Rivers of discord

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 31 October 2002

Why is everything important reduced to a dramatic farce in our country? Take the Cauvery imbroglio. The issue is serious and important. Namely how will states, regions and people share increasingly scarce water resources? What can we do to maximise water availability? But what do we have instead: an unseemly and extremely parochial and chauvinistic slangling match between two riparian states -- Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with chief ministers slugging it out in public.

The Karnataka chief minister has decided to flout the Supreme Court order to release water to its neighbour. In Tamil Nadu, film stars have bussed to the Neyveli power station demanding that if Karnataka will not give them water, than Neyveli must stop supply of power to the upper riparian state. Ridiculous. Who would have thought that we are discussing internal water disputes of a country and not water wars between countries?

And what indeed are film stars doing in this debate. Where are the voices and opinions of water planners or technologists about the options to this protracted water tangle? The issue is not just how much water that the Supreme Court or even the Cauvery River Authority will decide Karnataka must give to Tamil Nadu. The issue is that the Cauvery is a water basin under stress.

By the early 1990s, as much as 90 per cent of the waters of the Cauvery had been exploited, unlike most other river basins in the country. And, at the same time profligate uses of this already stressed river, are increasing. This means that any small variation in the water levels of the river because of delayed monsoons or drought makes for flashpoints. Remember how in the early 1990s J Jayalalithaa, also then chief minister, had gone on a four day fast and how the then Karnataka chief minister Veerappa Moily had resorted to the usual chauvinistic antics. Even then in the brouhaha there was little said or thought about how this fast growing region would share its growing appetite for water.

Therefore, there is much more at stake here than the formulae for the apportionment of the river's water. This is a region, which over the past many years has seen dramatic growth in water guzzling crops. For instance, a key problem today is the kurvai crop of rice -- kharif or summer season rice -- of the Tamil farmers. Kurvai rice was introduced in the late 1960s with the building of the Mettur dam on the Cauvery in the state. Traditionally farmers grew winter rice -- or sambha crop -- because the region gets its rainfall during these months. Seedlings were prepared in August and the rice transplanted a month later, ready for the northeast monsoons. Most importantly, rainwater was stored in the fields and its flow to the sea minimised. The paddy seasons of both states were different and conflict was contained. But the kurvai crop changed all this.

At the same time, Karnataka also increased its water needs. Irrigated agriculture expanded in the seventies and eighties to rival its Tamil neighbour in terms of acreage. So, whereas in the early 1970s it used as little as 20-25 per cent of the Cauvery water, by the 1990s the state utilised over 40 per cent. In particular, sugarcane farming has become popular and its growers politically powerful.

The only solution for this region is to seriously implement water conservation and augmentation measures. It has no choice. As early as 1990s, water policy planners had estimated that if the rice growing area of the states was reduced by just two per cent, it would make available enough water to meet the growing needs of Tamil cities. Scientists had also worked on early maturing crops and water minimising rice crops. Most importantly, there was said to be a need to diversify the crops in the lower reaches of the river to less water consuming, but equally profitable crops. We know the answers. But we also do the opposite.

So, over the 1990s, the government's public distribution system (pds) has given rice a higher minimum support price then other grains and cereals. Farmers grow more rice than the country's godowns can hold. They also use more water than what the country can afford -- eating rice is like drinking water. But who cares when you can use every flashpoint to generate more political mileage.

The case is similar for the next big and growing user of water in the region -- cities and industries. This sector has an even greater voracious greed for water -- it also destroys precious water, as it releases dirty effluent and waste into water bodies. Minimising use and recycling water has to be the dictum. Even Singapore is now recycling its sewage to turn it into water for drinking. But why should we do anything to even reduce the water we use in our flush toilets? Just calculate how much water could be saved by retrofitting all flushes in cities into 5-6 litre cisterns, from the 10-15 litres of water each consumes today.

But it is easier and much more successful to be stupid. So, when superstar film hero Rajnikant says that the only solution is to bring Ganga waters to Cauvery through gigantic canal systems, who will tell him that there is no water in the Ganga? Only dirt and sewage.

-- Sunita Narain

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