Time to resolve water wars in India

Time to resolve water wars in India

The 125-year-old Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has erupted once again since the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu on September 05, 2016. On September 15, the Supreme Court altered the order and asked Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs water. But violence continued for two to three days, and both states could not arrive on a satisfactory settlement. Both the states are safeguarding their interests, so there is a lack of spirit of compromise.  It must be a sense of déjà vu for many people of older generation that war erupts again and again between these two states but no solution has been arrived at. Water activist KJ Roy writes: “Monsoon failures heighten the conflict between both states. This year, deficit in the rainfall is clearly visible in the Karnataka, farmers’ anxiety and stress leads to violence. The worst violence people witnessed was in 1991, when thousands of Tamil population and properties were attacked in Karnataka.” Karnataka wants to triple its share while Tamil Nadu wants to maintain its need of more water to sustain its extensive farming. So there is arson, curfew and riots over water. It is notable that in its final arbiter of Inter-State River Water Disputes, the Supreme Court on September 27, 2016, took no notice of  Karnataka legislature’s resolution to not share Cauvery water and ordered the Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water to neighbouring Tamil Nadu for the next three days.

Another major dispute erupts over Mahanadi water sharing between Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Chief Ministers of both states are engaged in words wars and the political parties try to turn it into an emotional affair.  The upstream state, Chhattisgarh’s ongoing barrage constructions is vehemently opposed by downstream state, Odisha.  During Monsoon, Mahanadi river discharges water almost the same as Ganges, but in dry season it turns into a narrow channel. Before construction of Hirakud Dam in 1953 over Mahanadi, it was infamously called ‘’sorrow of Odisha’’ because of massive floods it caused. Heavy rainfall is still the reason for floods in the Odisha but the deluge is not frequent and devastating as was earlier. It is surprising that Chhattisgarh has been building barrages for a decade but it was the last month only, Odisha CM Naveen Pattanik  took up the issue at the inter-state council meeting in New Delhi. Since then, Odisha’s political parties especially Biju Janata Dal (BJD) staged ‘Save Mahanadi’ protest all over Odisha. Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh reiterated the state rights to utilize Mahanadi water, stating that BJD’s allegations are politically motivated, not based on facts.

For many decades, Odisha is the principal user of the Mahanadi, whereas Chhattisgarh has been the major contributor.  According to recently promulgated international law for transboundary, rivers Odisha cannot demand the right to use water as primary user, Chhattisgarh’s demand for equitable use of water is also a legitimate subject. Currently, Chhattisgarh uses 3.5 per cent of Mahanadi’s water, Odisha uses 14 per cent, while rest of 82.5 per cent flows into the Bay of Bengal. So there is enough water in the river to meet the demand of both the states but it needs proper management to store the monsoon water.

There are 14 major rivers in India and all of them are inter-state rivers.  Most of the inter-state river conflicts occur due to the population subsistence agriculture is dependant on these rivers. Thus, there is no dearth of river-water conflicts. There are several disputes, which have been pending for years, and new conflicts sprout in no time. Governments have created tribunals for conflict resolution like Ravi-Beas water tribunal, Cauvery water disputes tribunal, Krishna water disputes tribunal et al.

Apart from these tribunals, the Centre had already constituted a three-member supervisory committee on the Mullaperiyar Dam for implementing the Supreme Court order of May 7, 2014, and Babhali Barrage for implementation of the apex court’s order of February 28, 2013. Third, similar action was in the pipeline for Son river of Bihar.

There is no single drop of water left in  the river in Yamuna due to the current water sharing arrangement between Delhi and Haryana. The result is the most polluted stretch of Yamuna is from Wazirabad barrage to Okhla-Kalindi Kunj barrage in Delhi and Supreme Court’s intervention  becomes an essential entity whenever there occurs a dispute over water supply. Populous cities like Delhi, Bengaluru etc. should work on rain water harvesting in order to mitigate increasing demand of water.  Rapid urbanization is happening everywhere and the water mining has gone unchecked.  Solution for sharing of river water between states should not be in political way, but should be in the domain of legal framework. When policymakers from the various parties, involved in the solution process, achieve a solution in their own favour it leads to riot, and in extreme cases, killing. Taking to street never gives a lasting solution to the case, rather it will jeopardize long-term outcomes. Recently, streets of Bengaluru  witnessed violence because the vote-bank greedy politicians exploited the emotions of public.


India does not have the comprehensive data of rivers across the country. India needs to create models by considering hydrology, meteorology, ecology and economy for all the rivers.  Advance technology has made easy to draw maps, using geospatial apparatus.

Every year various tributaries of rivers are heavily silted and as a result it has lessened the flow of main channels.  Likewise, dams are also received significant amount of silt every year.  The government needs to de-silt them; otherwise water flow will automatically be diminished.

Water crisis is also linked to the way we do agriculture activities.  Nearly two-third of  water of  rivers is used for agriculture purpose. Farmers in our country cultivate paddy, sugarcane etc. which need much water despite having evidence of deficiency of water in various area.  Farming community needs to switch to sustainable crops using less water.

In September, 2016 in one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases, in a landmark verdict, the Te Awa Tupua river was given a legal voice by describing  it as a living creature with rights and interests of its own. Four year ago, Ecuador, too, under its constitution has given rights to its rivers and forests. In most legal systems today, rivers have no rights at all; it is the people who use their waters that have rights. Our rivers are living, breathing entities. Perhaps in this change in perception lies a solution.

by Sanjay k bissoyi       

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