“As you sow, so shall you reap.”
These prophetic words aptly apply to the Cauvery river, which has grown into a major man-made problem and is causing tensions between two neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Nature has offered its resources to mankind and how one manages those resources is a people problem. This is the root cause of the Cauvery river problem. Sheer mismanagement of water resources due to lack of foresight and planning, which is further compounded by poor monsoons, excess water extraction, illegal sand mining and uncontrolled pollution, have all contributed to the widening demand-supply gap of the Cauvery river water.
Cauvery river originates from the Brahmagiri range in Coorg district of Karnataka and flows through Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry, before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
The Cauvery enters Tamil Nadu to form the Mettur Reservoir. Main source of water to the Cauvery is the monsoon. Karnataka and Kerala receive relatively good amount of rainfall from South West monsoon from July to September.
In contrast, most of Tamil Nadu depends on North East monsoons (70% of its total rainfall), which is mostly erratic and falls between October to December; while South West monsoon contributes just 20 per cent. As a result, Tamil Nadu has been facing an overall shortage of water across the state, as demand has been exceeding water availability year on year.
Maximum water from the Cauvery river have been shared between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for a very long time, but with rising demand for water for agricultural, drinking and industrial purposes, the Cauvery river has not been able to keep up with the growing demand. This has led to disputes, claims and counter claims, of who is responsible for this situation and how much water from the river should each stakeholder state consume.
Under the British rule, agreements for sharing of Cauvery river water were agreed upon in 1892 and later in 1924. The agreements were violated by Karnataka when they built four new reservoirs – Harangi, Kabini, Hemavathi, Suvarnavathy, without central government approval, between 1973-79.
Attempts at resolving the water sharing problem through bilateral talks between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, states that drew maximum water from the river, had repeatedly failed.
Therefore, in 1990, the ‘Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’ was established to try and asses the current situation of the river and the water sharing needs between the four states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry).
Why the Tribunal’s final verdict did not resolve the problem?
The tribunal, which was established in 1990, referred to Cauvery water related data between 1901-1972 and concluded in its final order that the water available was 740 TMC. However, demand from respective states exceed this amount. Tamil Nadu pegged its requirement at 641.5 TMC, Karnataka 410 TMC, and Kerala 208.7 TMC.
Against this excess demand, the Tribunal in its final judgement, awarded Tamil Nadu 419 TMC, Karnataka 270 TMC, Kerala 30 TMC and Puducherry 7 TMC, allocating around 14 TMC to serve ecology sustaining activities.
Unfortunately, the tribunal only referred to data on water availability between 1901-1972, but from 1972 till date, the population has grown significantly and industrial activity has increased tremendously and therefore, there has been a significant growth in water demand from all stakeholder states.
The ground reality of the river did not reflect in the final order, and Karnataka has since refused to release its share of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, despite Supreme Court’s orders, leading to a serious legal and constitutional situation developing. Neither state is in any mood to relent.
Sheer mismanagement by all stakeholder states
It has been obvious for a long time that monsoon patterns will continue to remain erratic and the demand for water will continue to rise each year. Despite this, states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which draw maximum water from the Cauvery, have done little towards macro and micro water management based on current availability of water.
All four stakeholder states have allowed rampant increase in population dwellings to come up in and around the Cauvery river. This is compounded by increased industrial activity, illegal sand mining and land grabbing, and river pollution, all of which contributed to depleting water availability in both river water as well as ground water.
In Tamil Nadu, tributaries like Noyyal and Arkavathy, which used to feed water to people living around it, have been reduced to polluted mini streams turning dry in many other parts.
For a state that is deficient in water and dependent on river for its fresh water needs, Tamil Nadu has demonstrated a poor record in water management, with little effort and investment in conserving and improving availability of fresh water. In addition, ground water aquifers have not been sustained and excess ground water drawing has significantly increased the depth at which water is available. Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry fare no better.
Faulty agriculture practices
Unfortunately, agriculture is both sensitive and a political topic in India. In a state where water is scarce, crop growing patterns along with water conservation and management should be aligned to water availability, but this is not the case.
As per Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board, TN has a total annual water demand of 1894.8 TMC. The break-up is; Irrigation – 1,766 TMC, Industries, livestock etc – 77.4 TMC, Drinking water – 51.4 TMC. Against this, the total water availability is 1,587 TMC, thus reflecting an annual shortfall of 307.8 TMC.
From the above, it is obvious that agriculture draws the maximum water for irrigation. Due to local food habits and demand, the state government has been actively promoting paddy cultivation. State subsidy for rice at Rs 2 per kg has further contributed to rising demand for rice. Paddy takes up 32% of the total land area used for agriculture and is the main cause for water consumption.
The above statistics reveal the water shortfall at 307.8 TMC which could be easily addressed if the state would shift a part its paddy cultivating area to other less water consuming crops. The water used for drinking and industrial use is miniscule as compared to water used for irrigation. The lesson is obvious.
It is time for states to step in and take a macro view of crop cultivation patterns and water management based on availability. This applies to all states and is not restricted to Tamil Nadu alone.
Illegal sand mining and land grabbing
Illegal sand mining is rampant in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and is mostly controlled by local vested interests with deep political patronage. This has resulted in water wastage as also reduction in water conservation capacity.
In addition, illegal land grabbing has killed mini-tributaries through illegal construction which has blocked water flowing capacity completely and killed the water bodies that are fed by these mini-tributaries. All contributing to overall water shortage.
It’s time for states to take ownership of their problems
The Cauvery dispute is an old one but water mismanagement is a recent man-made problem that has skewed the availability and usage of water in respective states. Going forward, this problem will compound and disputes will increase further.
The only solution lies in states taking ownership of their respective problems and take a long term view of how to conserve and use water.