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Thursday, July 8, 2010

River Water disputes : Kaveri – between Karnataka & Tamilnadu ::: An analogy of Nile river dispute.


The immortal verse of Thirukural stresses the importance of water stating that without water there is no World. Water is one of the most important natural resource. Its development and management plays a vital role in agriculture production. National Water Policy (2002) envisages that the water resources of the country should be developed and managed in an integrated manner.

It really makes a sad reading : For the second year in succession the Tamilnadu State has lost the kuruvai crop. Kuruvai is the short term crop grown in the Cauvery delta of the State – mostly paddy and the health of this crop and eventual livelihood of delta farmer is extremely dependent on abundant flow of water on Cauvery river. As against the normal coverage of three lakh hectares, only 53,300 hectares have been brought under cultivation this year. Last year, the coverage was 56,500 hectares. In the Cauvery delta districts, where the majority of the area of 2.07 lakh hectare is covered, so far 14,000 hectares have been brought under cultivation.

In Feb 2007 when the Apex Court ruling came, it was hailed as a victory – BUT whether it has been really implemented, who has gained and whether the official gazette notification is complete – Questions continue to haunt but those who should be concerned have seemingly forgotten. The river has been the center of controversy between Tamil Nadu State and Karnataka State of India. The river which originates in Karnataka has been controlled with a Dam in Karnataka so as to stop/release the flow at karnataka's will into Tamil Nadu thereby defying nature.  Karnataka refuses to release water into Tamil Nadu as those reserves are needed for farming and development of their economy. Tamil Nadu contends that they are treated unfairly by Karnataka and their own economy (which is dependent on agriculture) is being affected a lot by Karnataka's actions.

The river as also the river dispute rather has a long history. The use and development of Cauvery waters were regulated by agreements of 1892 and 1924 between the erstwhile princely state of Mysore and the Madras presidency. The 1924 agreement had been necessary because Madras had objected to Mysore building the Krishnarajasagar dam across the Cauvery, and the agreement facilitated it by allowing Madras to build the Mettur dam. A significant feature of the agreement was that it put restrictions on the extent of area that could be safely irrigated by the two states by using the Cauvery waters. When States were reorganized in 1956, it became more complex as the 802 km river originating in Kodagu traverses mainly whilst its basin covers Kerala, Pondy and Tamilnadu. The earlier agreements allotted 75% to Tamilnadu and Pondy. Unlike perennial rivers, Cauvery goes on spare during heavy monsoon rains and when rain fall is insufficient, there would be a drought like situation. In 1974, Karnataka asserted that the 1924 agreement entailed a discontinuation of the water supply to Tamil Nadu after 50 years and the dispute as we know it today assumed centre-stage. They claimed that the State was entitled to decide on best utilization and not bound by the earlier agreements of Maharajas.

Within TN State, million acres of agricultural land are heavily dependant on the water and the change adversely affected the delta region which was once the rice pot of the South. Several meetings between successive Governments have failed to provide amicable solution.  In 1986 aggrieved, a farmer's association from Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu moved the Supreme Court demanding the constitution of a tribunal for adjudication for the Cauvery water dispute. In February 1990, the Supreme Court, while hearing the petition, directed the two states to complete negotiations before April 24. Following the failure of negotiations between the two states, the Supreme Court directed the union government to constitute a tribunal to adjudicate the dispute and pass an award and allocate water among the four states.

In accordance with Section 4 of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, the National Front government constituted the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on June 2, 1990 with Chittatosh Mookerjee, retired chief justice of the Bombay High Court, as Chairman and N.S. Rao, retired judge of the Patna High Court, and S.D. Agarwala, retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, as members. Justice Mookerjee resigned in 1999 and N.P. Singh was appointed in his place. Immediately thereafter on 25th June 1991, the Tribunal gave an interim award reckoning the average inflows into Tamilnadu over the preceding 10 years ignoring the extreme drought years. The average thus pronounced was 205 TMC. This award also stipulated the weekly and monthly flows to be ensured by Karnataka for each month of the water year and further directed Karnataka not to increase it irrigated land area from the existing 11.2 lakh acres.

Close on the heels of this Interim award, Karnataka witnessed worst anti-tamil riots. The K Govt. rejected the interim award and issued an ordinance seeking to annul the Tribunal's award. The Supreme Court struck down the ordinance issued by Karnataka and upheld the Tribunal's award which was subsequently gazetted by the Government of India on 11 December 1991. In the subsequent years whenever there were sufficient rains things went smoothly. In 1995 monsoon failed and TN approached Supreme Court demanding atleast 30 TMC; Tribunal recommended 11 which was also rejected by Karnataka. PM PV Narasimha Rao bartered a political solution with 6 TMC.

After 16 long years the Tribunal gave a 1000 page final award on 5/2/2007 taking the total available water of Cauvery basin as 740 TMC and allocating it as 419 to TN; 270 to Karnataka; 30 to Kerala and 7 to Pondy. 10 TMC was reserved for environmental purposes and 4 for inevitable outlets into sea.

It is not simple maths to the understanding of a common man. Of the 419 allocated, Karnataka is to release 192 TMC to Tamil Nadu from its Billigundlu site, which include 10 TMC meant for environmental purposes. Tamil Nadu would get an additional 25 TMC through rainfall in the intervening distance between Billigundlu and Mettur. That way, the toal amount of water flowing from Karnataka's territory into Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu will be 217 TMC and the rest of Tamil Nadu's share will come from rainfall and flows within its own territory. From its share of this 192 TMC water that comes from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu has to release 7 TMC to Pondicherry.
All this on paper, but there is no constituted monitoring authority to ensure such release and the Tribunal is vague in not providing any formula when there would be shortage arising out of insufficient rains.

For Tamilnadu, this is no exceptional gain from the interim position of 205 TMC pronounced in 1991 still, it was hailed as victory brought about by their efforts by political parties. Karnataka felt aggrieved. The issue went to the Supreme Court of India which ruled in Tamil Nadu's favor and directed Karnataka to release water. The order was defied by Karnataka and led to a political turmoil in Karnataka.

Today the Cauvery delta presents a regrettable sight – it is no longer the basin that had lush paddy fields with banana plantation through out. Only those farmers with filter point wells do kuruvai crop; rest are forced to skip as there is no flow in the river arising out of the Mettur dam not opening in time due to poor storage. PWD officials state that the storage should be 50 TMC on June 12 for release of water, it was only 41.75 against the capacity of 93.4 – the inflow is also not encouraging. Without considerable storage, the long term samba crop could also suffer.

The situation is grim as there is inadequate power supply. After 3 years of passage of final award by the CWDT which can be considered as just and equitable to all, nothing has moved much as it is yet to be published in the Official Gazette. The SLP filed in Supreme Court alongwith simultaneous petition in the Tribunal is complicated judicially and the final award continues to hang with no clear solution in sight.


This appears nothing exclusive to Karnataka, Tamilnadu or for that matter the Country. Riparian states continue to quarrel; Riparian water rights is a system of allocating water among those who possess land about its source. Wherever there is no enough water to satisfy all the users, allotments are fixed in proportion to frontage on the water source.

Some of the disagreements over the right to dam shared rivers are Indo-Pak on river Indus; high tensions between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the Amu Daria and Syr Daria rivers; Argentina and Uruguay have taken their dispute over the river Plate to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, while Mexico and the US keep fighting on the Rio Grande and Colorado. About river Tigris, Iraq fights with Syria. In Africa, the Chobe, a tributary of the Zambezi, has caused tension between Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, while there have been incidents between Mauritania and Senegal over control of the Senegal.
With crises of population and resources upstream, there is now deadlock over who owns the Nile as rivals lay claim to Africa’s great river. Agreements over the Nile's water date back to the late 19th century when Britain, which controlled Egypt and Sudan, signed deals with other colonial powers and with Ethiopia to guarantee the river's unimpeded flow.

Nile is the longest flowing 6695 kms (4184 miles); the name is a derivative from the Greek word "Nelios", meaning River Valley. The Nile and its tributaries flow though nine countries. The White Nile flows though Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Blue Nile starts in Ethiopia. Zaire, Kenya, Tanzanian, Rwanda, and Burundi all have tributaries, which flow into the Nile or into lake Victoria Nyanes. The major cities that are located on the edge of the Nile and White Nile are: Cairo, Gondokoro, Khartoum, Aswan, Thebes/Luxor, Karnak, and the town of Alexandria lies near the Rozeta branch.  Regarded as the longest river, Nile has two major tributaries – the White Nile and Blue Nile, the latter being the source of most of its water though the former is the longer. The two rivers meet near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

For a decade the nine states in the Nile basin have been negotiating on how best to share and protect the river in a time of changing climates, environmental threats and exploding populations. Now, with an agreement put on the table, talks have broken down in acrimony. On one side are the seven states that supply virtually all the Nile's flow. On the other are Egypt & Sudan, whose desert climates make the Nile's water their lifeblood. "

From colonial times, the Question is who owns the river waters ? Whilst an obvious answer might sound ‘all of them’ - Egypt and Sudan claim to have the law on their side. Treaties in 1929 and 1959, when Britain controlled much of the region, granted the two states "full utilisation of the Nile waters" – and the power to veto any water development projects in the catchment area in east Africa. The upstream states, including Ethiopia source of the Blue Nile, which merges with the White Nile at Khartoum, and supplies 86% of the river's eventual flow, were allocated nothing.

Egypt strongly defends its stake and sometimes threatens of military action. It reportedly even had an monitoring agency for checking the outflow at Uganda, until recently when Uganda stopped supplying the data. Ugandans now believe that they have the source and they should also be able to use the water. Convinced of their angle, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania signed a River Nile Basin Cooperative Framework arrangement recently. Kenya followed; Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo look likely to do so.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest civilizations and has been an independent country which was never colonised ; it rejected the 1959 bilateral agreement that gave Egype three quarters of Nile’s annual flow 55 bn cubic meters and Sudan a quarter, even before it was signed. After years in 1990s various Governments seriously started using the basin waters for generation of energy and irrigation. Though most countries do acknowledge Egypt’s huge dependence on Nile are not prepared to leave the waters untouched by them for their own usage. The population of Ethiopia is more than that of Egypt. Uganda requires more electricity and wants to build dams; Ethiopia has a hydropower development. And when the requirement grows more than the supply, there is bound to be struggle and conflicts.

Quite a few years ago, Ismail Serageldin, an Egyptian who was vice-president of the World Bank, shook politicians by predicting that the wars of the 21st century would be fought not over oil or land, but water.

It is for the Governments to ensure that this prediction never becomes true. The disputes are not to be seen as conflicts between Countries or States but also between rural and urban users, conflict between industry and agriculture and so on……………..

Regards – S Sampathkumar


  1. I think TN, AP, Gujarat, Orissa & West Bengal being tail end riparian states have to form a league ultimately to protect the water use rights from the interstate rivers.
    Please see the following link to know about the verdict of Justice Brijesh Kumar Tribunal on Krishna river Water Disputes.

    Please post your valuble observations