Resolving water-sharing disputes: Legal approach has limits

15 Feb 2018

Karnataka recently witnessed protests over the Mahadayi river water-sharing dispute with Goa. This dispute, originating in the 1980s, arose out of conflicting demands of water use between the two states. Karnataka claims 7.56 tmc ft. of water from the Mahadayi river to meet its requirements. Goa claims that its population is dependent on river water, and the proposed design of dams on the river by Karnataka would not affect not only its people but also affect the river's fragile ecosystem. Karnataka is of the view that the surplus from the Mahadayi drains into the sea, and this should instead be diverted into the deficit basin to meet the state's need for drinking, irrigation, agriculture and power generation.

River water-sharing disputes are not new in India. We have witnessed many such disputes in the past. Recent disputes worth mentioning are the Cauvery river dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Sutlej-Yamuna Canal Link (SLY) dispute between Punjab and Haryana, Polavaram dam construction dispute over Godavari river between Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, etc. The disputes between upper riparian states and the lower ones are based on conflicting water use demands: these are often attempted to get resolved through the announcement of Water Tribunal awards or litigation in the courts. Most of the existing water-sharing disputes are locked up in the apex court for resolution.

Is legal recourse to resolve water-sharing disputes enough? The answer is an emphatic no. The reasons are that there are spatial variations of water availability and that the existing supply of water resources is far short of the demands of water use. By 2050, it is expected that India, as a whole, could be categorised as a 'water scarce' country when measured in terms of per capita annual availability of water. Surface water available in rivers, lakes, ponds, etc., coupled with groundwater resources, will not be enough to meet the ever-increasing demand for water for agriculture, industry or domestic sectors.

Water-sharing issues are highly politicised and are also emotive. The underlying issues are often ignored and the obvious ones are stressed upon. For example, the Cauvery water dispute hardly recognises the fact that the yield of the river is decreasing over the years. In some months in the post-monsoon period, the river water is so scarce that it does not even reach the sea. It is also not recognised that the groundwater depletion affects water availability in Cauvery river. Nor is it recognised that the farmers in Tamil Nadu are using water-intensive crops such as Samba, Kurivai and Thaladi rice varieties. Relying only on legal remedies to resolve water-sharing disputes may not solve the core issues underlying these disputes.

Are there any solutions that go to the core of the ever-increasing water-sharing disputes? The solutions, to begin with, should include steps for conserving water in various sectors. For example, in the domestic sector, leakage of piped water use should be minimised, thus reducing the quantum of non-revenue water. Waste water should be used as a resource through its recycling and reuse. In the industry sector, water use efficiency should be increased through adopting zero water discharge measures. In the agriculture sector, use of technology such as micro-irrigation would improve the water use efficiency. There was about 47% increase of coverage area under micro-irrigation in India during 2016-17 over the previous year, yet its estimate during 2017-18 is only about 12 lakh hectares. There is thus enormous scope for increasing micro-irrigation coverage in the coming years.

Second, groundwater depletion should be arrested through suitable recharging of the water aquifers. Over the past 30 years, India has seen a 13% decline in the water table. There are huge overdrafts of groundwater in some states. For example, in Punjab, more than 100 blocks are overexploited, and the state of groundwater development is unsustainable. Unless this trend is arrested, water quality will continue to reduce, affecting the availability of safe water.

Water-intensive crops

Third, India uses about 80% of water for agriculture. During the 'Green Revolution', more reliance was placed on water-intensive crops. Crop diversification declined sharply in many states. Water-intense crops such as rice (to produce 1 kg of rice, about 3000-5000 litres of water are required), sugarcane, and cotton are often encouraged through subsidised power. Governments in some states have taken steps to encourage crop diversification, but there is a need to train farmers on sowing of coarse cereals, and to encourage their consumption amongst the public.

Fourth, all stakeholders should adopt certain well-known international principles for water-sharing. For example, these include adopting the principle of equitable and reasonable water utilisation, and the principle of requiring the states to take all appropriate measures to prevent significant harm to other states. In India, there is no legislative backing covering these principles, although courts and Water Tribunals often adopt these practices.

Fifth, the states must cooperate on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain the optimal utilisation and adequate protection of rivers.

Finally, the states should adopt a mechanism for exchange of data and information on a regular basis. There has to be a continuous dialogue among stakeholders on the various aspects of water-sharing. A permanent forum should be constituted for this purpose. The resolution of water-sharing disputes should not be only in the domain of governments. All stakeholders must come forward to discuss and crystalise issues for their effective resolution

River water sharing
Water demand