Millennium Post

Cauvery dispute: Malthusian scarcity

The Cauvery dispute is more than a simple unwillingness on the part of the states to follow the allocations prescribed. In many ways, the periodic scarcity reflects the increase in the burden of the river. There have been several changes in the demographics as well as the use of the Cauvery waters in the past century. One of the most glaring changes is the increase in the population that lives in the basin. According to the 1921 census, the total population of the state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency was about 28.6 million. Today, even by conservative estimates based on the 2011 census, close to 50 million people live in the basin in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This amounts to an almost twofold increase. 

As with any region in the world, the change in demography has been accompanied by changes in agricultural patterns and growth of industries. Cropping pattern in Tamil Nadu has changed from two to three crops of paddy per year between the 1970s and 1990s. In Karnataka, farmers have opted to grow paddy over much more water-efficient crops such as millets and ragi. Farmers in both the states have also started cultivating water-intensive sugarcane along the Cauvery basin. 

According to a 2009 paper published in the journal, Water Policy, the water use for cultivation of winter rice in Karnataka Cauvery basin increased 11 times between 1980 and 2000, while water consumption for the summer rice doubled. In Tamil Nadu, too, which had a much better irrigation system in place, water use increased substantially between the late 1980s and the early 2000s. This was mainly due to the popularity of growing a third paddy crop, for which water use more than tripled. 

In the past decade, though the area irrigated by the river has remained the same, the effects of the change in cropping patterns are clear, says Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, a veteran in the field of environmental policy and co-author of the paper. “There is no physical scarcity in the Cauvery, but a commitment to water-intensive crops and farming styles in lieu of less water-intensive millets has ensured that the water dispute does not see a speedy resolution. Even with full irrigation capacity, it will lead to a conflict between the upstream and downstream states,” he explains.

A prime example of rapid population increase in the Cauvery basin is Bengaluru, where the population has increased nearly threefold in the past 20 years. Bengaluru’s current demand for water from the Cauvery is 30 TMC. This comes to over 10 percent of the total water allocated to Karnataka, much more than the city should get if the allocation is done on the basis of its area as a percentage of the total Cauvery basin in the state. “Though most of Bengaluru is outside the Cauvery basin, the city commands much more than its share of the river,” says V Balasubramaniam, former Additional Secretary in the Karnataka government. “What’s worse is that around 45 percent of the water is lost in leakages. You can see the indiscriminate use of the resource.” Moreover, the water has to be pumped up to an elevation of 540 m from the Cauvery, which is 100 km away. “It would be much more efficient to restore the lakes in the city and recycle water for usage,” says Balasubramaniam. 

Vanishing forest cover
An equally important change is in the land use pattern along the Cauvery. Along with an increase in cropping area and irrigation command area between 1980 and 2000, there has been a reduction in the forest area, especially close to the source of the river in Kodagu district and in the downstream Mysuru district. According to the “State of Forest” reports published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, dense forests in both these districts have declined by about 10 percent between 2001 and 2013. 

An estimate by the Coffee Agroforestry Network (CAFNET), an international project funded by the European Union to study the loss of diversity, shows that between 1977 and 1997, forest cover decreased by 28 percent in Kodagu. The report links the drop in forest cover to changes in the coffee-growing system that has shifted from stream-fed shady plantations to irrigated plantations. The tribunal award and mechanisms of farming across the basin are not in consonance, says T V Ramachandran, a professor of ecology at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. “Neither the judiciary nor the farmers seem to understand the hydrology or ecology of the riverine system. Forest reduction close to the source of the river in Karnataka is a major factor that could potentially reduce the yield of the river in the years to come,” he says. The tribunal award does not take into consideration the ecological and hydrological aspects that keep the river flowing, he adds.

Another factor that has contributed to the scarcity of water in the river is irregular rainfall. According to the CAFNET study, the average rainy season in the Kodagu region has reduced by 14 days over the past 35 years. A study by IISc found that although the overall rainfall in the Cauvery basin has increased by 2.7 percent, the water in the river has reduced by two percent, while evapotranspiration losses due to higher temperatures have increased by about 7.5 percent. Another study published in Current Science in 2011 has predicted that climate change might cause an up to 50 percent reduction in the waters of the Cauvery sub-basins by 2080. 

The decline in the quality of the river water is also an area of concern. A thesis submitted to the Bharatidasan University in Tamil Nadu in 2015 details the pressures of untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and dumping of industrial effluents into the river along its course to the Bay of Bengal. “Beyond the dispute, the levels of pollution in the river are mind-boggling,” says Janakarajan. “Sewage and industrial effluents from hundreds of villages, towns and cities are dumped untreated into the river, reducing its quality and flow,” he adds. Industrial corridors that house textile, cement and steel units are found in heavy concentration around Mysore, Coimbatore, Salem and Tiruchirappalli. These units regularly and unabashedly release effluents into the river. This has degraded the quality of water and samples from the river often fail to meet the limits set by the Central Pollution Control Board.

No one owns the river
What has exacerbated the crisis is the strictly utilitarian approach adopted by the states and even the tribunal towards the river, says T N Prakash Kammaradi, chairperson of the Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission, a founding member of the Cauvery Family, an informal network which mediated between farmers of both the states between 2003 and 2007. “The problem is that while the allocations are almost purely based on quantities required by states, this approach completely undermines the fact that the river is a separate agro-ecological unit that supports an ecology and has an appropriate mechanism of agriculture that it can sustain. We need to move away from viewing the river as something over which we have a right,” says Kammaradi.

Kammaradi is also critical of the water-sharing mechanism proposed by the tribunal. Instead of focusing on the quantum of water for allocation, which is decided by bureaucrats and politicians, the mechanism of sharing must be centred on efficient usage. Democratic processes of grassroots dialogue between aggrieved parties should also be encouraged. “Instead of lump sum allocations, if a mechanism is arrived at to provide water on the basis of acreage and requirement, assuming efficient use by every user, people will have no choice but to start treating the resource with the respect that it deserves,” says Kammaradi.

Singh disagrees. “The job of the tribunal is not to decide how water should be used. That falls under the state government’s ambit. The job of the tribunal is to allocate water and try and resolve any water conflict, which I think the Cauvery tribunal has done decently well,” he says.

Disputes regarding water-sharing are not new and have been resolved across the world. The secret lies in negotiations based on how each party benefits from the water being shared, says Ram Aviram, former ambassador to Israel and lead consultant at BIT Consultancy, an organisation that specialises in cross-boundary water interactions. “As long as water is seen from the perspective of ‘rightful ownership’, there cannot be a sustained solution. The answer rather lies in viewing it as a shared resource,” he explains. This is how the water dispute between Israel and Jordan was resolved in 1994, with each nation offering something to the other based on the needs and the benefits derived from the release of water. Similar agreements have resolved the conflict surrounding the Danube that flows across ten nations in Europe.

Whether better sense will prevail among the powers that be is yet to be seen but one thing seems certain—the water wars of the increasingly deteriorating Cauvery basin are set to escalate if emotions and ego clashes over the ownership of the river continue to dominate the discussions.

(The views expressed are those of Down to Earth.)
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