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Water wars: a way out?

The parties involved in the Cauvery dispute could perhaps look to the U.S. for a solution, writes A.V. SWAMINATHAN.


DECADES have passed, but the dispute and ceaseless discussions over the sharing of Cauvery waters have not led to a solution. Though there are just three States involved — Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and, to a lesser extent, Pondicherry — none of them appears keen to yield ground even though the Centre has offered its services. However, this helpful intrusion has neither mitigated the mutual distrust nor served to alleviate the real sufferings of the farmers and people in the lower reaches of the river.

Against such a background, the recent accord to find an amicable end to the problem of water sharing in the Klamath Basin in northwest United States deserves publicity. In the U.S., the case involved the Oregon and California States, the farmers and ranchers of the region and the tribes tracing their ancestry to the Klamath area. After a dry spell in 2001, the water shortage raked up accumulated emotions and became a source of conflict.

The entire watershed, comprising the Klamath river, a lake by the same name and the vast Klamath drainage has been the source of water for Northern California and Southern Oregon, for irrigating farms, for washing in ranches and, strangely, even in dry periods, in preserving federally protected fish stock by partly denying the requirements of cultivable land. The consequent discontent over two decades, precipitated into a grim situation when the Klamath Basin farmers and the native tribes locked horns over claiming proprietary rights over a depleted storage when drought conditions affected the availability of water.

The present and successful negotiation among the parties concerned, with public officials as observers in the meetings, was a landmark in resolving the divisive water battle. A praiseworthy attitude of members of either side that steered the course of the talks smoothly was a "share the pain" component. Such a gesture actually prepared the participants to willingly make sacrifices without surrendering too much of what could be their legitimate share.

A compact agreement formula was arrived at after an assessment of the basin's water potential by touring over the drainage area, an investigation of the affected spots, bestowing thought on ecological restoration and also taking a peep into the past. The accord now awaiting approval by the U.S. Congress has been covered elaborately by The Oregonian, which has highlighted the essential elements.

  • Transfer of certain portions of the national forests to the Klamath tribes whose former reservation land had been bought out by the U.S. Government more than 50 years ago.

  • Cutting down the acreage of farm cultivation at least during the dry season to reduce irrigation demands. A compensatory federal payment plan to farmers forced into idleness in the drought period, thus allowing full quota for the rest of the farms. This is a transient step and full farming could resume when water storage becomes adequate.

  • Assuring uninterrupted supply to the remaining farms, if necessary, by tapping water from newly formed reservoirs.

  • The 20-year old clash of interests could get the stamp of final settlement when farms of the upper locations are permitted to draw full quota, but this would take place only after the project for the resurrection of fish species, cherished by the Klamath tribes, is successfully completed.

  • Renewal of a concession in power rate to farmers beyond 2006 when the current deal would expire.

  • Launching of a massive scheme for restoration of the natural habitat for wildlife, including fish, in the upper Klamath drainage area. A programme for improvement of water quality that would help sustain endangered varieties.

    The accord has the blessings of the U.S. Government and has not encountered much disapproval so far, except from environmental activists and a few local leaders. The agreement is believed to open a new window of opportunity, according to a spokesman of the Klamath tribes. In fact, they have already decided on ambitious plans for the land they would regain — nearly 1,000 sq. miles. The more important among these are extensive afforestation along with regulated logging for commercial purposes, restoration of the landscape of a bygone era, habitat development for wildlife, and improving stream quality. Every one of these schemes would have the benefits of scientific expertise drawn from forest specialists and some NW Universities.

    The farmers, likewise, are relieved that the conflict has not moved to court, which would have kept alive a bitterness.

    The warring groups (over the Cauvery issue) can find a practical solution, if the parties, directly interested, proceed with meetings among themselves, keeping politicians out and relying for guidance only on citizens of an impartial outlook. As in the Klamath Basin, a "give and take" approach by the disputants would establish a continued truce, during which every positive move would be an abiding effort to reach a compromise and an accord. They would learn to live and share the pleasure and pain that a good monsoon or a troublesome drought could bring by their impact on the Cauvery.

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