above steps will ensure a sustainable use of limited water resources. This is an imperative for our country India as we are constantly moving towards water stressed conditions. We as individuals must do our bit to conserve and efficiently manage water to make our country achieve the Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

- Ashima Mittal

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