Water Conflicts in South Asia:

Cauvery and the Monsoon Surge

24 Jun, 2013    ·   4010

Roomana Hukil on the dynamics of the Cauvery river row vis-a-vis Karnataka and Tamil Nadu

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

A new dynamic over the Cauvery row impounds greater perplexity in the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu relationship. The Cauvery Supervisory Committee (CSC) dismissed Tamil Nadu’s plea of receiving 63 tmcft of water (53 tmcft as 2012’s backlog and the remainder as June’s quota) in the pretext of Karnataka’s deficit inflows and poor storage capacities in reservoirs.

Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, reciprocated by filing a contempt petition against Karnataka for not releasing the promised water limit as per the Supreme Court’s regulation. How does this geopolitical episode stretch the divide between the two states? How legitimate are the Tamil water demands in the wake of the prospective Monsoon surge? What rationale can be drawn from the propelling trade-off as regards intrastate water contentions?

South India's Water Wrangle
The intrastate allocation of scarce water resources has emerged as the principle cause of water conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The equitable water sharing between the two states has been, primarily, complicated by the domestic political rancour based on historical and hydrological factors. Tamil Nadu, with 54 per cent of the basin area, invokes its historic rights usage to assert priority of use and block greater upstream utilisation, whereas Karnataka, as a contributor to more than half the basin waters, demands a share larger than the awarded - 36.5 percent - by the tribunal in 2007. This presets the tone for the reneging water crisis between the two states.

The political bandwagon between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, as evident for decades, seeks to outwin the opposition party whereby accusing fallacies at each other than enhancing their own deficiencies. Tamil Nadu can, vehemently, reduce its water dependency on Karnataka if it opts to invest in hydrological infrastructures i.e. construct dams and improve its water storage capacities. The only two dams that are being utilised to gauge 75 percent of Tamil Nadu’s river water share were built during the Colonial and Chola period. On the other hand, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham’s (DMK) pullout from the Congress pins for several reasons. However, the utmost factor was its incapability to attend to the Cauvery issue. Be it M Karunanidhi’s political vote bank gimmick for his daughter’s re-election to the Rajya Sabha or J Jayalalitha’s obstinate position to release the backlog water despite bountiful rains in the region.

Raison d'etre within the Cauvery Fiasco
As the monsoons timely set out this year, the inflow into reservoirs across the Cauvery basin in the state is gradually increasing. Heavy downpour is being lashed out in Bhagamandala and Madikeri over the last four days. However, the water in the reservoirs is still insufficient to release 10 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu as directed by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. In the upper catchment areas of Karnataka and Kerala, states draw water from the dependable Southwest summer monsoon whilst its lower catchment in the plains of Tamil Nadu State is serviced by the capricious Northeast monsoon in the period from October to December.

According to the Water Resources Department (figure as on: 16 June 2013), the water inflow into all the four reservoirs (i.e. Haringi, Hemavathi, KRS, Kabini) is at a combined rate of 16,205 cusecs with an average water level of 1985.665 ft. All the four reservoirs have a combined live storage of 6.54 tmcft, which is much less than the demanded (i.e. 10 tmcft) by Tamil Nadu. The spells do offer respite for Tamil Nadu’s Kuruvai crop cultivation for the time being, yet, issues related to its expansive cultivation being wearied off by Karnataka and the CSC will still linger around the water-sharing discourse.

Tamil Nadu’s incessant contention of having being provided its water backlog supplies (i.e. 63 tmcft) is not going to be dispensed at the cost of the monsoon’s seasoning in. The state comprehends that even with the provisioned inflows it will not be able to fulfil its agricultural requisite in entirety. Therefore, it is coherent, if not valid for Tamil Nadu to exhibit auxiliary claims on the union and state government to release the prescribed water limit. However, the region will still face stingy water shortages given the rainfall predicament. The met department cannot provide a detailed forecast of the torrents average fall. Thereby, it becomes complex to assess demand-supply ratios in the wake of uncertain river flows coupled with water mismanagement practices that leads to an excessive loss of flows, into the Bay of Bengal. In this scenario, gauging legitimate water accession claims by either party not only becomes a herculean task but also condenses objectivity in the light of negotiating the water-sharing arrangements.

The blunt truth behind the Cauvery River dispute is that the judicial and parliamentary intervention, helping to calm public sentiment, has only kept the conflict protracted. Taking the dispute to the courts has only proven costly in terms of time. The lesson to be learnt here is that the Cauvery dispute is not a legal but a political entanglement; that must be resolved politically and/or through arbitration of institutional mechanisms whereby all parties are represented and have full faith in the objectivity and efficacy of the system which at present is faltering.