As many say, and many more must fear – the next world war could be fought over the right to access water – the most essential natural resource that has sustained civilisation, writes Radhika Dutt
Subsumed in a battle to beat the odds of poverty, violence, terror and crime – us, the survivors of the 21st century have negated the practice of questioning the idea of basic existence. We are inveterate consumers – assuming that the availability of natural resources will continue to be an aspect of the present. As many say, and many more must fear – the next world war could be fought over the rights to the very basic- rights over access to water – the most essential natural resource that has sustained civilisation.
Since the first week of March, the national Capital has witnessed protests spearheaded by the farmers of Tamil Nadu who have flocked to New Delhi demanding relief from their sorrows – problems rooted deeply in an environmental crisis that has been booming since the 20th century. For over 40 days, these indebted farmers have displayed a repertoire of tactics to grab the Centre's attention to resolve an ongoing crisis which has compelled over 50 farmers in the state to commit suicide since the second half of 2016. While the immediate reason for their despair can be assigned to indebtedness - the source of this indebtedness lies in the failure to manoeuvre irrigation facilities that must exist in spite of environmental crises.
The crisis in Tamil Nadu which began last year after the failure of the summer crops resonates a larger, global problem which has been the painstaking highlight of the 20th century – rights over water sources, and the battle to overcome the backlash of environmental disasters. Since August 2016, Tamil Nadu has witnessed an outbreak of protests over its claim on the Cauvery river water, which has been swelled by the Karnataka government's refusal to abate situations. The right over the Cauvery water basin has been in contestation since 1892, between the Madras Presidency, and the princely state of Mysore. Despite interim orders, in 2016, Karnataka had stopped releasing water into Tamil Nadu hindering the southern state's irrigation channels.
A subsequent drought during the northeast monsoon, and an unprecedented cyclone Vardah further compounded the calamity prevalent in the State. While the Cauvery Water Tribunal had ruled in 2007 that Tamil Nadu would receive 419 thousand million cubic feet of water and Karnataka would receive 270 thousand million cubic feet; last year sighting agricultural deficiencies of its own, Karnataka refused to supply water to Tamil Nadu, the precursor that multiplied into a massive agrarian crisis. The farmers of Tamil Nadu who had assembled at the Jantar Mantar in the Capital called off their protest late on the evening of April 23 – only with the clause that they would return unless their demands were met by May 25.
The southern state of Karnataka is not exempt from this prevailing crisis. With only 20 per cent water left in the 9 out of 12 dams in this state marked by industrial development, the fate of rural Karnataka hangs by a lose thread. In 2016, Karnataka faced the worst drought it has experienced in the last 40 years as 160 out of 176 taluks have been declared drought hit. The capital city, Bengaluru alone has lost 79 per cent of its water bodies, as 98 per cent lakes have been encroached upon with concretisation. Official data from the Karnataka Ministry suggests that all major water reservoirs in the state are witnessing shortfalls – with not even one being close to its complete capacity. Battling a rainfall deficit of 29 per cent, which is furthered by rampant pollution of available water resources- consumable water in Karnataka is dwindling by the minute. This misfortune has compelled the Karnataka government to restrict flow of water from the Cauvery River into Tamil Nadu, which has provided little relief, and instead proliferated the problem of water shortage into Tamil Nadu too. This crisis has also led to rampant crop failure, with Rs 7209 crore worth of Rabi crops failing in the winter harvest. The Central government has until April released Rs 1685 crore of aid from the National Disaster Relief Fund, to assist the state in coping with its loss.
The story of water crisis extends from Maharashtra to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh- covering almost the entire span of mainland India. Orissa and Chhattisgarh are still battling over rightful use of Mahanadi river water, and West Bengal is facing its own complications as sharing access to the Teesta River is becoming of growing concern. The Teesta River pact which has been on deliberation since 1983, has been steadily dismissed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee – who has otherwise maintained peaceful understanding with Bangladesh. As the other Bengal demands 50 per cent share of water between December to May, West Bengal has been unsuccessful to provide satiation.
Citing its own agricultural needs, and an excess of hydroelectric projects that have come up in Sikkim- West Bengal battling its own shortages can provide little relief to its other half. Adhering to International Convention, Mamata Banerjee cannot restrict natural flow of the Teesta river into Bangladesh, but what she has suggested instead is that other rivers, such as the Torsa should also be allied for sharing, reducing burden on Teesta – which flows through Sikkim, into Bengal, and moves onto Bangladesh where it finally merges with the Brahmaputra.
In recent times, the most notable international war over water broke out in Bolivia in 1999-2000 where the Municipality's move of transferring water control to an MNC which in turn rapidly increased the cost of water, was met by extensive protests from citizens of this Latin-American country. The strike and protests initiated by Human Rights groups, labour organisations and community leaders, came to an end only when the government conceded to people's demands and restored the availability of water at original prices.
The Indus Water Treaty, between India and Pakistan, has also been a source of contestation. The treaty signed in 1960 with the intervention of the World Bank lays out precise details regarding allocation of water flowing out of the Indus basin. The treaty states that the Western rivers would be under the control of Pakistan, whereas the Eastern rivers are assigned to India – either had limited access to the other's rivers – limited, not nil. The conflict now arises out of India's demand to build hydro-electric projects on the western rivers that flow through Jammu & Kashmir. Pakistan has resisted this demand, and taken the case to the International court of Arbitration who ruled in India's favour. Following the Uri attack, India has claimed that it would not continue negotiations with Pakistan unless the state stopped funding terrorist activities. Yet, this March 2017, representatives of both India and Pakistan held closed door meetings to discuss the fate of the Indus Water Treaty.
The battle over water while seeming to be a conflict between stakeholders stems from a greater crisis. The irrefutable fact that water reservoirs across the globe are gradually drying up makes an agrarian economy, such as our country, vulnerable to the pitfalls of nature. The United Nations predicts a global shortfall in accessible water by 2030. The rapid overuse of available resources- a highlight of the 19th and 20th century – has converted peaceful 'living' into battled 'surviving.' 68.84 per cent of the Indian population resides in rural areas, with primary dependence on water for survival.
The total storage capacity of the 91 major reservoirs in the country is estimated to be 157.799 billion cubic metres (BCM). As on April 27, 2017, the water available at these resources was estimated to be 42.658 BCM, only 27 per cent of its capacity. In 2016-'17, ten states in the country were estimated to be affected by drought - the worst cases arising in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. Since 1995, over 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide across the country. These numbers are appalling, an eye-opener in many ways to realise the impending urgency of the issue at hand.
Amidst all the conflict, what remains irrefutable is the need for water to sustain civilisation, and the challenge for civilisation is to be able to contain itself. Keeping in mind the present state of water crisis in the country, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has undertaken several preventive and recuperative measures to ease out this prevailing problem. The National Water Mission endeavours to balance out practices of development and growth while addressing the troubles of climate change that have severely depleted water resources within the country.
While natural and usable aquifers are drying up, global climate change is causing the polar ice caps to melt rapidly. This has paved way for rising levels of ocean water initiated by an increase in global temperature. While the rural economy cries for access to consumable water, by 2100 with an 8° rise in global temperature the natural aquifers are estimated to become a thing of the past with melting ice caps inundating our planet with inconsumable water. We have an Earth which is drowning, but there isn't a Noah who can assist our transcendence. This pending phenomenon strongly resonates with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge had penned in a very famous poem of 1798:
"Water, Water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; Water, Water everywhere, nor any drop to drink"
It is time to gear up and take cognizance of the impending doom.