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Water Wars: Two Indian States Are Fighting for This River's Water

A century-old dispute over sharing the Cauvery River's water has erupted again.
Hogenakkal Falls, on the Cauvery River. Image: L. Vivian Richard/Wikimedia

As the world gets hotter, we've been warned that the next wars will be over water. In India, that future is here, and the latest proof is a battle between two neighboring states fighting over the river that runs through them.

In the latest chapter of a century-old water war in southern India, riots rocked Bangalore, the techie capital city of Karnataka state, in September. Buses were set ablaze, and a man was killed by police trying to control the crowds. Protestors opposed a Supreme Court order for the state to release about 120,000 cusecs, or cubic feet per second of water, from the Cauvery river to Tamil Nadu, the state downstream, over 10 days.


India water: Violence in Bangalore over Cauvery river Zesty India NewsSeptember 13, 2016

I think they should stop setting things on fire….
Afterall it needs WATER to extinguish it..Parth VadhanSeptember 16, 2016

The Cauvery river (also called the Kaveri) dispute reached the highest court after Karnataka defaulted on a long-standing agreement to share 17 thousand million cubic feet of water with Tamil Nadu every month, saying it didn't have enough water for itself, let alone to give away.

This argument is moot, said S. Janakarajan, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies. "No river is surplus all year," Janakarajan told Motherboard. "The monsoon has ups and downs, if it fails, there is a deficit. The Cauvery is always deficit, need is always more than supply."

Plus, after three very dry years, there is technically no drought—according to the Indian Meteorological Department, India has had 'normal' rainfall. But it's important to consider that normal can mean any number within 19 percent of a historical average; 19 percent less rain than average is okay. And because it is based on an average, the picture remains skewed. It doesn't take into account where the rain fell and whether it was too late to make a difference.

Think about it for a minute. If torrential rain falls on the last day of August in one region after a few dispirited drizzles all month, the average inches up. A few reservoirs start to fill, but the farms and plantations that needed water in the scorching days before the rain have died. The rain bounces off the parched ground taking along the topsoil, straight back into the rivers and oceans. The farmer has rain, but it isn't beneficial. According to the Central Water Commission, 93 percent of Tamil Nadu's districts have an agricultural drought, as does 90 percent of Karnataka.


The earliest treaties governing Cauvery water distribution date back to 1892. In 1990, a tribunal was convened to adjudicate who got how much water. Then in the summer of 1991, the water dried up and riots got so out of hand that 18 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people of Tamil origin who lived and worked in Karnataka had to flee.

This September, too, saw similar violence amid the riots, cars with Tamil Nadu license plates were burned, and Tamil-owned shops were destroyed. And so was infrastructure—the city ground to a halt under strict curfew. According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, the state of Karnataka incurred losses of INR 25 thousand crore (USD 3.7 billion) because of Cauvery protests.

Thanks to the Parvathi MenonOctober 2, 2016

This, according to Janakarajan "is an attitudinal problem." Karnataka could have easily avoided this situation, he said, with dialogue not defiance. Instead its officials have fanned the flame. "The river originates in Karnataka so they say they have first right to use. They say they are 'giving' water when there is surplus. This doesn't work because the Cauvery is nobody's private property. They are sharing the water."

As of earlier this week, Karnataka followed a second legal directive to release water. The Supreme Court has given the tribunal's supervisory committee two weeks to inspect reservoirs in both states and submit a report.


As the country prepares for the retreating monsoon winds to shower southern India with more rain, the situation could still be salvaged. But citizens in Karnataka are upset about releasing water to Tamil Nadu. "Supreme Court order is against Karnataka. It's [a] ruling in favour of [the] rich by ignoring facts," said Srinivas Narasegowda from Mysore city.

Hemant B. from Kengeri, outside Bangalore, said, "According to the water disputes act, the first priority [is given to] drinking water, but Tamil Nadu asked for agricultural purposes. We people [have a] scarcity of drinking water then how [can we] release water for agricultural purposes?"

cooldharma06October 4, 2016

Across the border, people say this factually incorrect and their neighbor is hoarding water. "It is each state's own business what it uses it for, be it irrigation or domestic use or drinking," says Saminathan from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. "Not just water, even distress and shortage should be shared. Karnataka can't consume all available water and show its shortage and dump all distress on lower riparian (downstream) Tamil Nadu."

In the short term, the situation looks bleak, said S. Vishwanath, director of Biome Environmental Solutions, "But in an efficiency paradigm that manages the integrity of the river, yes, things can change." The key is in better groundwater management as well as getting cities to look at harvesting rainwater and reusing waste water as a resource, he says.

On his wishlist: "The creation of a fund to drive efficiency in the [river] basin for more efficient agricultural use, which means switching to drip irrigation, the right crop patterns, the right variety of crops."

Read More: What the Next Water War Will Look Like

Meanwhile, the Cauvery joins other disputes across the world, like the Volta River in Africa, the Jordan in the Middle East, and the Owen River in California.

In all of these cross-border conflicts, loving thy neighbor as thyself would also help. As Japanese conservationist Tanako Shozo said, "The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart."