A LESSON from the events over the last few months over sharing of Cauvery waters show that one time, prescriptive, top-down solutions — either by the tribunal or the Supreme Court — may not resolve the conflict. For a socially and environmentally just solution, we need to move to an adaptive management approach and an alternative set of principles of sharing, sound science and a participatory processes with non-state actors. This was the overwhelming feeling of academics and civil society activists from of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, who met recently in Bengaluru to discuss the issue.
The Cauvery tribunal award restricts itself to sharing only stream (surface) flows. According to geo-hydrologist Sekhar Muddu of Indian Institute of Science, stream flow cannot be the indicator of total available water. Only a fraction of rainfall, around 10 to 20 per cent, ends up as stream flows. Nearly 60 to 70 per cent of the rainfall is taken up by vegetation from soil and evapotranspired to the atmosphere.
Thus it is important that all available water — in situ water, groundwater, stream flows — be taken into account for water allocation.
Cauvery basin gets both the southwest (SW) and the northeast (NE) monsoons. The Karnataka part of the basin is dominated by the SW monsoon while the delta region in Tamil Nadu is dominated by the NE monsoon. This has direct implications for the tribunal award, especially its stipulation to share shortages on a pro rata basis. The critical issue is when and how we estimate the shortage and work out a schedule of release from upstream storages. It means shortages are not uniform across time and space and we need a more nuanced understanding of how to deal with shortages as well as an institutional mechanism to deal with it in a flexible manner.
In 2013, the ministry of water resources came out with a Draft National Policy Guidelines for Water Sharing/Distribution Amongst States.
It advocates for “equitable apportionment” of available water and the factors to be considered include contribution of each of the co-basin states to the waters of the basin, requirement of water in each of the co-basin states, practicability of utilisation of water demanded and, availability of alternate or supplementary sources. It states setting priorities for the allocated water within the co-basin states is not part of inter-state water sharing, though these priority uses and needs may be considered.
This is highly problematic because it can go against the grain of a socially and ecologically just sharing arrangement. Take the case of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal award. The tribunal awarded nine MAF (million acre feet) water to Gujarat, much higher than its riparian contribution to the flow because of the extensive drought-prone areas in Gujarat. However, in the design of the Sardar Sarovar Project, a larger share — 59 per cent of the water — was allocated to the highly developed central Gujarat leaving very less to the drought prone regions of Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat.
Also, the guidelines stipulate to protect the existing uses while deciding on the relative share of the co-basin states. This too is problematic because development of water resources among the co-basin states is not uniform. It can privilege the states that are historically advanced in water resources development. It could foreclose future options for more sustainable and equitable sharing .
The joint statement that grew out of the Bengaluru meeting talks of an alternative set of principles and processes for inter-state water sharing. It argues for an integrated water management in the river basin that should be guided by the normative concerns of equitable, sustainable, and efficient use and also democratic governance. These need a rigorous and nuanced understanding of the ecological and socio-economic situation in the basin.
The statement provides four principles in a sequential manner: First, water for life — to provide adequate water of acceptable quality for meeting the drinking, cooking and sanitation needs of all the people and animals in the basin; second, water for the ecosystem — to ensure water flows in the river system for aquatic life and other ecological functions; third, water for sustaining livelihoods — to enable productive activities while ensuring equitable use and public health; and fourth, water for adaptation to change — to keep reserves and margins for demographic, economic and land-use changes and climate change. The statement calls for a participatory and transparent process for deciding water sharing.
Sharing of the Cauvery waters cannot be left to a centralised political, bureaucratic or judicial process. Water governance must be democratic, decentralised and participatory. There is also a need to set up collaborative networks of citizens, civil society organisations, academics and state agencies dedicated to analysing and communicating this information for use by decision-makers. All information and data must be publicly available. An informed public discourse alone can transform conflict into cooperation.