Friday, October 5, 2012

Kaveri River Water Sharing : What Are The Solutions?

Kaveri or Cauvery river is one of the 7 holiest rivers for Hindus. In many Dharmic poojas, the water filled into the kalasha or holy vessel, is adored with a chant. "Gange cha Yamune chaiva, Godavari Saraswati. Narmada Sindhu Kaveri, Jalesmin Sannidhim Kuru". It essentially means the water being used for the worship of Bhagawan or Bhagawati, is as sacred as the combination of all 7 holy rivers.

Mother Kaveri's Statue. {Source: Deccan Herald}
Kaveri is the "Jeeva Nadi" or life sustaining river. It is very highly revered by both Kannada (also Kodava) and Tamil people. You can hear 100s of celebratory songs like the super hit song Kodagina Kaveri . You can also see many customary celebrations like Aadi Perukku which is a very special time for Kaveri delta people. In short, SHE is the mother for those who live along its banks.. and SHE is theirs! These people do not understand the artificial linguistic state formation boundaries, politics, courts and other systems.

But today, when you hear Kaveri, what comes to your mind? If you are a person from Tamil Nadu (or Pudhucherry for some part) the "villain" is a state to the north west, Karnataka. If you are from Karnataka (or to some extent Kerala), the "villain" is a state to the south east, Tamil Nadu. And, this is not something that is for just 2012 or 2007 or 2002 or 1991.. this is happening for over 200 years now. The holiest of rivers adored and worshiped as "Kaveri Maata" or Mother Kaveri, has become a humongous political, agricultural, legal, economic and propaganda fight in South India. It does not even leave students or movie industry folks..

Why did this happen? How did this happen? Is there any way out, even if the process is gradual?

For that some basics will be needed. No, I am not going to present every detail about how the dispute got magnified till this time. There are enough resources in internet, court papers, government documents and in media for you to read through. Also, if you are reading till here, most likely you have a special interest in this case, as for most India out of South India, this is just one of those "burning" issues that keep coming up again and again. Like Telangana, Amarnath Yatra, state border disputes and more. Not much interest will be left by now, for those folks. So this is for only those who have a stake in Kaveri water or those who want a peaceful south India in the long run. I am in no way an expert in this topic, but since I drink Kaveri water every day, I have special interest in learning more from my readers here. For that I will present what I have understood about the topic and seek your comments and/or corrections.

Map of the River:

Kaveri is born at Talakaveri in south Western mountains of Karnataka. After Talakaveri, you will find a long list of sacred places and temple towns all through its 765 KM flow towards south East, where it merges with Bay of Bengal. Out of this trek, 320 KM is in Karnataka and 416 is in Tamil Nadu. Some of the places are, Bhagamandala, Kushalnagar, Srirangapartna and T Narasipura in Karnataka. Then Mettur, Bhavani-Thirunana, Erode, Kodumudi, Karur, Tiruchirappalli/Srirangam, Thiruvaiyaru, Swamimalai, Kumbha konam, Mayavaram and Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu.

Kaveri River Map. {Source: jazztravels}

There are many tributaties of Kaveri like Hemavati, Shimsha, Arkavathy (now dry), Kabini, Bhavani, Noyyal and Amaravati. The majestic Shivanasamudra falls and Hogenikal falls are very famous tourist destination getting lakhs of people each year.

Dams and sizes:

Kaveri may be a small river among the 7 giant rivers of India mentioned above (with Saraswati dry now), but it does have many dams.

KRS Dam, Karnataka. {Source: InMysore}
But the two key dams to note are Krishna Raja Sagar dam in Mandya district of Karnataka and Mettur dam in Salem district of Tamil Nadu.

KRS dam, built in 1924, is 125 feet tall, 3 KM in length and can store a max capacity of 49 TMC of water. 

Mettur Dam, Tamil Nadu. {Source: Wikipedia}
Mettur dam, built in 1934, is 120 feet tall, 1.7 KM in length and can store a max capacity of 93.4 TMC of water.

Leaving aside dead storage capacity, you can assume that KRS dam can hold about 44 TMC of water and Mettur can hold about 88 TMC of water. So approximately, Mettur can hold twice as much water as KRS dam. Incidentally, KRS was built entirely by the great engineer Bharat Ratna, Sir M. Vishveshwaraiah and I have heard that he gave the design for Mettur dam too. One thing is in common. both are very vital dams and both are very old. One other important thing to note, all dams in Karnataka together can hold only around 10% of the annual water flow in Kaveri that is in excess of 725 TMC.


Kaveri water sharing discussions and disputes go back over 200 years. Right from the beginning of 19th century, there are discussions involving the Mysore independent princely state (now part of Karnataka) and Madras British Presidency (now Tamil Nadu). The two key agreements to note are from 1892 and 1924. There were other minor agreements too. While Karnataka kept asking right after independence to repeal these British era agreements and form new one, Tamil Nadu insisted on the same, as there was a huge advantage for it to keep them. So everything boiled down to 1991 tribunal interim order and 2007 final order from Indian government.
Details of Kaveri water sources, usage area and contentions. {Source: Wikipedia}
The table in the image above (click on it for a bigger display) shows the basin area, drought area, sources of water per each state's arguments, quantity sought by each state and what is currently in vogue per the 2007 Kaveri Water Tribunal verdict. The numbers are complex, and contentious. Lots of court paperwork exists for those who want to research further. If you see one of the rows showing the demand of states involved, the total quantity of water will be 157% of what is available during an average year. So it is impossible, to give what the states are asking, as the demand is too higher than supply.

But at a higher level, approximately, 30% of the water river sources are in Tamil Nadu and 53% are in Karnataka. Also, approximately 54% of the river basin area is in Tamil Nadu and 42% is in Karnataka. And finally, the Government of India appointed (chaired by the Prime Minister of India) and monitored tribunal says 58% of the water should be used by Tamil Nadu and 37% by Karnataka. To keep matters simple, I am not getting into Pudhucherry and Kerala's matters which involve the final 5% of water usage.

In reality, the core contention between the states is the source, usage and times of usage of water.

Crop and Rain Patterns:

Paddy cultivation in Kaveri delta. {Source: Indiawaterportal}
Paddy, Sugarcane, Ragi and Jowar are the four major crops grown along Kaveri river basin. Out of these, Mandya district of Karnataka and Tanjavur, Pudukottai, Tiruchirapalli and Kadalur districts of Tamil Nadu grow the most water intensive Paddy. Kadalur in TN is also growing the most sugar cane, another highly water intensive crop.

Domestic Water Consumption from Kaveri. {Source: Indiawaterportal}
When it comes to drinking water projects using Kaveri, it is mostly in Karnataka. As you can see in the image here showing water consumtion at urban local bodies, Bengaluru has a skyscraper literally. Many other towns and cities across south Karnataka depend heavily or solely on Kaveri for drinking water of urban population.

For those seriously interested in learning more about Kaveri delta's crop patterns, please refer to India Water Portal for a wealth of information.

In Karnataka, Mandya is the most blessed district as it grows very high quality crops using Kaveri. In Tamil Nadu, coastal Kaveri delta grows 3 crops in Kaveri delta. Jun-Sep Kuruvai, July-Jan Samba paddy and Oct-Feb Taladi. Kaveri delta farmers of Karnataka get rain only from SW Monsoon (Jun-Sep). TN Kaveri farmers get both SW and NE Monsoons (NE starts in Oct).

Main complaints from Karnataka:

1) Disproportionate Usage by Tamil Nadu: While only 30% or so water sources of Kaveri are from Tamil Nadu, why should it be allowed to use 65 to 70% of water each year, including the water that flows downstream anyway? Both are Indian states, and when Karnataka contributes to 53% of water to the river, restricting it to use only 37% or less of water is unjust.

2) Distress formula, drinking water and North East Monsoon: This is a major problem with Kaveri water sharing agreements and tribunals. There's NO practical formula when rains fail. For instance, in the year 2012, nearly half of rains have failed. During such years, distress has to be equally shared between the states. The Prime Minister, who heads the tribunal should not force monthly water to be released per regular year computations, when there is half rain as a regular year. What Karnataka farmers say, there's usually more water in early October in TN reservoirs than Karnataka (56 TMC in TN as of Oct 3rd, 2012, while around 46 TMC in KA). And it rains 2 to 3 more months in TN still. Why should central government side against Karnataka to dry the dams in October in such condition? Once water is left, it does not climb up gravitational pull to a upper riparian state. Some even quote UN A/HRC/RES/18/1 Human Rights clause to say that drinking water in Karnataka should be a higher priority than 2nd or 3rd crop being grown in Tamil Nadu, when water is scarce.

3) TN is a bullying neighbour, right from British era: Just today in the newspapers, an expert L Sandesh wrote Cauvery row: 200 years of oppression by Tamil Nadu. There are books, papers, documentaries and countless such arguments that Karnataka (and Mysore before) is made to suffer due to a lopsided British agreement which was heavily against the interests of Karnataka all along. Worse, terrorists like LTTE and smugglers/killers like Veerappan have bullied the state in an undemocratic way. Another point that keeps coming up in news papers is that since Tamil Nadu has India's largest number of registered regional parties, it has a bigger political muscle to use in Dilli against Karnataka, in the era of coalition politics.

4) Not allowed to expand or build new dams: This is also a common complaint. Karnataka has not been allowed to build/enhance any Kaveri dam for decades. Any irrigation or drinking water project, usually sees a court battle from TN. When the population of Bengaluru doubled in the past 20 years, the number of farmers needing water in 4 to 5 districts is very high, more water should be made available to the state that contributes over half of Kaveri water, is their argument.

5) Cultivated area mismatch: This goes hand in hand some of the above ones. There is no definite per district cultivated land area as the numbers keep varying. But at a high level, it is safe to assume that Tamil Nadu cultivates 2.5 to 3 times the area that Karnataka cutivates using Kaveri water. Some of this addition in TN was done in violation of the 1924 agreement that was in vogue till 1974, where max limits were proposed to both states. That is the argument of Karnataka farmers.

6) Water wasted at Bay of Bengal: In spite of all this heavy fight for TMC by TMC of water, lots of water gets wasted into the sea at TN. Why can't it be used more productively, instead of snatching more from Karnataka?

Main complaints from Tamil Nadu:

1) Violation of Supreme Court orders: This is the most popular phrase in any Tamil Nadu politics. Karnataka is a bad state that violates supreme court orders. Details are provided to show how crops are standing and Karnataka is storing water in the dams, but not releasing as per court orders or Tribunal orders. Note that there is a frequent plea to gazette the tribunal order and also to strictly monitor monthly release of water from Karnataka.

2) Violence and Disruption: In 1991, when the interim order of Kaveri tribunal came through, which was strongly opposed in Karnataka, riots broke out. 18 people were killed in this primarily anti Tamil Nadu riots. Small scale reprisals happened in TN too, but this terrible period under Congress government in Karnataka, is often cited as how intolerant and violent Karnataka people can get, when it comes to river water sharing. Also, since the most active national highway in southern India, NH-4 from Mumbai to Chennai, passes through Karnataka for a big 500+ KM distance, lots of vehicle movement disruption and damage happened in the past.

3) Manage your water sources better: Why punish TN farmers when Karnataka fails to take care of its irrigation and drinking water projects better? Clean up the lakes, revive other rivers, but don't reduce Kaveri water that is the lifeline of millions of farmers in TN Kaveri delta.

4) Karnataka gets more rain and has more water sources: Annual rainfall in Karnataka is 1248 mm.Tamil Nadu receives less than 1000 mm of rain on an average. Why not use other rivers in Karnataka and let Kaveri be used by mostly Tamil Nadu as it is done for 1000s of years? There are no major water sources other than Kaveri for central and coastal TN.

5) Insensitive neighbour: Karnataka does not care for Tamil Nadu people. By blocking Kaveri river, which is "our" right, it is turning the fertile arable land into desert. In here, you can see lots of videos and propaganda material showing that Karnataka is a bad neighbour. Listen to some of the speeches of politicians.

6) Can't Trust Karnataka and Wait till January: When KRS and other smaller Karnataka dams are close to being full in September, even though there is water in Mettur dam in TN, we can't trust Karnataka to hold our share of water till December or January, when crops need this water. That's why we need water to be released monthly.


Before getting into solutions, the most important ground realities to note are :-
  • Kaveri is a sacred river for all those who use it directly or indirectly.
  • Kaveri water has to be shared by all those who have a stake at it. This is for today, 10 years from now and even 500 years from now. 
  • There is NOT enough water in Kaveri already, to support the drinking water needs of over 2 crore people and the irrigation needs of 81,000 sq KM area. Compared to bigger rivers, 700-800 TMC total water availability here is low.
  • Only rivers connected to Kaveri area must be considered in computations and arguments. For instance west flowing rivers in coastal Karnataka get lots of rain, but can't be of any use to Mandya farmers or Bengaluru homes. Similarly, water sources in Tamil Nadu dependent on Kerala or Andhra Pradesh can't be discussed in this matter, as they serve other areas of the state.
  • No matter what politicians and other "my state only" organizations say, Kaveri river is NOT any one state's property. It has to be shared. Shared today, tomorrow and for ever. There is an entire generation of politicians on both sides, who have grown up doing "my state should get everything, you can go to hell" politics. That attitude does not help solve the vexed issue.
  • Since both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are progressive states that are doing very well in the Indian context, a peaceful co-existence is a must. For that water is a very essential source which can't lead to tension and legal/street battles.
Now that we know some ground principles of peaceful co-existence, let's look into what can be done:

1) Conserve Water: There are 100s of ways both urban and rural population can conserve water. You can be assured that as years progress, as population grows in both states, there will be lesser and lesser Kaveri water available. Check out some ideas like these. Also, drip irrigation for paddy is a novel option to explore.

2) Rain water harvesting: I am glad that Bengaluru corporation is not going to give building plan approvals now, if the new homes/buildings being constructed don't have rain water harvesting. Even existing houses can implement this as this video shows in simple terms.

3) Removing silt from dams: Across both states, massive effort must be done to remove silt from dams. When there is capacity for x TMC, fill the dams fully when the rains come, so that those 4 to 6 TMC missed out per dam will make a big impact during dry months.

4) Reviving smaller rivers: One river that comes to mind easily is Arkavathy river west of Bengaluru city. When I was a kid, I used to drink waters of Arkavathy river supplied from Tippagondana Halli reservoir. Now the river is dead. Revival plans are hearty to note. Such small effort will go a long way in reducing dependency on only Kaveri. Tamil Nadu could start with Noyyal river revival immediately which is polluted heavily and hard to use. Both states should revive every possible river as every TMC of water counts!

Puttenahalli Lake in Bengaluru, Revived. {Source: citizenmatters}
5) Reviving lakes: Tamil Nadu for instance had 40000 lakes in the year 1960. By the year 2000, it had lost 10,000 lakes! That's a huge number of lakes lost to pollution, industrial waste and encroachment. There should be a war like attempt by NGOs, common people and governments to revive the life sustaining lakes. One such fantastic effort is happening now in Karnataka, at the Puttenahalli lake area. Everyone knows that 100s of lakes around Bengaluru got gobbled by real state. Revive them. Again, every drop counts!

6) Preventing precious river water wasted into sea: I personally don't know what percentage of Kaveri water goes into sea unused, but going by the comparisons I have seen for Krishna river, it must be high. Use every drop of this precious river's water. 100s of TMC of water can be added to use by practical use of every drop of water.

7) Growing less water intensive crops: As you have noted from the crops section above, massive amount of water intensive paddy and sugar cane are grown by Kaveri delta farmers. Anywhere from 55 to 70% of the total crops grown could be paddy. Keep in mind, Tamil Nadu has access to only 3% of the water in India. Karnataka has the 2nd largest amount of dry land in India after Rajasthan. Why grow so much paddy which requires lots of water? Switch to less water intensive, but good nutritious millets. Or switch to paddy varieties that use half the water per KG (from 5000 liters to 2500 liters) like S Anand, a farmer from Huthenahalli, Chikkajala, demonstrated. Since majority of Kaveri water is used for agriculture and that too for paddy, this solution alone can save lots of water and save both states!

A Farmer suffering drought. {Source: The Hindu}
8) Distress formula: Share the hit of nature equally: If the rains are down by 30%, both states should take a hit of 30% water for that month or season. Be good neighbours during tougher times. Every 10 years or so, there is a massive drought in Kaveri area. 1991, 2002 and now 2012 are examples. Don't fight it all the way till Supreme Court as it only worsens the relations. CMs should sit down and agree on a reduced water sharing and crop cultivation for that year. The central government should not be partial to either of the states due to coalition compulsions. Both are Indian states, and the PM can't favour one state over another. Blame games are not going to help anyone. A farmer without water for crops or a house without drinking water is going to suffer no matter in which state.

9) Understand the 21st century's needs of both states, not 19th or 20th century demands: Yes, before the age of Mettur or KRS dams, majority of the water was available for Tanjavur & nearby areas for crops. So obviously generations of farmers depended solely upon that. But now things have changed. There's Mandya irrigated heavily. There is a very fast growing Bengaluru city that needs more water than ever before. There are districts long before Tanjavur or Kadalur in both states that have started irrigating from Kaveri. There is Hogenikal kind of new drinking water projects in TN. Tamil Nadu insisting on 2/3rd or more of water, while Karnataka insisting on half of Kaveri water is just not working out. It's a small river again, for the crores of population it supports. Sit and decide how to handle around 725 TMC of total annual water available, in the best possible way. No one is a victim, no one is a villain, if farmers talk to each other directly. After all every farmer and every user of Kaveri water is an Indian.

10) Think of other give and take policies: For instance Karnataka buys water from Maharashtra, the upper riparian state, during dry season by paying certain amount of crores per TMC. In 2004, Karnataka paid 3.3 crores Rupees to Maharashtra to buy 2 TMC of water in adverse conditions. Maybe power in return for water during hard times, or a share in agricultural crop yield for water. Think outside the box. I have repeated enough that there is not enough water for everyone's demand, so innovative approaches need to be developed.

If you read it all the way till here, I hope you really got some clarity on what the issue is, why it keeps popping up so often, and what are the possible ways we can think positively and resolve the issues. After all, Indians sharing water with Indians, Indians not bullying Indians and Indians living peacefully with other Indians will not be disliked by anyone..except the generation of politicians or street organizations that have thrived using this conflict.

Thanks to my online friends who raised some of these points during discussions and also gave some ideas.

Do drop in your comments, corrections, and ideas. I am by no means an expert in this area, so I am always willing to learn from the knowledgable. All I wish is peace.. Shantih!