Water Wars – Grim reality of future

Water Wars – Grim reality of future

Reports indicate that by early or mid-next decade, India would become a water-stressed country. The problem with water sharing is not limited to inter-State but also with our neighbours. China is building mega dams in the Brahmaputra, which will affect entire north-east. The Indus Water Treaty is skewed in favour of Pakistan

The Cauvery water dispute, lingering for decades, has now taken a new ugly turn. The States of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are out in the open bickering as none is satisfied with the Supreme Court order (of September 5) directing the former to release 15,000 cusecs water every day to the latter till September 15, which has been revised (on September 12) to 12,000 cusecs a day, following agitation. Neither of the States is happy with the order.

Karnataka has seen trouble brewing with violent protests from furious farmers and Kannada organizations, whereas Tamil Nadu too has retaliated with organisations and political parties calling bandhs. Before going into the intricacies of water sharing, it needs to be pointed out that less water has been flowing down the Cauvery river for both climatic and man-made reasons while the size of the area it irrigates has been increasing in both the States, obviously to boost up agricultural production. This trend is likely to continue and aggravate the crisis in the coming years as monsoon rain is too declining.

One cannot deny the fact that there is no rational behind the violent protests of Karnataka. One may mention here that in the Mandya region of Karnataka around 400 farmers committed suicide last year due to crop failure and the consequences arising out of it. According to sources, these farmers had been able to raise paddy and sugar-cane in only one-third of the fields available for cultivation due to scanty rainfall and availability of adequate water. It is also a fact that the farmers had not heeded the government’s warning to change the crop pattern and avoid paddy cultivation as it requires lot of water.

But farmers are not ready to change their age-old practice as there has not been much intervention and technological guidance to educate farmers about changing the cropping pattern. Thus, one can easily state that in the given situation, the apex court order may not seem quite justified though, however, the needs of Tamil Nadu cannot be doubted.

It is well-known that the Cauvery Water Tribunal Water Sharing tribunal verdict way back in 2007 upheld a pre-independence pact on water sharing and fixed share of Cauvery waters for Tamil Nadu as also small shares for Pondicherry and Kerala. It may be pertinent here to point out that the river basin for Cauvery spans almost double of what exists for it in Karnataka.

Along with this dispute, the Odisha and the Chhattisgarh governments have also got embroiled regarding construction of barrages and dams over the Mahanadi by the latter State. Odisha has accused Chhattisgarh of not consulting it while building seven to eight barrages on the Mahanadi though the latter claimed it has not drawn more water.

According to a report prepared by a fact-finding team of the Odisha government, Chhattisgarh had kept Odisha in the dark about its projects in the upstream of Mahanadi. The report details six barrages to facilitate supply of water to industries and the possible impact of the projects, specially Hirakud reservoir among others. Meanwhile, an expert committee would look into the issue while the National Institute of Hydrology has been asked to study the entire Mahanadi river basin.

There were also problems in the Indus basin over the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal among the States of Punjab and Haryana and the Supreme Court had to intervene this year too. But this did not linger unlike the above and was eventually settled.

Meanwhile, the problem with water sharing is not limited to inter-State but also with our neighbours. One may refer to the problems with Pakistan regarding sharing of Indus water. As early as 1960, the country signed a treaty that allotted to Pakistan most of the Indus river waters without any quid pro quo. The Indus Water Treaty reserved for India just 19.48 per cent of the total water of the six-river Indus system.

This treaty was indeed a very generous agreement but now has created problems for the country as the demands for water have been increasing with each passing year. One may mention in this context that J&K’s total hydropower generating capacity in operation or under construction does not equal the size of a single mega dam that Pakistan is currently pursuing such as the 7,000 MW Bunjui Dam or the 4,500MW Bhasha Dam.

Experts are of the opinion that India cannot afford to give over 80 per cent of the Indus water to Pakistan in view of the country’s impending water crisis and needs to be changed, more so because of the latter’s continued cross-border terrorism. The water needs of Punjab and Haryana, specially in the irrigation sector, may warrant a change in the quantum of water sharing in the treaty.

There are also problems with China which is building mega dams in the Brahmaputra, thereby curtailing the flow of the river into India. In spite of protests by India, the construction of dams is in progress and experts believe that once the dams are in operation, the flow of the Brahmaputra to the North East would be severely curtailed. Reports indicate that China is planning to divert 200 billion cubic metres (bcm) of the Brahmaputra from south to north to feed the Yellow river. If and when this happens, India’s water crises will accentuate further. Of the 1,900 bcm of river runoff available in the country, as much as 600 bcm is generated in the Brahmaputra and thus one can imagine the consequences if the bulk of this is diverted by China.

Add to this is the fact that China has also approved construction of three more dams on Brahmaputra river known as Zangbo in China in Tibet in addition to the one being built. A document approved by the Chinese cabinet about projects to be completed during its 12th Five Year Plan mentioned three dams to be built at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu on the Brahmaputra, according to Indian Embassy sources in Beijing treaty.

Indeed, shortage of water has become a global problem and reports indicate that by early or mid-next decade, India would become a water-stressed country. With such a high rate of population growth and the need to boost up agricultural production and productivity, water needs of the country would increase by leaps and bounds. Some parts of the country, specially a few western and southern States, are already facing acute water crisis.

In such a scenario, there is need for serious rethinking regarding sharing of waters within the country and also with its neighbours. The needs of an expanding irrigation system, increased food production coupled with the need for industrialisation would obviously necessitate requirement of more water per capita in the not-very-distant future, if the country has to progress at a fast rate. The imperative now is to create a low-water economy keeping in view the demands of development and economic prosperity.

It needs to be pointed out that India’s per capita storage capacity is significantly lower than that of other countries with the quantum of water that can be stored as a proportion of average run-off pegged at just 50 days. This number subsumes wide variations – from 220 days in the Krishna to just two days in the Brahmaputra/Barak basin. In most other countries, the total national figure is around 250-300 days.

Ismail Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank, had predicted in the late 90s that the wars of this century would be over water and not oil or politics. His meteoric forecast may become a reality if nation States do not cooperate at the global level and amongst each other and also adopt policies and programmes for proper and efficient management of water resources within their own countries. Water cooperation is thus the need of the hour and the UN has rightly earmarked this year for carrying forward such work judiciously.

Dhurjati Mukherjee

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