Editorial

Troubled waters

| Updated on March 09, 2018

The Cauvery imbroglio calls for a robust institutional response

With the dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters yet again boiling over into the streets of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is clear there are no systems in place to deal with situations of shortage. That southern Karnataka and Kerala, the catchment areas, have received less than normal rainfall this year cannot be disputed. What is just as valid is that the samba (paddy) crop in Tamil Nadu may be hit if Karnataka is unable to release the requisite quantities of water. Karnataka’s farmers too stand to suffer from reduced water flow in the Cauvery. With urbanisation and livelihood demands on the rise, and the volume of water becoming increasingly undependable due to water pollution, environmental degradation and climate-related factors, farmers have to make do with less water. Yet, if the stress factor spins out of control in a year of shortage, it is also because politicians, technical experts and the courts have failed to grapple with the complexities of the problem. The Supreme Court has been understandably responsive to Tamil Nadu’s agrarian needs by asking Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water per second for 10 days (which would amount to about 39 thousand million cubic feet a month). The Karnataka government has done well to abide by the directive, while preparing to challenge it later. However, the apex court could have acted in a more considered manner by entrusting the issue to the Supervisory Committee, set up in May 2013 as an interim body to implement the Cauvery Waters Dispute Tribunal’s 2007 award. The Supreme Court seems to have relied more on Tamil Nadu’s assessment that Karnataka released about 33 TMC feet in June-August, against the stipulated 94 TMC feet under the award. It is the task of the committee to draw up a sharing formula for various situations of shortage and place a constant stream of data in the public domain on water releases and the uses to which it is put.

If the Cauvery dispute rears its head time and again, it is because the Supreme Court is yet to decide on the petitions by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu challenging the tribunal’s final award. The award can indeed be called into question for not taking both groundwater and surface water availability into account. It has not clearly spelt out how water should be shared in deficit years. It may be worthwhile to reconsider its assumptions on water availability in view of climate change, urbanisation and cropping patterns.

However, crossing this bridge would require a political consensus. Rather than pit farmers against each other, governments should promote SRI (system of rice intensification) irrigation techniques and less water intensive practices. Given that the Cauvery delta is urbanised, it is important that controlling water wastage and pollution is seen as integral aspects of river-sharing strategies. Managing disputes is as much about protecting rivers as it is about creating credible institutions to apportion water.

Published on September 08, 2016

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