War zone Cauvery

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are once again at loggerheads over the sharing of the Cauvery waters. Why have the successive agreements failed to resolve the century-long dispute?

By Rajeshwari Ganesan, Shreeshan Venkatesh
Last Updated: Wednesday 28 September 2016 | 08:32:40 AM
Photo: Satyendra Kumar
Photo: Satyendra Kumar Photo: Satyendra Kumar

Court rulings and reactions

There is nothing unnatural about the Cauvery conflict. Any river that runs through different political boundaries is bound to have regions and people fighting over the resource. What is unnatural is the factors that have rendered the water-sharing agreements between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—the two main stakeholders in the dispute—dysfunctional since they were first drafted in 1872.

This September, the conflict once again dominated the news after Karnataka refused to release water to Tamil Nadu, the downstream state. Karnataka says it cannot share water when the Cauvery reservoirs are barely able to satisfy the drinking water needs of the state. By refusing to share water, it flouted the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) award of 2007 that mandated a proportionate reduction in each state’s share in rain-deficit years.

This year the two states received deficit rainfall, especially around the source of the river. Tamil Nadu promptly took the matter to the Supreme Court. It maintains that its farmers growing the winter crop of paddy, or samba, are totally dependent on the Cauvery water.

On September 24, Tamil Nadu released water in the Cauvery delta from the Grand Anicut dam in Thanjavur to save the winter paddy crop from failing (Photo: Ashwin Kumar)
The apex court has made stopgap allocations through three rulings in September. The first was on September 5, which ordered a daily release of 10,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) to Tamil Nadu for 10 days. The order resulted in violent demonstrations in Karnataka. The clashes led to the death of two persons in Bengaluru. Curfew was imposed in several parts of the city. Both the states observed bandhs, bringing life to a standstill. The last order on September 20, which stipulates a daily release of 6,000 cusecs till the end of the month, was also rejected by Karnataka. On September 23, both the Houses of the Karnataka legislature passed a unanimous resolution not to release any water. On September 24, Tamil Nadu released water in the Cauvery delta from the Grand Anicut dam to ensure that the samba crop does not fail.

The Supreme Court on September 26 disregarded the resolution passed by the Karnataka state legislative assembly on September 23 and ordered the state to release 6000 cusecs of water per day for three days to Tamil Nadu starting September 28. The Karnataka government responded by calling an all-party meeting and a cabinet meeting to mull over the order as the state maintains that it is not in a position to release the amount being asked for by the court. The Centre, too, has stepped in to try and mediate the conflict and has invited the CMs of both states for talks with Uma Bharti, Union Minister for Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, on Thursday, September 29.

But the conflict, clearly, is far from over.

The 140-year-old conflict

The discord

The dispute first began over 140 years ago between the princely state of Mysore (now Karnataka) and the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu). In 1872, a water-sharing agreement was reached (see ‘140-year-old conflict’ on p18). Another water-sharing agreement was signed in 1924 which lapsed in 1974, after which the conflicts over the sharing and use of water of the largest river in south India have become more frequent. In 1990, the Union government constituted CWDT to resolve the dispute, which passed an interim sharing order in 1991 and final recommendations in 2007. But nine years later, there is no resolution in sight.

140-year-old conflict
Water-sharing agreements, committees and tribunals have failed to resolve the Cauvery dispute
  • 1872 | First inter-state water-sharing agreement between Mysore and the Madras Presidency
  • 1924 | Second water-sharing agreement for the next 50 years 
  • 1960s | Karnataka proposes to build new reservoirs. The Centre rejects the plan. The state still builds four reservoirs
  • 1970s | Cauvery Fact Finding Committee set up in anticipation of the ending of the agreement in 1974. Its final report came in 1976 which was accepted by all the states. But when Karnataka began construction of the Harangi dam, Tamil Nadu went to court
  • 1980s | Litigations, conflicts and negotiation between the parties continue
  • 1990 | Supreme Court directs the Centre to constitute Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT)
  • 1991 | CWDT announces an interim award. Orders Karnataka to release water. In a move to nullify the interim awards, the Karnataka government passes an ordinance "to protect" irrigation in the "irrigable areas" of the Cauvery. Supreme Court strikes down the ordinance; upholds the CWDT award. Karnataka refuses to oblige
  • 1993 | Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa goes on fast, demanding the state's share as stipulated by the interim order
  • 1998 | Centre constitutes Cauvery River Authority to ensure implementation of the interim award of CWDT
  • 2002 | Cauvery River Authority chaired by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directs Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu unhappy with the order, says will move the Supreme Court
  • 2005 | Karnataka refuses to implement the distress-sharing formula
  • 2007 | CWDT gives final award, calling the agreements of 1872 and 1924 executed between Madras and Mysore as valid. Karnataka protests
  • 2015 | Jayalalithaa writes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting him to advise Karnataka to release water. Karnataka refuses to release water since it is a "distress year"
  • Sept 2, 2016 | The Supreme Court asks Karnataka to consider releasing water to Tamil Nadu to help the state continue to ªexist as an entityº. Violence erupts 
Graphic: Raku

So what are the factors that have precipitated the conflict time and again? One thing that experts seem to agree on is that the problem is limited to years when the rainfall is deficient. This was seen in 2002-03, 2003-04, 2012, and this year. To understand the issue, it is imperative to take a look at the sharing method proposed by the tribunal and its operational realities.

The Cauvery runs for about 800 km, from the Western Ghats in Karnataka to the Bay of Bengal near Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The river irrigates an area of about 81,155 sq km in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. However, the distributaries that fan out of the river and irrigate the fertile delta are non-perennial, and depend on the release of water from Karnataka. This dependency of the Cauvery delta has been one of the major reasons for the dispute boiling over. The river and its tributaries have 86 dams across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, of which 37 were constructed after the 1924 agreement lapsed in 1974. Though both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have seen heavy damming activity since 1974, construction of dams and reservoirs in Karnataka has altered the balance of the equation, with the upper riparian state’s needs taking precedence, says S Janakarajan, a professor of economics at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

To resolve the mad scramble over river water-sharing, CWDT decided to make allocations to the states concerned whose cumulative demand stood at 1,260 thousand million cubic feet (TMC), while the total utilisable flow of the river, as per the tribunal’s calculations, was only 740 TMC. On the basis of demands, the number of users, the area of the fertile delta and hydrological factors, the tribunal made an annual allocation of 30 TMC to Kerala, 270 TMC to Karnataka, 419 TMC to Tamil Nadu (of which 192 TMC was to be released by Karnataka and 227 TMC was to be generated from Tamil Nadu’s own catchment areas) and 7 TMC to Puducherry. It also calculated that 10 TMC should be allowed for “environmental flows” and around 4 TMC would inevitably flow into the sea. What this distribution means is that virtually every year, the river is 100 per cent utilised. So whenever there is deficit rain, there is a crisis. Although the principles of apportionment stipulate careful consideration of the ecological aspects concerning the river, the allocations have been made primarily on the quantum of use submitted by the states. This is one of the major criticisms the tribunal has faced. However, D V Singh, former secretary of the water resources ministry, who presided over the Cauvery Monitoring Committee, a body set up in 1998 by the Union government to monitor the implementation of the tribunal’s orders, says, “The allocations to states were done after several years of deliberation and studies. They have been made in the best way possible keeping in mind priority to existent users of the water. The problem with including dynamic aspects of land use and water use changes is that it introduces too many variables, which make it susceptible to constant questioning and scrutiny.”

Supreme Court's September 5 order on sharing water led to violence in Bengaluru, with mobs torching businesses run by Tamilians (Photo: Reuters)

Malthusian scarcity

The Cauvery dispute is more than a simple unwillingness on the part of the states to follow the allocations prescribed. In many ways, the periodic scarcity reflects the increase in the burden of the river. There have been several changes in the demographics as well as the use of the Cauvery waters in the past century. One of the most glaring changes is the increase in the population that lives in the basin. According to the 1921 census, the total population of the state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency was about 28.6 million. Today, even by conservative estimates based on the 2011 census, close to 50 million people live in the basin in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This amounts to an almost twofold increase.

As with any region in the world, the change in demography has been accompanied by changes in agricultural patterns and growth of industries. Cropping pattern in Tamil Nadu has changed from two to three crops of paddy per year between the 1970s and 1990s. In Karnataka farmers have opted to grow paddy over much more water-efficient crops such as millets and ragi. Farmers in both the states have also started cultivating water-intensive sugarcane along the Cauvery basin. According to a 2009 paper published in the journal, Water Policy, the water use for cultivation of winter rice in Karnataka Cauvery basin increased 11 times between 1980 and 2000, while water consumption for the summer rice doubled. In Tamil Nadu too, which had a much better irrigation system in place, water use increased substantially between the late 1980s and the early 2000s. This was mainly due to the popularity of growing a third paddy crop, for which water use more than tripled. In the past decade, though the area irrigated by the river has remained the same, the effects of the change in cropping patterns are clear, says Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, a veteran in the field of environmental policy and co-author of the paper. “There is no physical scarcity in the Cauvery, but a commitment to water-intensive crops and farming styles in lieu of less water-intensive millets has ensured that the water dispute does not see a speedy resolution. Even with full irrigation capacity, it will lead to a conflict between the upstream and downstream states,” he explains.

A prime example of rapid population increase in the Cauvery basin is Bengaluru, where the population has increased nearly threefold in the past 20 years. Bengaluru’s current demand for water from the Cauvery is 30 TMC. This comes to over 10 per cent of the total water allocated to Karnataka, much more than the city should get if the allocation is done on the basis of its area as a percentage of the total Cauvery basin in the state. “Though most of Bengaluru is outside the Cauvery basin, the city commands much more than its share of the river,” says V Balasubramaniam, former additional secretary in the Karnataka government. “What’s worse is that around 45 per cent of the water is lost in leakages. You can see the indiscriminate use of the resource.” Moreover, the water has to be pumped up to an elevation of 540 m from the Cauvery, which is 100 km away. “It would be much more efficient to restore the lakes in the city and recycle water for usage,” says Balasubramaniam.

Vanishing forest cover

An equally important change is in the land use pattern along the Cauvery. Along with an increase in cropping area and irrigation command area between 1980 and 2000, there has been a reduction in the forest area, especially close to the source of the river in Kodagu district and in the downstream Mysuru district. According to the “State of Forest” reports published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, dense forests in both these districts have declined by about 10 per cent between 2001 and 2013. An estimate by the Coffee Agroforestry Network (CAFNET), an international project funded by the European Union to study the loss of diversity, shows that between 1977 and 1997, forest cover decreased by 28 per cent in Kodagu. The report links the drop in forest cover to changes in the coffee-growing system that has shifted from streamfed shady plantations to irrigated plantations. The tribunal award and mechanisms of farming across the basin are not in consonance, says T V Ramachandran, a professor of ecology at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. “Neither the judiciary, nor the farmers seem to understand the hydrology or ecology of the riverine system. Forest reduction close to the source of the river in Karnataka is a major factor that could potentially reduce the yield of the river in the years to come,” he says. The tribunal award does not take into consideration the ecological and hydrological aspects that keep the river flowing, he adds.

Another factor that has contributed to the scarcity of water in the river is irregular rainfall. According to the CAFNET study, the average rainy season in the Kodagu region has reduced by 14 days over the past 35 years. A study by IISc found that although the overall rainfall in the Cauvery basin has increased by 2.7 per cent, the water in the river has reduced by two per cent, while evapotranspiration losses due to higher temperatures have increased by about 7.5 per cent. Another study published in Current Science in 2011 has predicted that climate change might cause an up to 50 per cent reduction in the waters of the Cauvery sub-basins by 2080.

The decline in the quality of the river water is also an area of concern. A thesis submitted to the Bharatidasan University in Tamil Nadu in 2015 details the pressures of untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and dumping of industrial effluents into the river along its course to the Bay of Bengal. “Beyond the dispute, the levels of pollution in the river are mind-boggling,” says Janakarajan. “Sewage and industrial effluents from hundreds of villages, towns and cities are dumped untreated into the river, reducing its quality and flow,” he adds. Industrial corridors that house textile, cement and steel units are found in heavy concentration around Mysuru, Coimbatore, Salem and Tiruchirappalli. These units regularly and unabashedly release effluents into the river. This has degraded the quality of water and samples from the river often fail to meet the limits set by the Central Pollution Control Board.

No one owns the river

What has exacerbated the crisis is the strictly utilitarian approach adopted by the states and even the tribunal towards the river, says T N Prakash Kammaradi, chairperson of the Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission, a founding member of the Cauvery Family, an informal network which mediated between farmers of both the states between 2003 and 2007. “The problem is that while the allocations are almost purely based on quantities required by states, this approach completely undermines the fact that the river is a separate agro-ecological unit that supports an ecology and has an appropriate mechanism of agriculture that it can sustain. We need to move away from viewing the river as something over which we have a right,” says Kammaradi.

Kammaradi is also critical of the water-sharing mechanism proposed by the tribunal. Instead of focusing on the quantum of water for allocation, which is decided by bureaucrats and politicians, the mechanism of sharing must be centred on efficient usage. Democratic processes of grassroots dialogue between aggrieved parties should also be encouraged. “Instead of lump sum allocations, if a mechanism is arrived at to provide water on the basis of acreage and requirement, assuming efficient use by every user, people will have no choice but to start treating the resource with the respect that it deserves,” says Kammaradi.

Singh disagrees. “The job of the tribunal is not to decide how water should be used. That falls under the state government’s ambit. The job of the tribunal is to allocate water and try and resolve any water conflict, which I think the Cauvery tribunal has done decently well,” he says.

Disputes regarding water-sharing are not new and have been resolved across the world. The secret lies in negotiations based on how each party benefits from the water being shared, says Ram Aviram, former ambassador to Israel and lead consultant at BIT Consultancy, an organisation that specialises in cross-boundary water interactions. “As long as water is seen from the perspective of ‘rightful ownership’, there cannot be a sustained solution. The answer rather lies in viewing it as a shared resource,” he explains. This is how the water dispute between Israel and Jordan was resolved in 1994, with each nation offering something to the other based on the needs and the benefits derived from the release of water. Similar agreements have resolved the conflict surrounding the Danube that flows across ten nations in Europe.

Whether better sense will prevail among the powers that be is yet to be seen but one thing seems certain—the water wars of the increasingly deteriorating Cauvery basin are set to escalate if emotions and ego clashes over the ownership of the river continue to dominate the discussions.

A river humanised
New Zealand plans to legally declare its third largest river, the Whanganui, a "person" to ensure its protection

Rajat Ghai & Subhojit Goswami

As Karnataka and Tamil Nadu battle over the Cauvery river, a groundbreaking development has taken place in New Zealand. The Pacific nation is set to legally declare its third largest river, the Whanganui, a "person".

If the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill is passed, it would grant the river "legal personhood". As a result, for the first time, Maori tribes will be able to file lawsuits on the river's behalf if there are environmental violations. The tribes will neither own the water nor any water rights will be created through the agreement. Their focus is on fulfilling community obligations and responsibilities towards the river. With the exception of Ecuador in South America, which granted rights to its natural ecosystems a few years ago, New Zealand's legislation may become the first in the world exclusively for river protection.

"British settlers on the island violated the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 between Maori chiefs and the British Crown on how to live together in New Zealand. This bill is a part of the process of reconciliation with the Maori tribes undertaken by the New Zealand government," says Jacinta Ruru, professor at the University of Otago.

The Whanganui river is New Zealand's longest navigable river. For centuries, Maoris drank from its streams, survived on its resources and revered it as their spiritual home. From 1887, steam-boat services destroyed fish and eel populations. Dredging in the riverbed became a concern. Today, there are hardly any freshwater fisheries remaining in the river.

From the 1870s till the present, tribes living around the Whanganui have sought justice for their claims and protection of the river. Their appeals finally reached a conclusion on August 30, 2012, when the Maori tribes and the Crown signed a preliminary agreement, which recorded the key elements of the agreed Te Awa Tupua framework for the Whanganui river.

This small indigenous population of New Zealand may have some traditional answers on how to manage our rivers without conflict. "Western concepts of legal ownership emphasise individual and exclusive ownership. Maori, on the other hand, emphasise rights and responsibilities in a more collective manner to use and care for natural resources," explains Ruru.

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