Water sharing, whether it is within country’s states/provinces or transboundary, has always seen a tumultuous relationship between the concerned upper and lower riparian regions. Being a fundamental resource and a sustainer of the agriculture and energy sectors, the decline in freshwater has put riparian states over loggerheads for issues concerning the survival needs of their populations. With growing water insecurity in the wake of climate change, increased mean temperature, unfavorable monsoon patterns, receding glaciers and several anthropogenic factors, India has a long history of several on-going inter-state and transboundary water conflicts.

The latest case of the on-going dispute between Karnataka (upper riparian) and Tamil Nadu (lower riparian) Cauvery water-sharing dispute is an example of a failed inter-state treaty which was signed way back in 1892 and later in 1924.  The September 2016 incident that has sparked widespread unrest in Karnataka is the result of the recent Supreme Court’s interim order to release 15 thousand million cubic meters (TMC) of water per day to Tamil Nadu for 10 days starting from 13th September. The two states still have no clear mechanism and mutual engagement on water sharing in the distress season, thereby resulting in several violent protests as seen earlier in 1991, 1995-96, 2002-03, 2007, 2012 and now in 2016.

A Brief History

The 1924 permanent agreement on Cauvery water sharing between the erstwhile Mysore and Madras Governments has clauses related to the development of irrigation infrastructure in the river’s basin. The overarching theme in this agreement is prevention of a potential harm in the downstream riparian state by the construction of dams and other irrigation infrastructure in the upstream riparian state. It further probes that prior consent of downstream riparian is required for construction of dams in the upstream riparian and if any irrigation investment is made upstream it should not deter the water flows downstream.

But Karnataka, without the consent of Tamil Nadu, the central government, Central Water Commission and Planning Commission, constructed four reservoirs (Harangi, Kabini, Hemavathi and Suvarnavathy) on the Cauvery basin with a total storage capacity of 59.1 thousand million cubic meters (TMC) and an irrigation potential of 13.25 lakh acres. This was done to augment the unexplored irrigation potential of the state which compared to Tamil Nadu was lacking quite far behind. 

Tamil Nadu owing to its historical blessings already had a vast and diversified network of irrigation infrastructures which were built by the Chola dynasty rulers way back in the 10th century. 

Owing to the well-established irrigation systems, Karnataka has been arguing that the water treaties signed in 1892 and 1924 had clauses that were in favour of Tamil Nadu. Karnataka had approached Tamil Nadu for revamping the treaty but as per the accusations, Tamil Nadu never addressed the concerns bilaterally.

Over a period of different phases, a never-ending conflict has been sparked between the States, specifically during the distress periods of unfavorable monsoon. Tamil Nadu has been accusing Karnataka of infringing the treaty. It states that the downstream riparian has suffered water shortages due to inappropriate water allocation especially in the lean season and during monsoon failure seasons. Karnataka on the rebuttal has complained it’s right to use the water in the distress season for the survival of its agrarian community.  

In 1990 the contending States took help of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act 1956 to resolve the conflict. It led to the formation of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) on 2nd June 1990. Over the course of time, both the states have approached the Tribunal along with the Supreme Court (SC) with matters related to water sharing, especially in the distress season. The brief description of the events is presented in the table below.

| Course of Events

| Setup of CWDT as a result of growing distrust and construction of dams by Karnataka.

| After Supreme Court’s intervention, CWDT considered TN’s plea for immediate water release. By calculating the average inflows over a period of 10 years (ignoring the outliers), the Tribunal ordered Karnataka to release 205 billion ft³ of water to TN over the year dispersed on a monthly basis.

| Due to monsoon failure, Karnataka was unable to release the water as per the interim order. TN approached the Tribunal and after huge political and social drama, Karnataka was asked to release 11 billion ft³ of water but it only released 6 billion ft³ to TN.

| Cauvery River Authority (CRA) and Cauvery Monitoring Committee was established in order to take over the control of dams in the event of the Interim Order not being honored. Its formation was strongly protested by Karnataka which argued that the Tribunal’s verdict on interim order had no scientific basis and was intrinsically flawed.

| Again due to unfavorable monsoons, Karnataka was unable to uphold the water release to TN as per the interim order. CRA and Supreme Court intervened and ordered Karnataka to release 1.25 billion ft³ of water every day.

| CWDT announced its FINAL verdict on 5th February 2007. The final order awarded 419 TMC to Tamil Nadu, 270 TMC to Karnataka, 30 TMC to Kerala, and 7 TMC to Pondicherry. Karnataka was also ordered to additionally ensure 192 TMC of water to TN. It also asked the States to share deficiency in pro rata basis. The tribunal also directed the constitution of a Cauvery Management Board and a Regulatory Authority to look at the implementation aspect.
The final verdict was totally objected by Karnataka while TN commanded to notify this order on the official gazette of the central government. Subsequently, this verdict was challenged before the SC through Special Leave Petitions filed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala.

 | Karnataka consistently defiled the final verdict of the tribunal and TN constantly approached the CRA over the years. On 19 September 2012 (the year of major Karnataka drought), CRA directed Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of water to TN on a daily basis. Karnataka again defiled the order and on 6th December 2012, the SC directed Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu. It also asked the union government to notify the final verdict order f 2007.

 | Based on the direction of the SC on 20 February 2013, the Indian Government notified the final award of the CWDT.

 | Again due to unfavorable southwest monsoons, Karnataka was unable to uphold the water release to TN as per the final order. Concerning the survival of TN’s ‘samba’ crop, the State approached the SC. The SC ordered Karnataka to release 15 thousand million cubic meters (TMC) of water per day to Tamil Nadu for 10 days starting from 13th September.
Till date Cauvery Management Board and a Regulatory Authority has not been setup.

The real reasons behind the conflict

The history behind the Cauvery water conflict shows a grim picture of growing distrust and hatred between the two States. But it has to be noted that the real reason behind this water dispute is the institutional failure with regards to efficient and effective water governance of rural and urban water demands. Acclaimed environmentalist Sunita Narain is of the view that this dispute is a result of a man-made crisis. 

In light of variable monsoon cycles, one of the reasons behind water shortages in the two states is a shift in the traditional cropping pattern. Firstly, due to institutional foolhardiness and greater water availability, the farmers of both the regions have abandoned growing staple crops that required less water and were drought resilient. Secondly, Tamil Nadu only used to grow winter rice but now summer rice is also grown along the Cauvery delta, thereby putting more pressure on the water requirement. 

This problem could have been solved to an extent if Karnataka did not start sugarcane cultivation along with summer and winter paddy cultivation. This haphazard cropping pattern of growing highly intensive water-consuming crops along the river’s ecosystem has worsened the situation more.

Another reason that led to conflict exacerbation due to water shortages is the urban water demand. Bangalore water requirement has upshot a lot over the last decade and to satisfy the demand a lot of water from the Cauvery river is diverted for the city. The diversion is accompanied by a huge amount of water transmission and distribution losses due to operational weakness, leading to a wasteful use of water. The urban water demand around Bangalore could have put less pressure on the Cauvery water if the dwellers around Bangalore tried to protect their surrounding natural lakes and aquifers that recharge the groundwater.

What lies ahead?

Both states have to come to a mutual consensus as soon as possible. Since water shortages will continue in the Cauvery delta, the States have to come up with effective water conservation solutions. The following solutions can be looked into:

  • There has to be a shift to the traditional cropping pattern of rice. Summer rice cultivation should be stopped in both the States during distress seasons.
  • An impetus is required to promote cultivation of diverse traditional staple crops that are less water-intensive, climate resilient and more drought resilient. These include grains other than rice, millets, ragi, etc which should be incentivized by the government.
  • Water conserving agrarian technologies and techniques like System Root Intensification, drip irrigation, etc should be adopted. The farmers of both the States needs to effectively mitigate and adapt to climate change externalities using these techniques.
  • Since Cauvery river water is 100 percent utilized, both the States should look into interlinking their lakes and aquifers to meet the water requirement for rural and urban sectors.
  • The ecosystem that ensures the sustenance of Cauvery river in Karnataka has to be kept alive and free from urbanization and unplanned cropping culture.
  • There is a need to promote water conservation on the community level which should actually determine Cauvery’s water allocation to the respective States.
  • There is a need to think an integrated groundwater recharge strategy and promote more investment in the science of monsoon and aerosols in order to understand the changing nature of monsoon.
  • Finally, there is a need to promote strong and influential institutions backed up with sound technical expertise to effectively adjudicate the Cauvery matter.

(This article has been contributed by Akshat Mishra who is the Founding Editor of Pathways to Development- Journalism about the environment, sustainability, and policy from researchers on the ground. Akshat is also working as a Senior Research Associate with CUTS International)