With Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on the boil over Cauvery water-sharing, the need for India to have a permanent and dynamic riparian dispute resolution mechanism has been brought to fore. While the Supreme Court order to Karnataka, to release 12,000 cusec Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu till September 20, was the trigger for this round of rioteering, the dispute between the two states, as Girish Nikam points out in The Wire, is rooted in history. Given its check-dams and reservoirs dating back to the tenth century, Tamil Nadu has historically made greater use of Cauvery water—which is why the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal ratified the 1892 and 1924 agreements between Madras (Tamil Nadu) and Mysore (Karnataka). Sixteen years after it was set up, the Tribunal gave Tamil Nadu 419 thousand million cubic (tmc) feet out of the 740 tmc feet of water the river makes available annually. This would seem unfair, given the state generates only 227 tmc feet while Karnataka generates 462 tmc feet, and gets to keep only 227 tmc feet. But, the order also significantly scales down Tamil Nadu’s share—from 80%, as per the 1924 agreement, to 57%.
The internecine water war between the states lingers largely due to the fact that while both states’ needs have grown and have changed in nature—besides rapidly ballooning irrigation demand, water supply to cities and hydroelectricity generation projects have an increasing dependence on the river—changing rainfall patterns are complicating matters further. Cauvery basin reservoirs in both states had far lesser water than they can store—as of September 8, Karnataka’s reservoirs were at 30% below capacity while Tamil Nadu’s were at 49%. The problem for Karnataka is that its overall reservoir capacity for Cauvery waters, at 2.75 billion cubic metres (bcm), is less than Tamil Nadu’s (3.44 bcm).
While the states ought to have had better grip of the law-and-order situation, the problem will not be solved even if—as PM Modi said in his appeal for peace—it is dealt with legally. The Inter-State River Water Disputes Act provides for the creation of dispute resolution tribunals and the Union government is sufficiently empowered to intervene in case of inter-state disputes while the Supreme Court has issued numerous orders in such matters, but this approach has only taken the country thus far. Dispute resolution tribunals—for Narmada and Krishna, apart from Cauvery—have chalked out water distribution formulas, but implementation has proven difficult. In fact, with increasing climate uncertainty and changing water-needs, it is going to get that much harder unless a more permanent mechanism—one that continually evaluates needs and usage patterns to work out solutions—is instituted. Besides, usage needs to be calibrated relative to availability to prevent unjustified drawing. For instance, areas which depend on rain-fed rivers must cap cultivation of water-intensive crops; that would mean a Tamil Nadu must bring down Samba (a water-intensive paddy variety) cultivation in the Cauvery basin. Pricing water appropriately is the best way to achieve this, including in cities, to dissuade wasteful usage. The fact that nearly 2,000 tmc of water from Karnataka’s rivers gets drained into the Arabian Sea annually is an indicator of how much more efficient India’s water resources management needs to get.