A river runs through it

Published Jan 11, 2018, 3:55 am IST
Updated Jan 11, 2018, 3:59 am IST
The Supreme Court will deliver the pivotal judgment on the Cauvery water sharing dispute in the next four weeks.
The two proposed reservoirs for the state need to be made a priority, while the many leaks within the BWSSB should be plugged too.
 The two proposed reservoirs for the state need to be made a priority, while the many leaks within the BWSSB should be plugged too.

The Supreme Court will deliver the pivotal judgment on the Cauvery water sharing dispute in the next four weeks. For Karnataka, this verdict will arrive in the midst of an election campaign and is sure to have an impact on the results. Karnataka, being the upper riparian state will probably have limited room to manoeuvre and may be forced to reconsider its drinking water supply to Bengaluru and Mysuru. Since 65% of Cauvery water is used for irrigation, experts suggest that it’s time farmers look at crops that need less water. The two proposed reservoirs for the state need to be made a priority, while the many leaks within the BWSSB should be plugged too.

In any riparian dispute, the contending parties each try to ‘win’, through a decision that is favourable to them. This is understandable – we all want victory on our part of the river (upstream or downstream), and politicians want to show that their side is winning. In Maharashtra, we see this happening within the state itself. But this kind of stance distracts the attention of both sides from the real long-term solutions that they can pursue together, in ways that both will benefit. That is the key to the solution. In my view there are four things that can be done to address the problem.


(a) Irrigation takes up 65% of the Cauvery water, whereas globally the share of agriculture in water use in a river basin is in the 20-30% range. This is a huge difference (for comparison, Bengaluru uses 4% of the Cauvery water, and all the other towns put together get another 3-4%). If we make agriculture even slightly more efficient in water use, we will never need to worry about drinking water shortages for a long time.

Karnataka should seek, from the Supreme Court and from the Cauvery River Authority, an independently monitored process by which agriculture in the basin of the Cauvery – including in our state – is made less dependent on water. The choice of crops, the techniques of cropping, etc. should get more and more water-smart over time.

Both sugarcane and rice can be grown with a lot less water than Indian farmers use, but the adoption of techniques like SRI (System of Rice Intensification) has been extremely patchy; there has been some adoption of SRI, but not nearly enough. The extension services that the government operates are most defunct, and may as well be closed down. That money can instead be given to organisations that are committed to soil health, improved livelihoods for farming, innovations, and such things.

(b) The Centre should fund a massive overhaul of water infrastructure in the metropolitan Bengaluru region, which currently gets about 4 per cent of the river’s water. This scheme should have three aims – one, to plug all leaks in BWSSB’s creaking infrastructure, which today results in the loss of nearly 20-30% of the piped water; second, putting at least 40% of all Kaveri-sourced water to multiple use through dual piping in homes and offices; and third, the establishment of more nimble infrastructure to source water for the city from the 300-odd lakes in and around it.

A scheme like this will double the piped water supply in Bengaluru. It will additionally have the effect of infusing some financial and technological life to the moribund BWSSB, which today operates like an unscientific infrastructure company rather than an intelligent manager of water resources.

(c) We have to rethink the role and location of reservoirs, and of hydro-electric power generation in both states from such storage. The long-delayed proposal to establish more reservoirs along the river – two in Karnataka and two in Tamilnadu – should be taken up in earnest. Additional storage points on the river will allow a more geographically concentrated distribution of water for sub-basin needs, and also provide greater storage to meet water needs during lean periods.

In parallel, there should also be a sincere effort to restore the flow in the many tributaries of the river. The long-overdue de-silting of all reservoirs should also be taken up – This can quickly raise storage in the existing reservoirs.

Power sources can be substituted, but water is needed as it is. It only makes sense, therefore, to use water in the reservoirs to generate electricity if there is no supply weakness for the water. When the water itself is scarce, there is not much point in trying to balance the two competing uses. This problem exists in the management of nearly all the rivers of India, not just Cauvery.

With Koodankulam now operational, some of this should reduce. It would be wiser to raise Tamilnadu’s allocation from the nuclear plant by this amount, and have better control of the reservoir waters for irrigation purposes only.

Karnataka has a much higher dependence on hydel, but here too a policy of prioritising water supply over power supply can be established for such facilities.

Our state too could get a higher allocation from Koodankulam, under such an approach. (d) The current approach to weather forecasting is inadequate. In India, we have got used to season-long forecasts, and some ambiguous effort to guide farmers’ planting decisions using these. That program needs to be consigned to the dustbin, and replaced with something more dynamic and more accountable for results. Week-by-week, sub-regional assessments have to be developed. The consequences of neglecting this are evident, but as with so many other things in the country, the diligent and much-needed alternative has not been considered seriously enough.

It is time we stopped trying to ‘decide’ the answers to large questions, assuming that good outcomes will flow from that. In many complex problems, in fact, the opposite is true – we must enable the emergence of the right macro design by pursuing smaller, specific outcomes that add up. That will not help answer the immediate problem facing the two states, but it will surely help ensure that the problem doesn’t visit us again and again.

The shortage is man-made, drinking water is the main priority now

S. Vishwanath, 
director, Biome Environmental Solutions Private Limited:

HIt will be good if the Supreme Court brings  closure to the water sharing dispute that has been flaring up every now and then, creating animosity between the people of the two states. If it is resolved it will make the states re-focus their attention on making sure that their rivers and lakes are protected. 

Today, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are doing a bad job of safeguarding their lakes and rivers,  allowing sand mining, destruction of forests in their  catchment areas, and construction of roads where they are not necessary. They also don’t care to create a river basin institution to take care of the rivers. If we do the right thing there is enough and more water for all the four states in the Cauvery basin.

If we do the wrong thing there is not enough water in whole world to save us. 
Actually, there is no water problem  at all. The tribunal has awarded 270 TMC ft of water to Karnataka. I don’t expect that will change five per cent either way.  What Bengaluru needs is just 18 TMC, which is less that eight per cent of the total allocation for Karnataka.

The shortage is actually man-made. There is enough water in the reservoir, all we need is for it to be managed better with the government  anticipating lesser rainfall and reserving 28 TMC ft of water for drinking, rather than allowing its use in a big way for irrigation.

D. S. Rajshekar, 
president of Citizens’ Action Forum (CAF):

“It is good that the Supreme Court has decided to take care of the issue and save us from waiting an eternity for it to be settled.  The stalemate has to end. It will be nice if the verdict is in favour of Karnataka. Else, the state government must make an honest effort to resolve its drinking water problem. Alternative measures must be taken to provide water for drinking and non- potable purposes. Extensive rain water harvesting and use of  treated water for non -potable purposes through a dual piping system could help considerably.”

Revathy Ashok, 
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) B.PAC:

The B.PAC has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the grounds that getting water is the fundamental right of citizens. There is also agriculture, but we first need to resolve the drinking water problem. 

Following our PIL, the court said no other discussions would be entertained until it made its decision. 

It needs to form an expert committee that understands the situation. The committee should be apolitical and made up of  independent individuals or people from different states, who are able to understand the issue completely.
Although  it has gone on for years, I don’t think it has received the indepth study that is required. We will have to wait and watch what the court says.

Location: India, Karnataka, Bengaluru