Cauvery dispute: Karnataka asked to release a third of the water in its reservoirs

Formula for sharing water in rain deficit years remains elusive

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Thursday 13 December 2012

The 802 km Cauvery river has 32,000 sq km basin area in Karnataka and 44,000 sq km basin area in Tamil Nadu

The chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka met on November 29 and failed once again to arrive at any consensus on how much Cauvery water is released to Tamil Nadu by December end. It was left once again to the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC), the expert body representing both sides, to decide on the quantum of release. On December 7, the committee directed that the burden to manage with less water be shared equally by the two states and that 12 TMC (340 million cubic metre (mcm)) of water be released to Tamil Nadu during the last month of this year. The committee suggested that the remaining shortage be partially overcome by increased use of groundwater reserves. Although it was agreed that “this is not an elegant solution”, the committee expressed hope that the crisis would “motivate the states to be more efficient in the usage of available water”.

The Supreme Court had earlier directed the committee “to determine the requirement of water for the standing crops” and “take a decision on that very day”. Both the states would, after this release, have a shortage of approximately 47 tmc (1,330 mcm) against their requirements until December. The precise formula however for sharing of waters in the years of deficit rainfall, however, remained elusive.

Karnataka has been directed to release a third of what is presently stored in its reservoirs. Desperate times call for desperate measures; the chief minister of Karnataka has now decided to take an all party delegation to apprise the prime minister of the implications of the directive. The issue flared up again this year as levels in storage reservoirs of both states remained well below the long term average on account of deficit rainfall (see box).

(October  to December 5, 2012)
Normal Rainfall
(October to December 5, 2012)
Storage in reservoirs
(as of Nov 30)
Ten-year storage average
Tamil Nadu 351.9 mm 372 mm 483 mcm 1680 mcm
Karnataka 160.6 mm 200.2 mm 1028 mcm 1521 mcm
Source: CMC, December 7, 2012

As per latest data from the Central Water Commission, the technical agency of the ministry of water resources, Karnataka received 20 per cent deficit rainfall between October and December 5. The northeast monsoon too has not been good to Karnataka, and together from June until November 30 there has been a deficit of 22 per cent. Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, the third riparian state, on the other hand had a northeast monsoon which was just about normal, yet they too had a total rainfall deficit of 12.4 per cent between June and November 30.

image“Aspirations of the lower riparian are always the prime cause of dispute. It wants to protect its prior use,” says Mohan Katarki, lawyer for Karnataka government. In surplus years this is not a problem, but during drought years, like this year, it results in confrontation. Tamil Nadu argues that, for instance, if there is 50 per cent less flow, then Karnataka should release 50 per cent less water.

Karnataka has argued that a formula will have to be worked out taking into account ground realities, cropping patterns and water usage month on month. If Tamil Nadu’s formula of deficit sharing was followed this year, Karnataka would have had to release every drop of water presently in its reservoirs. From the beginning Tamil Nadu has sought to protect the prior use principle. This resulted in polarised positions where Karnataka on the contrary sought to establish the sovereign water rights of the upper riparian state. There has been no meeting point in these divergent views.

“When a dispute cannot be resolved through negotiations, adjudication is the only way out,” says Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary, ministry of water resources. Iyer and others, though, have questioned the handling of the case by the judiciary. “Firstly, I think the Supreme Court should have either disposed of the petitions challenging the Cauvery Tribunal award of 2007 or dismissed them. By not doing either and sitting on the petitions for so long, the Supreme Court has in effect kept the Tribunal award in limbo for more than five and half years,” says Himanshu Thakker, convenor of South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based non-profit.

Secondly, it should have fixed accountability on the Cauvery River Authority (CRA), chaired by the prime minister, to take steps when the information and prediction of distress is known for so many months. The Supreme Court should have ordered the authority to arrive at a distress-sharing formula so that the states do not rush to it at every incidence of distress as is happening now, he adds.

There is a technical issue that is at the root of the problem. Most hydrological models establish dependable water in a river basin at 75 per cent, which essentially means the assured quantum of water that will be available three in every four years. In the case of the Cauvery award, the tribunal calculated this at 50 per cent dependability, which means that two in every four years a situation could arise, such as in this year, when there would be inadequate water available.

In deficit years, the upper riparian (Karnataka in this case) would be unwilling to release water in the post monsoon for the rabi crop given their own irrigation requirements. One suggested way of dealing with shortfalls has been to ensure that in surplus rainfall years, reservoirs storage capacity be enhanced so that enough water is available for use in the next hydrological year, an idea rejected by the anti-dam activists who instead promote smaller storage structures and improved water use efficiency and cropping patterns in the basin.

CMC, in its last meeting on December 7, said that the ministry of water resources “shall take steps to notify the final award…not later than the end of this month”. The water sharing is currently based on the 1990 interim order. The states utilised the provision in the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 to challenge the tribunal award in 2007, also simultaneously filing special leave petitions in the Supreme Court. Once the notification is complete, CMC and the CRA will cease to exist and the Cauvery Management Board and the Cauvery Water Regulation Authority will oversee the sharing of Cauvery waters among basin states. This has taken more than five years, yet remains unresolved. “Time-limits may be needed, one for extension of time for the tribunal’s further report on clarificatory petitions; and the second for the notification by the Government of India of the tribunal’s orders in the gazette,” says Iyer.

The 2007 award with the imminent notification will soon be implementable, and finally subject to the pending applications in the Supreme Court, adds Katarki.

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