Cauvery: rethink needed on growing water guzzler

The last few weeks have witnessed violence and chaos in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of Cauvery river water in the wake of the Supreme Court's order this month directing Karnataka to release to Tamil Nadu 12,000 cusecs water per day till Sept 20, 2016. The disturbance in that region is now subsiding, but the question remains: how to ensure its non-recurrence in future? Is there any solution to this vexed problem?

The Cauvery water sharing issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu dates back to 1892 and 1924 when the British Presidency of Madras and the Mysore State entered into such an agreement.

Before it lapsed in 1974, a subsequent arrangement was made by the Government of India in 1972.

At the request of Tamil Nadu in 1986, and through subsequent intervention by the apex court, the Central government constituted the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal under the Inter-State Water Disputes Act in 1990.

The Tribunal’s final award came in 2007, which the Central government notified in February 2013. Under the final award, the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin, with 81,155 square km area and having many tributaries, was assessed at 740 tmc (thousand million cubic feet). Tamil Nadu was allocated 419 tmc against a demand of 562 tmc, and Karnataka 270 tmc against a demand of 465 tmc.

In distress years, the allocated shares would be proportionately reduced among the three riparian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry. A mechanism of Cauvery Management Board (CMB) and Cauvery Regulation Committee (CRC), having representatives of all co-basin states, is also envisaged under the award. Such a mechanism is yet to be formalised. The award also says that in a normal year, 192 tmc of water will be released by Karnataka to Tamil Nadu while also detailing the monthly break-up of such release in a year.

The Cauvery river water is monsoon dependent. Erratic monsoons lower water availability in the region. This has happened in the past when the apex court came to the rescue of the lower riparian state. In September 2012, it directed Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water per day during Sept 12-19. Similar intervention was seen in 2013.

Before 2013, the Cauvery River Authority, headed by the prime minister, while the Cauvery Management Committee, chaired by the secretary of the Water Resources Ministry, used to handle the day to day water sharing arrangement in crisis years. These arrangements have been superseded by the formulation of the CMB and the CRC, which are yet to be constituted.

Water management has two sides: the supply side and the demand side. What is being contested now is the supply side of the issue. In the Cauvery basin, the erratic monsoon would cause less availability of water in every drought year.

But even in normal years, it is unlikely that the demand on Cauvery water can be met, due to increase in demand of water in agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors, concomitant with the surging growth in our population and economy.

Hence, a need for managing the demand side of water use is of utmost importance.

There is, in fact, enormous scope for reducing the demand of water use in various sectors: for example, in agriculture, the water use efficiency is much less compared to international standards. In the industrial sector, Indian industries consume about 2 to 3.5 times more water per unit of production compared to similar plants operating in other countries.

The ratio of water consumption to economic value creation is much less in Indian industry compared to many other countries, for instance, the United Kingdom. In the domestic sector, the water conveyance loss is even more than 30%.

The demand side management also calls for water conservation, through recycle and reuse of water. For example, in Israel, through use of advanced urban water management systems, about 80% of domestic water is recycled and reused in agricultural sector. In India, about 80% of available water is used in agriculture, so micro irrigation and crop rotation can be used to match water use with its quantum of supply.

Samba crop of TN

For example, the samba rice crop production in Tamil Nadu during August-November requires a huge amount of water, and time has come when a rethink is needed for growing crops which use more water. The 'per drop more crop' policy of the government needs to be implemented in right earnest.

Similarly, in industrial sector, water use audit is a must, and 'zero discharge' policy should be encouraged. In the domestic sector, too, rain water harvesting and aquifer recharge should be effectively implemented in addition to reducing water loss during conveyance to its barest minimum.

An intense discussion and debate is called for early on this subject. In fact, The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in its World Sustainable Development Summit (WSDS) being held during October 5-8, 2016 is focussing on the theme 'Beyond 2015: People, Planet and Progress', and has already lined up a few sessions on these issues as a part of the overall scheme for achieving global SDGs on water.

Given the finite water resources availability, unless water use is efficient in future years, the Cauvery type of water problem is likely to occur in many other parts of the country, leading to India becoming a 'water scarce' country by 2050 – a situation which should be avoided at all costs!