The conflicts over freshwater resources have accentuated in South Asia over the last four decades with greater diversification and increase in water demand. With more than 80 per cent of water being used in the agricultural sector with high levels of subsidisation prevailing for irrigation, there is an increasing recognition of sectoral conflicts over water use.

As an example, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment on February 16, on the contested Cauvery water allocation between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (TN), reduced the allocation to the Cauvery for TN by 14.75 TMC, from the amount allocated by the Cauvery Water Tribunal (CWT) Award in 2007. This additional water is mandated to be used for the growing city of Bengaluru. This verdict needs to be seen as inter-sectoral reallocation from the agricultural sector to the urban-industrial sector, rather than a reallocation among the States.

On the other hand, there is increasing recognition of restoring and maintaining river health that is steadily declining due to over-extraction, constructions of dams and diversion channels. This affects the flow regime that includes the water and the sediment flow, which in the process affects the aquatic biodiversity, as also losing its capacity to provide the supporting services (like soil formation) to the terrestrial ecosystem. This is another form of sectoral conflict over water: economic versus ecosystem.

E-flows, cognitive dissonance

In course of new emerging thinking of water governance that is still subjected to cognitive dissonance among the water policy thinkers and scholars in the domain, “environmental flows” or e-flows, as a concept, has somehow been featuring in most of the policy documents and communications in India. There are schools that feel that environmental flows are the “minimum flow requirements” and as long as flow is kept above a critical level, the river ecosystem will be conserved.

This has been severely opposed by those who felt that all elements of a flow regime (floods, medium, or low) affect river ecosystem. In the process, an accepted definition emerged as the one followed by WWF-India: “…environmental flows are the flows required for the maintenance of the ecological integrity of rivers, their associated ecosystems and the goods and services provided by them”. This is in line with the Brisbane declaration and the later IIT consortium definition that took into account “…the temporal and spatial variation in quantity and quality of water required for freshwater as well as estuarine systems”.

Implementing e-flows

The 2016 reports from the Ministry of Water Resources, namely, Draft National Water Framework Bill 2016, has acknowledged the criticality of the implementation and the multidimensionality of e-flows that needs to take into consideration the various economic, social, cultural (including religious), and ecological dimensions of water use.

A recent research conducted by a consortium of IWMI, WWF-India, IIT Kanpur and IRMA, under the aegis of Water, Land and Ecosystems, in the upper stretches of the Ganges (from the Bhimgoda barrage to the Narora barrage) finds that the existing flow regime falls short of e-flows below the Narora during the dry months of December to April.

Given that the total water abstraction at Narora is 6,145 million cubic metres, the e-flow deficit is estimated to the tune of 18.5 per cent in the month of December, and around 17.6 per cent in the month of April. The research estimated the monetary values of the existing flow regime through the ecosystem services (services provided by nature for free to human society — fish, food, carbon sequestration, etc) and farm incomes. It further found that instream water release is possible through demand management in agriculture in the upstream of Narora, as supply augmentation is not possible.

During the period from December to April, wheat turned out to be the dominant staple grown here. Two demand management options are suggested: crop-diversification from wheat to a less-water consuming sorghum, and water-use-efficiency and yield enhancement.

While water-use-efficiency entails practices that result in lower water consumption without compromising with crop production (system of rice intensification), yield enhancement entails better soil management practices that increase the productivity. The interesting finding is that even if the farm uses less water, its production and consequently incomes can increase, while water can be released to meet e-flows.

This has been exhibited by this research that showed that with “water-use-efficiency enhanced by 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent increase in yield” along with “2 per cent decline in area of wheat which is taken by sorghum”, improved the value of the flow regime in terms of ecosystem service values, the high increase in farmers’ value, and e-flows regime can be achieved in the concerned part of the basin.

Broader implications

The increase in farm product with lower water use is a clear reflection of negative productivity of water at the current levels of water use. This also corroborates many previous research findings that stated that more conflicts emerge with more water, much in contrast to the neo-Malthusian thinking of “scarcity induces conflicts”.

The newly constituted Cauvery Management Authority and other basin authorities may take a leaf from this: embedding e-flows in decision-making over water allocation can actually be an instrument for resolving the Cauvery conflicts by increasing the agricultural productivity through demand management. This is because fundamentally, the Cauvery conflict is all about increasing irrigation water demand over time.

Unfortunately, the Cauvery Water Tribunal’s award reserved the “quantity … for environmental protection” and “quantity determined for inevitable escapages to the sea” as 10 TMC Ft and 4 TMC Ft respectively, none of which are supported by any scientific assessment. They are ad-hoc allocations merely treating water as a stock of resource to be used for human convenience without any recognition of the impacts on the basin ecosystem and economy in the long run. This reductionist thinking has aggravated the Cauvery conflict to the extent that exists today. There appears to be a tacit assumption while announcing the award that the ecosystem sector is clearly in conflict with the irrigation water needs, which, as shown in the e-flows assessment case for upper Ganges, is a myth.

It is therefore essential to think of environmental flows from the perspective that there is hardly a stakeholder who speaks for the ecosystem in contested claims for shared waters. This helps taking a holistic perspective in basin governance.

The writer is Chief Economic Adviser to WWF India, and Senior Fellow at ORF. He was the economist involved in the above-mentioned consortium. Views are personal.