Agitations over the distribution of water in the Cauvery river are not new or surprising given the extreme dependence on agricultural and economic activity in the river basin. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are fighting over water in a drying river, paying little attention to framing long-term solutions.
South India has always been highly dependent on the monsoon, which is uncertain and risky. Over the past few decades, the south-west monsoon has become unpredictable and has reduced in intensity. What does this mean for the Cauvery? The amount of water the river receives during the summer rains is becoming increasingly unreliable. In good years, when the river receives enough rainfall, there is no discord between the two States. In bad years, like the one we are facing now, it turns into a gargantuan political crisis. Unfortunately, the number of bad years is only going to worsen.Land use
The Cauvery river’s fertile basin has encouraged the growth of forests, agriculture and industry, all of which coexist in an uneasy manner and are now threatened. We need to pay attention to land use at the regional level. Dense forest cover once helped reduce the likelihood of flash flooding, retaining water on hill slopes to enable slow percolation and recharge of the tributaries. Deforestation across the basin has contributed to reduction in rainfall, soil erosion, and flooding, with hundreds of thousands of trees being decimated to make way for plantations, urban construction, and agriculture. In the place of forests, plantations of water-hungry trees such as eucalyptus and acacia are further reducing the water table. In Coorg, local groups have agitated against the felling of lakhs of trees for the construction of a new railway line from Mysuru, and a high-tension power line. They have received little support from the local and national administration despite warning of the effect on the river. These are not isolated incidents; deforestation is widespread along the length and breadth of the river. Tree clearing is now threatening even previously protected sites on mountain heights and steep slopes, sensitive zones where soil erosion further impacts river recharge.
Rapid urbanisation has converted fertile agriculture, forests and wetlands into concreted areas that are unable to retain rainwater or channel them into tributary streams that feed the Cauvery. Urbanisation demands concrete; concrete requires sand. In the districts surrounding the Cauvery, rampant sand mining has altered the natural topography of the river, eroding its banks, widening the river, and altering water flow patterns. Despite warnings from environmentalist groups and farmer coalitions, and interventions by the court, this practice continues unchecked. It is no surprise that the wells that replenish farms across the basin are running dry — or that desperate farmers are reduced to abandoning agriculture and renting their farms to sand contractors for sand storage, thus becoming complicit in their own destruction.
The large number of dams across the river contribute to a significant decrease in the river’s capacity for water storage. Siltation in dams and connecting river channels has reached alarming proportions. Industries along the Cauvery and its tributaries send large volumes of polluted water that, far from being of use to farmers, destroy their land beyond redemption. There is no farming activity for kilometres on the side of tributaries such as the Noyyal, polluted by Tiruppur’s textile industry. The toxic sludge from industrial effluents builds up on the river bed, further reducing its capacity for storage. Despite abundant discussion, government funding for de-siltation of the river’s channels remains conspicuous by its absence.Changes in agricultural patterns
Widespread changes in farming and agricultural patterns exacerbate the problem. Once an area of millet cultivation, the Cauvery basin has transformed into a location for the cultivation of high-yield paddy and sugar cane, both water-intensive crops. There needs to be a redesign of the farming system, keeping in mind in particular the water requirements of the crops planted after the onset of the south-west monsoon.
What are Karnataka and Tamil Nadu planning to do in terms of developing more water-smart agricultural strategies? There is little discussion on this. Though a politically charged topic, it is one that must be addressed through conversations with farmers who seem well aware of these issues. They need better alternatives and greater state assistance in facilitating explorations of alternative cropping strategies, including an examination of a possible return to millet farming (which is more nutritious as well as water-efficient), or to multi-cropping of vegetables, or even to the development of more water-efficient varieties of paddy.
While Karnataka and Tamil Nadu struggle to find workable solutions to the distribution of water in the river during years of drought, the writing on the wall is clear. As climate change makes its impact visible, we are going to face many more seasons of drought and points of conflict. It is important that we think long term and in a coordinated fashion across the basin. We need to find ways to recharge the river, increase inflow of water, clean up hotspots of pollution, and increase the efficiency of water use. For this, we must take up afforestation along the river on a war footing, move to water-efficient cropping, limit industrial pollution of rivers, ban excessive sand mining, and limit the growing consumption of water for cities and towns along the river. This requires conversation and cooperation across the basin, not reactive conflict. Given the politically charged minefield that the Cauvery water-sharing issue has become, can we hope for reasoned, concerted action?
Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University.