The relentless hot, dry spell in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu may well lead to yet another row over water-sharing as in September last year if urgent corrective steps are not taken. But for that to happen, the two State governments need to display more political maturity and administrative resolve than they have shown all these years. Karnataka Water Resources Minister MB Patil has said that the State will ration water even for drinking purposes (there are curbs for farming) if the monsoon does not truly set in by June 15. Of the 13 major reservoirs in Karnataka, 11 are filled to less than 20 per cent of their live storage capacity, and of these, six (which include the largest such as Almatti and Tungabhadra) are virtually bone dry, at below 10 per cent. The total water available in the four reservoirs in the Cauvery basin (Krishnarajasagar, Harangi, Hemavathi and Kabini) is about 8 tmc ft, against a combined live storage capacity of about 105 tmc ft. The output of coconut, ragi, paddy, turmeric, sugarcane and silkworm, besides milk and poultry yields, have been affected in the old Mysuru region. The situation is no less dire in Tamil Nadu. The reservoir levels at Mettur, Vaigai, Bhavanisagar and Mullaiperiyar are at ‘dead storage’ or rock bottom levels. This has affected paddy, turmeric and coconut farmers, and created a drinking water crisis in Coimbatore. According to the 2007 final tribunal award on Cauvery water-sharing, Karnataka should release available water in the same ratio as in a normal year, which at 192 tmc ft out of 464 tmc ft (including dead storage) amounts to about 40 per cent. In principle, an upper riparian State cannot claim first rights over water. The drinking water needs of all people dependent on the river deserve priority over other uses such as agriculture and industry.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have contested the tribunal award in the Supreme Court, questioning its estimates on available water. It is surprising that river-sharing estimates are based on surface water flows, without including groundwater. Besides, in the case of the Cauvery basin, water availability estimates can vary sharply across space and time — Tamil Nadu gets rain in winter, while Karnataka largely depends on the southwest monsoon. The proposed omnibus tribunal for all water disputes should address these issues and arrive at a water-sharing formula that works for all situations.

For now, the basic principle of sharing water should be adhered to. Both States should work together in placing data in the public domain and taking coordinated steps. Estimates of the drinking water needs of urban centres can be scaled down in deficit years, preparing citizens for rational use. For industries such as bottling plants, food processing, textiles and construction, it cannot be business as usual. A crisis similar to what broke out in Latur last year can be avoided if both a short-term and long-term plan are in place. Above all, politicisation of the crisis needs to be eschewed.

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