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Lessons for Other Twenty-Five River Basins from the Cauvery River Dispute

Source: Enviro Annotations , 25th Oct 2023 Issue 46 Vol 5 Year 5 Author ; Prof (Dr) Bhakti Devi, Jal Smruti Foundation

Redefining River Basin Planning: Moving Beyond Volumetric Allocation to Secure Sustainable Water Resources

Numerous articles have cropped up explaining the reason behind the Cauvery water inter-state dispute. A remarkable thing to note in these explanations is that every one of the articles focuses on the volumetric allocation of water. Even the documents relating to legal agreements between the two states on how the water of the Cauvery River will be shared focus on the volumetric distribution. Which, on the surface, appears completely logical but seems illogical when you understand the science of how a river gets its water which is the elephant in the room. This article is written to explicitly talk about the elephant in the room and to point out why unless and until the science of how water gets in the river is also given due consideration in making of the twenty fiver River basin plans and associated inter-state water sharing plans, they are a recipe for disaster in the form of unresolvable and ever escalating conflicts and dried up rivers. The dispute between the two states on how fair or unfair is the volumetric allocation has carried on for 200 long years. Even so, it is rather surprising that the dispute has been allowed to fester for so many years, without ever attempting to find & add

ress the root cause of the problem. The inter-state Cauvery water allocation dispute most often arises when the rainfall has been lower than average. Lower rainfall tends to increase the demand for water making it a worthy reason for Karnataka to deny and Tamilnadu to demand more volume of water to be allocated.

Every river is a report card of how its catchment is being managed or mismanaged. How much water flows in Cauvery and of what quality is determined by the deliberate catchment management actions. This is the basic fundamental science of water in the river which is missing from the logic of river water sharing plans. Consequently, arrangements for dividing the water of the Cauvery River are made without dividing the responsibilities for the states to also take appropriate catchment management actions that are critical to sustaining water in the river. There are two inherent assumptions underpinning the water resource allocation rules in the current Cauvery water sharing plans that are false 1) The rainfall pattern alone determines the volume of water in the river and 2) Human activities have no control or influence on how much water flows in the river nor on the rainfall pattern. This evidenced by the fact that the water sharing rules are not accompanied by rules about sharing the responsibility for managing the catchment. Thus, making the Cauvery river water allocation unsustainable. Is it any wonder then that the dispute is far from settled and the dispute keeps flaring up, even more frequently, given the rise in population and climate change which together contribute to erratic rainfall patterns? The absence of any serious and; effective policies or plans that drive deliberate actions for managing the catchment of the river has led to a proliferation of deforestation, urbanization, illegal mining & waste dumping, adversely impacting the quantity as well as the quality of water supply in the river. On one hand, the source sustainability of the water supply is taking a severe hit due to a lack of deliberate focus on catchment management, and on the other hand, water demand remains unmanaged in the absence of any serious interventions implemented by agricultural farms in the catchment. The farms in the catchment of Cauvery river continue to use the highly water-inefficient flood irrigation method and continue to grow water-guzzling crops such as paddy and sugarcane. Not much progress has been made in the implementation of Atal Bhujal Yojana under which schemes and subsidies are available for farmers to make the switch to water-efficient micro irrigation and drip irrigation as well as to switch to growing less water-intensive and more nutritious and climate resilient crops such as different varieties of millets. Urban water demand management also remains unaddressed through any focused policies. Each one of these actions and inactions have directly contributed to the decline and disappearance of water that flows down Cauvery, leaving the river depleted and dried. Barely a trickle now remains in the 805 km of the Cauvery River and its 21 tributaries as they flow through Karnataka and Tamilnadu supporting the lives of 15 million people who live on its banks. For example, in Talakaveri, the source of the river in Karnataka's Kodagu district, water in the river is barely knee-deep and it is so stagnant that it’s turned green with algae. This reality defies the fact that Cauvery is a river, with a significant proportion of its basin in the Western Ghats, one of India's highest rainfall zones. So bad is the situation that Kodagu district which is at the source of the Cauvery river experiences an alternate cycle of drought and flood. During drought, every street of the town is dotted with water tankers. Between 1956 and 2016, in Madikeri taluk, where the river originates, rainfall reduced by 8 mm per year amounting to a total decline of 480 mm, causing floods as well as droughts. What changed the rainfall pattern? Removal of trees results in the loss of a significant proportion of the rain that they are directly responsible for. Because forest vegetation contributes to 60-70% of the local rainfall, when the vapour they release (through evapotranspiration) on condensation tends to create a negative pressure which pulls in the rain-laden clouds from the coast, by what is known as biotic pump effect. Over the years, money-making coffee plantations, silver oak (sold for making plywoods), areca nuts, and palm (sold for making oil) have replaced the rain-fed crops including paddy that used to be grown traditionally on chemical-free farms and native vegetation such as - varieties of bamboo, traditional jackfruit, rosewood, Nandi and hone trees who have thick and deep roots with the capacity to retain rainwater and divert it underground. Shallow roots of the money-making vegetation cannot hold water but grow fast and fetch quick money. Thus, the change in the type of vegetation in the catchment has also reduced the capacity of the catchment to absorb rainwater and divert it underground which helps in preventing the floods and also feeding the river during summer. The end result is more floods and a dried up river. Urbanization without effective policies and plans for managing solid waste and sewage has led to the discharge of pollutants into the river. Illegal mining of sands has been responsible for altering the river bed, forcing the river to change course, eroding banks, and causing flooding. While no plans for managing the urban water demand has led to ever increasing demand on water with increased volume of sewage that needs to be managed and discharged without treatment. To ensure the water in the river remains sustainable and thus shareable, core principles of integrated catchment management must be incorporated into water resource allocation between states. India has twenty-five river basins and nine interstate river dispute tribunals. Interstate (River) Water Disputes (ISWDs) are a continuing challenge to federal water governance in India. Rooted in constitutional, historical- geographical, and institutional ambiguities, they tend to lose sight of the science of what keeps the water in the river sustainable. Thus the disputes have been turning into prolonged conflicts between the states that share river basins. Even the most recently published River Basin Planning Guide for India by Australian Water Partnerships and World Bank tends to only focus on the yield of water and has no mention of the catchment actions to sustain the water yields of the river and its tributaries. Therefore to prevent interstate river disputes and the unsustainable use of river water, the scope of river basin planning should not be limited to allocating & sharing the volume of water but should also focus on sharing responsibilities for catchment actions that are critical to keeping the water must yield sustainable by incorporating the following key principles - 1) Division of volumetric interstate allocation of river water should be accompanied by the dividing of responsibilities for managing the river catchment by the respective states seeking their water share. 2) Before drawing the water allocation agreement, every river should have a catchment management plan that details the deliberate policies, plans, and programs that will ensure that the quantity and quality of water in the river are sustained. 3) Relevant departments to protect the existing native forest and native vegetation as well as plant more native vegetation making the most of the catchment in sustaining the water in the river. 4) Catchment management plans must incorporate policies requiring

● Urban local bodies to develop policies and draw up detailed plans for managing demand and for sustainable management of solid waste and sewage, while also linking them to relevant river basin plans with their implementation as precondition to water sharing or water drawing in the river basin plan. This will give a real and stronger drive for the implementation of policies and plans by urban local bodies. ●Existing policies and village action plans relating to watershed development (enhancing groundwater recharge). water demand management and sustainable sanitation developed at District level with assistance from relevant State Government departments should be directly linked to relevant river basin and water sharing plans. Their implementation should be introduced as a precondition to water sharing. This will also make the implementation of the policies which currently lack the necessary drive for implementation, more effective.

Before getting lost in the existing details of the Cauvery river water sharing plans, it would be prudent to take a step back and reflect on the inconsideration's and inactions that have brought us in the current state of conflict. For, we cannot find a way forward and out of the Cauvery river water conflict between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, unless we rid ourselves of the mindset that has created the conflict. Author ;

Prof (Dr) Bhakti Devi, Jal Smruti Foundation

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