Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Short answer: Because “whiskey’s for drinking, but water’s for fighting over”.

Water crisis is not unique to India. Human population is growing while the supply of drinking water is decreasing. Water crisis is inevitable all around the world at some point of time, if this trend continues. In fact, it is a reality at many places at this very moment. The problem is there in every corner of the world. ~2.8 billion people are affected by water shortage for at least one month in a year. 

Let us first understand why is there a crisis in the first place. With growing population and urbanisation the demand of water is exceeding the rate at which the aquifers are recharged. The waste generation is also increasing with time. It is polluting the already stressed drinking waters. This is very obvious in cities like Delhi. We desperately need to clean our rivers. Climate change is accelerating the crisis further. As the icecaps are melting, the glaciers are receding. This reduces the flow of waters in rivers and streams. Climate change also affects the weather pattern. Droughts are becoming common and monsoons are becoming unpredictable.

Water conflicts are nothing new. Where ever a river basin is divided between strong states, there has been rivalry. In fact, the English word “rival” is derived from the Latin word "rivalis," meaning persons who live on opposite banks of a river used for irrigation. Conflicts related to usage of river waters is common in Middle East and North Africa over the waters of Euphrates, Tigris, Nile and Jordan river. Turkey and Israel had made a “water for arms” deal in 2004. Turkey exported gallons of water in oil tanks to Israel in return for tanks and airforce technology. Stress is building up over the water usage of Colorado River in US. Water wars have been common in California. When I went to Mono Lake I was amazed to see the towering Tufa towers. I was surprised when I heard that they formed under water. The dramatic fall in the water level has not only exposed them, but also affected the eco-system. 

Tufa tower of Mono Lake

Water scarcity is also affecting Mediterranean basin. Spain had to import water from France in 2008 due to severe drought in Catalonia. South-eastern Brazil, including cities like Rio de Janeiro, are struggling with the worst droughts in over 80 years. China has always been a society that is heavily depended on its river water. Hydrologists have warned that the economic boom is fast drying up the water resource, and with it China’s future.

Nowhere on earth the decline of groundwater is faster than it is in northern India. It became evident when twin satellites from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) detected the ground water storage based on gravity. India had it’s share of disputes over the sharing of river waters with Bangladesh and Pakistan. But the main war for water in India is happening in the south.

In India water is not just a necessity … water is god. Control of river has always been the key to agriculture and economy of empires. Wherever there was a dispute, war followed. Fight for the waters of Krishna River dates way back in history. There have been battles between the Chola and Chalukya Empires between 10th to 12th century, then again between the Vijayanagara Empire and Bhamani Kingdom in 14th century.

The dispute of Kaveri River started in the 19th century between the kings of Mysore and British controlled Madras Presidency. A pact was signed in 1892 that allowed “on the one hand allow to Mysore in dealing with irrigation works, and on the other, give to Madras practical security against injury to interests”. The pact resulted in peace that lasted for 18 years. In 1910 the issue resurfaced when Mysore king wanted to construct a dam with a capacity of over 40TMC. It clashed with the interest of Madras which had it’s own plan of a dam almost double in size. After lots of negotiations final agreement was reached in 1924 which allowed Mysore to construct the dam, but of only 11 TMC capacity. Because of higher population and need TN got more share of the water. The agreement was to lapse after 50 years. The seeds of today’s conflict was planted.


Post Independence Indian states were reorganised on linguistic basis. The Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (ISRWD Act) was passed on the eve of reorganisation under Article 262 of Constitution of India to resolve the water disputes that would “arise in the use, control and distribution of an interstate river or river valley”. The reorganisation brought new players into the game. The new state of Kerala and the Union Territory of Pondicherry now had a share too. However, Madras, now Tamil Naidu (TN), and Mysore, now Karnataka, remained the major players.

The Government of India archive website reports 7 Inter-State water disputes under ISRWD, 1956:


The control for Kaveri remained a volatile mix of unpredictable monsoons and dirty politics. The dispute was referred to a Tribunal in 1990. Every failed monsoon inflamed the tensions. Violence broke out in 1991-92, especially in Tamil populated parts of Bangalore. Monsoons failed again in 1995. Quick intervention by the then prime-minister P.V. Rao resulted in a negotiation and helped prevent widespread violence. Tensions flared up again in 2002 when monsoons failed once more. It was followed by four years of relative calm.

The final judgement by the Tribunal was delivered in 2007 as per ISRWD. It allocated 419 TCM ft. of water annually to Tamil Nadu, 270 TCM ft. to Karnataka, 30 TCM ft. to Kerala and 7 TCM ft. to Puducherry. None of the states were happy with the decision and review petitions were filed by them for re-negotiation. With no side willing to back off, the dispute still remains nine years since the judgement.

To understand the dispute let us first try to understand the number game. The following analysis is based on the data in the following website : http://thewire.in/65243/who-should-karnataka-blame-in-the-cauvery-dispute-history-has-some-answers/

Experts did some complicated maths (which has lot’s of assumption) to come up with the magic number of 740 TCM ft of total water available from Kaveri Basin (if monsoon does not fail). Of that the major chunk of 462 TCM ft is the yield of the river in Karnataka. Karnataka can keep only 270 TCM ft and give the rest (192 TCM ft) to TN. TN also generates 227 TCM ft from it’s own catchment area increasing the total share of the state to 419 TCM ft (227+192). Kerala, which generates 51 TCM ft, can keep only 30 TCM ft. The rest 21 is divided between Pondicherry (7 TCM ft) and environmental purposes (14 TCM ft).

The obvious question is why Karnataka gets less water though it has the highest water yield?

This is a very common problem around the globe. As per this (http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/La-Mi/Law-International-Water.html#ixzz4K8rBYhPM) website:

The upper-riparian nations (riparian nations—nations across which, or along which, a river flows) initially base their claims on absolute territorial sovereignty, typically claiming the right to do whatever they choose with the water regardless of its effect on other riparian nations. Downstream nations, on the other hand, generally begin with a claim to the absolute integrity of the river, claiming that upper-riparian nations can do nothing that affects the quantity or quality of water that flows in the watercourse. The utter incompatibility of such claims guarantees that neither claim will prevail in the end, although the process of negotiating or otherwise arriving at a solution might require decades.

Karnataka, being an upper-riparian state, has more responsibility. It has to provide water for down-stream states, which in this case is TN. That still does not justify TN getting a total of 419 TCM ft and Karnataka only 270 TCM ft. The justification to the biased proportion lies way back in history. The Chola Dynasty has been building dams for irrigation since 10th century. This led to growth of agriculture in TN. Comparatively, Karnataka had been lagging behind. The people of TN became more dependent on the waters of Kaveri River than Karnataka. Under British Rule TN naturally got more share of water. Even till 1974 80% of the annual yield of Kaveri River was used by TN. Now that TN is more dependent on the waters, there is no way of reducing their share drastically without adversely affecting the farmers. TN has more population and thus more need. Karnataka, on the other hand, needs more share for the growth of their agriculture. With rapid increase in the population (more than 10% in last decade) in Southern Karnataka (having cities like Bangalore) the demand of water is also rapidly growing. Without increase in share of water Karnataka's growth will become unstable.

Another issue that Karnataka has with the tribunal is the monthly allocation of water that it has to provide to TN. During the four monsoon months it has to provide 10 TCM ft in June, 34 TMC ft in July, 50 TMC ft in August and 40 TMC ft in September. This is based on the average figures provided by the state itself. There is no problem when monsoon is sufficient. However, during the distress years, like this year (2016), it becomes a major issue.

The 2016 water crisis started when Supreme Court (SC) directed Karnataka to release 15,000 causecs of water to TN for 10 days on 5th September. This order was passed to satisfy the demands of TN's farmers for growing summer crops. This led to violent protests in Karnataka, as the water flow was already less. As the law and order went out of control SC revised the orders this Monday (12th Sep). Now Karnataka has to provide 12,000 causecs instead of 15,000. The duration, however, was increased till 20th September instead of 15,000 causecs for five days as Karnataka wished, and the protest continues.

According to recent estimates Karnataka has suffered a loss of around Rs 22,000-25,000 crore because of the wide-spread agitation hitting transport services and businesses. Two deaths has already been reported because of the clashes. Most of the violence is instigated by miscreants. Involvement of politicians cannot be ruled out. The scary fact is that, there is no easy solution to the problem.

Is Kaveri dispute a warning for rest of India? As water demand grows and rivers dry up, are we going to see more of such wars? What is the solution?

Only way to solve the issue is dialogue and negotiations. The states has to be more mature and understand that the problem will only increase if it is not solved now. Instead of short term thinking guided by local politics, politicians should think about the long term implications. The states also need to manage the water efficiently. There is a lot of scope of improvement for better water management. One way is to avoid water intensive paddy crops and the use of techniques that do not facilitate conservation of water. If we don’t act now, the water wars is soon to become reality all over India. We desperately need to find a peaceful alternative.

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