Soon, We May Not Have a Cauvery River to Fight Over

Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu view the river as a mechanistic producer of water, not as a dynamic life-giving system that is responsive to local and global triggers of use and abuse.

Two days ago, a journalist asked me if the next World War will be over water. That question was triggered by the recent violence in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu supposedly over Cauvery’s waters. There is no doubt that water conflicts are set to increase and intensify. But it would be wrong to suggest that the hooligans that engaged in loot and arson on either side of the border were actually soldiers in any World War. I think they had no agenda beyond their love of violence and the sound of breaking glass.

That is not to say that there is no conflict over Cauvery’s waters. The conflict is real, and has been since the princely Mysore state began seeking a role in determining how Cauvery’s waters were to be shared. If anything, the conflict is only likely to worsen. This instance of violence may have brought out only the hooligans in our midst; the conflicts to come are likely to bring out the hooligan in each one of us.

The possibilities of a de-escalation of conflicts over Cauvery’s water are remote given that two principal stakeholders – the River Cauvery and future generations – are not represented in all the negotiations in the tribunal and the Supreme Court. What is being referred to as a water-sharing formula is little more than a loot-sharing formula for divvying up the booty.

Some history

There is more than a century’s history to the problem. From medieval times up until the mid-19th century, Tamil Nadu had undisputed access to Cauvery’s waters. Early engineers from the Chola era onwards had carved out irrigation tanks, and diverted Cauvery waters through anicuts and canals to irrigate farmlands. Irrigated agriculture in the Cauvery delta was already well-developed centuries before the East India Company swung by Madras.

The upper riparian stretches of the Cauvery, notably the Mysore principality, were late starters in irrigated agriculture. When it did begin in the 19th century, attempts by the Mysore state to divert Cauvery water even with minor structures were viewed with suspicion and indignation by the lower riparian farmers in the then Madras Presidency. They feared a decrease in their own share of the river’s waters. Citing historical use, delta farmers claimed prescriptive rights to the river’s water.

The first two agreements, of 1892 and 1924, were aimed at ensuring that the upper riparian’s right to develop its agriculture is not hindered by delta farmers, and that the latter’s historical use is not infringed upon by the water users in Mysore.

Not about farmers

The bus-burning and stone-pelting in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu happens, they say, only during distress years when the two states vie to retain an adequate share of the meagre spoils from the river. Solidarity is quick to coalesce for the Tamils or Kannadigas depending on whose buses are being burnt that season.

Sadly, though, no one weeps for the Cauvery itself. Regardless of whether it is a distress year or a normal year for the people of the two states, every year is a distress year for the river. From Mercara to the Bay of Bengal, Cauvery’s journey is fraught with danger and abuse. If stewardship were a pre-condition to enjoying the waters of the river, neither Tamil Nadu nor Karnataka would qualify for even a drop of the river’s water. But stewardship is not on anyone’s agenda.

It is surprising that after all that hot-blooded South Indians have done to their river, there is still a river left to fight over.

A casual reading of the Cauvery tribunal’s 2007 award reveals how the river is viewed as a mechanistic producer of water, not as a dynamic life-giving system that is responsive to local and global triggers of use and abuse.

Demand for water within the basin has grown multi-fold. Simultaneously, degradation of catchments and sand mining have compromised the river’s ability to sustainably produce water. The proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs is sick and calling for help. Everyone seems intent on squeezing out the last egg. What about trying to keep the goose alive?

What ails the goose

The Cauvery originates in the Brahmagiri ranges of the Western Ghats in Kodagu. High-range tributaries like Harangi, Suvarnavathi, Hemavathi, Lakshmanathirtha and Kabini join the Cauvery where the ghats flatten out to become the Mysore plateau. In the plateau, or maidan, the rivers Shimsha and Arkavathi join waters with the east flowing Cauvery. Arkavathi is fed by Vrishabhavathi, which drains half of Bengaluru.

In Tamil Nadu, Moyar, which joins Bhavani, Amaravathi and Orathar, which in turn adds to Noyyal, empty into the Cauvery. Kulithalai in Erode is about where the delta begins and the Akhanda Cauvery (or broad Cauvery) starts its slow plod to the sea through seven distributaries with beds of sand – Nandalar, Nattar, Vanjiyar, Noolar, Arasalar, Thirumalairajanar and Puravadaiyanar. (See here for an excellent account on the Cauvery network of rivers.)

The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed massive interventions in the river’s hydrology. All major tributaries – Hemavathi, Kabini, Arkavathi, Amravathy, Bhavani – were dammed. New and large reservoirs like Krishnarajasagar, Bhavanisagar and Stanley Reservoir were created. Minor reservoirs over Orathar-Noyyal and Amaravathi came up. New areas were opened up for water-intensive cash crops in Mandya, Hassan, Erode, Salem and Coimbatore aided by canal- and borewell-based irrigation. And the reservoirs attracted water-intensive industries like flies to honey.

Physiographically, the river flows in three parts: the Western Ghats, the Mysore Plateau and the Delta.

The Ghats

The erstwhile Kingdom of Mysore had two natural landscapes – the malnad, or hill country, and the maidan, or the plateau. It is in the hills that South Indian coffee production took root in the 19th century. From being a peasant crop that was grown in every backyard, coffee became a hot commodity and a mixed plantation crop with the worldwide export of the beans grown in the shaded, stream fed forests of Kodagu gathering steam. Today, Kodagu coffee is grown by 42,000 families over 104,000 hectares. Early planters did alter the landscape but preferred the hardy, shade-giving native evergreens such as rosewood, wild fig and jackfruit. Unlike the tea estates that devastated the countryside, Kodagu coffee planters retained enough of the original habitat to nourish biodiversity and maintain the hydrology.

But that habitat has begun to change particularly rapidly in the latter half of the 20th century and then the 21st century. Responding to global market triggers, the area under coffee has expanded at the cost of forests within private landholdings, and agro-forestry lands under cardamom. An assessment by the Coffee Agro-forestry Network in Kodagu of forest-cover change between 1977 and 1997 indicated that it had declined by 28%, from 2,566 km2 to 1,841 km2. Medium elevation evergreen forest, which decreased by 35%, was the most depleted forest type according to the study.

Climate change too was triggering land-use change. Rainfall over the coffee-growing tracts of Kodagu has been erratic over the last three decades, reports environmental journalist Gopikrishna Warrier. CAFNet’s study of 60 years of rainfall data from 116 coffee farms revealed that the rainy season had shrunk by 14 days over the last 35 years. Shade-grown coffee requires predictable blossom showers in the early months of the year. With rains becoming increasingly erratic, farmers are finding shade management tiresome; they are switching to irrigation, intensive open cultivation and substituting the native evergreen shade trees for the more exotic, fast-growing and remunerative Silver Oak.

CAFNet concludes that these changes “may affect ecosystem services like water supply, carbon storage and biodiversity.”

High range forests are also being cut down for infrastructure development; this also will have a bearing on Cauvery’s headwaters. In July 2014, the National Green Tribunal dismissed a petition by the Coorg Wildlife Society challenging a 55-km high-tension electricity transmission corridor that cut a swathe through the womb of the Cauvery in the Brahmagiri ranges. At least 20,000 evergreens were to be sacrificed just in the Brahmagiri and Pushpagiri ranges. The case was dismissed not on merits but on a technical ground that the petitioners did not show sufficient reason for condonation of delay in filing the petition within the period of statutory limitation.

The Mysore plateau and the Maidans

In 1934, construction of the Krishnarajasagar dam was completed; subsequently, reservoirs came up over Hemavathi, Yagachi, Harangi and Vattehole rivers. This led to the development of intensive irrigated agriculture in the Mandya and Hassan districts of Karnataka. The Cauvery basin reservoirs irrigate more than 100,000 hectares in Mandya and 47,000 hectares in Hassan district. With paddy, banana and sugarcane as key cash crops, the agriculture across the Cauvery basin is not just water-intensive but also fertiliser and pesticide intensive.

The assured supply of reservoir water irrespective of seasons also attracted water-intensive industries. The Nanjangud Industrial Area located on the banks of the Kabini houses 83 large, medium and small industries in a 532 acre plot 25 km from Mysore. Predictably, the Kabini leaves Nanjangud loaded with contaminants from the industrial area and domestic sewage.

The Mysore side of the river too has seen a spurt of water-intensive industries. A study by the Karnataka Engineering Research Station at Krishnarajasagara found that polluted wastewater from three industries –a paper mill, a distillery and a fertiliser manufacturer – had rendered stretches of Cauvery near the once-famed Ranganathittoo Bird Sanctuary “unsuitable for drinking, bathing and fish culture.”

The once sacred Vrishabhavathi River that runs through south Bengaluru is now a carrier of sewage and industrial effluents from the Peenya Industrial Estate. The city has one of the highest rates of water wastage in the country. According to a 2013 study by the Bengaluru-based Institute of Social and Economic Change, the city wastes 48% of the 1,400 MLD water pumped to the city.

Bengaluru’s rise from a sleepy little garrison town to an IT hub has destroyed everything that made the city a paradise. The city’s water needs were once met by the large network of lakes, whose spillover would feed the Vrishabhavathi. From 261 in 1961, the number of lakes in this garden city has fallen to just 85 in 2016. Now, the city sends sewage to the Cauvery through the Vrishabhavathi, and pumps up water from the Cauvery 500 feet below.

A study by the Ashoka Trust for Environment and Ecology found high levels of toxic heavy metals, including nickel, copper, chromium and lead in soil and groundwater, and milk and vegetables from the nearby farms. The Vrishabhavathi Sewage Treatment plant that was designed to handle 180 MLD of raw sewage only receives 130 MLD. Of this, only 26 MLD arrives through underground sewers. The remainder is sewage and industrial effluents that flows in the river’s course.

Paraphrasing the 1960s singer Tom Lehrer, what they flush out at breakfast in Bengaluru, we drink for dinner in Tamil Nadu. The Karnataka minor irrigation minister is reported to have revealed in the Assembly that more than 1,400 million litres of sewage is discharged daily into Tamil Nadu. That is nearly 20 TMC from one city in one year – three times the allocation for Pondicherry, and twice the allocation for ‘environmental protection’.

Some plateau and the delta

Karnataka had only 316 km of the 800 km river to abuse. They have not done too badly, considering that most of it is in inaccessible, difficult-to-pollute hilly terrain. Tamil Nadu is blessed with 416 km of Cauvery, all in gently sloping ground and plains.

The Stanley reservoir, or Mettur dam, is the barometer of tension between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Within two years of the reservoir’s construction, the first industry had come up based on water availability. Mettur Chemical and Industrial Corporation was set up in 1936. Within 15 years, it was already identified as a major polluter of the Cauvery and as the cause of mass fish mortality. Discharge of effluents into Cauvery from this company continued for several years after 2007, when the company’s successor Chemplast Sanmar announced zero liquid discharge plans.

On one bank of the Stanley reservoir is a mountain of red mud – a toxic residue from years of alumina production by the Madras Aluminium Company, Ltd. Every passing rain washes a little of the poison into the reservoir.

As if that were not enough, tens of small- and medium-scale chemical industries in the SIDCO industrial estate continue to discharge their effluents through natural drains and engineered canals into the Cauvery. Beneath the reservoir, on the banks of the original river course, sits a 1,240-MW water-guzzling coal-fired thermal power plant operated by TANGEDCO. The Mettur Thermal Power Station has permission to draw 184 MLD (2 TMC annually) of river water. Coal ash from the plant is dumped up on a hill, from where it finds its way back to the river.

Roughly 45 km from here is where the Bhavani joins the Cauvery in Erode district. By the time it reaches the Cauvery, the Bhavani carries the effluents from dyeing industries, leather tanneries and pulp and paper mills – all heavy water-users and heavier polluters. The industrial town of Salem discharges about 35 MLD of untreated sewage into the Cauvery through the Thirumanimuthar. This sub-tributary was converted from a river to a concrete lined drain with money borrowed from the World Bank.

The Lower Bhavani river stretch receives about 38,000 cubic meters of effluents and wastewater from the industrial cluster around Mettupalayam town. Additionally, untreated sewage from Mettupalayam, Sathyamangalam, Gobichettipalayam and Bhavani are also discharged into the Bhavani. Pesticide-laden waters from the coffee and tea plantations of the Nilgiris contribute their bit to the Bhavani.

Further east, the Noyyal, with its notorious effluent-filled Orathupalayam dam, joins the Cauvery. This river, once a lifeline for farmers, is now biologically dead, killed by the exports of the dyeing and bleaching industries from western countries to the hosiery town of Tirupur on its banks. In 1980, there were just 26 bleaching and dyeing units in Tirupur. In 2001, there were 700.

Water withdrawals from the Noyyal sub-basin were 4.4 MLD in 1980; one study projected it to increase to more than 115 MLD in 2005. Growth, development and the pursuit of the good life depleted local water sources and polluted what remained. Now, Tirupur draws water from Bhavani’s confluence with Cauvery, about 55 km away. A public-private partnership – the New Tirupur Area Development Corporation, Ltd. –was set up to supply 185 MLD (2 TMC) water of which 125 MLD was reserved for the textile industry. About 120 MLD of effluent is released in the basin.

All along the Cauvery’s route, it picks up not just industrial effluents but also municipal solid waste and untreated or partially treated urban sewage.

The post-liberalisation construction boom has birthed a new mafia in Tamil Nadu: the sand mafia. Cubic metre for cubic metre, sand has proven to be even more valuable than water. From Kulithalai in Erode, where the Cauvery expands to a breadth of 1.5 km, the river bed is largely sand. The sand is a spongelike storehouse of freshwater that feeds riverside wells and keeps the farmers happy. About 60% of the state’s sand requirement is met by sand mined from the Cauvery basin. Legal or illegal, the quantum of sand that is being removed has harmed the ability of the river to remain a river. And sand-mining operators are a ruthless lot with friends in the district administration, assembly and the police.

Root cause is demand

It is surprising that after all that hot-blooded South Indians have done to their river, there is still a river left to fight over.

The scale of abuse is evident. Yet, it has escaped the attention of the members of the tribunal and the Supreme Court. The complexity of river systems, the hydrological dynamics that determine their ebb and flow, and other anthropogenic confounders such as land-use change and climate change have had no influence on the tribunal order.

The 2007 award that was 16 years in the making is meaningless drivel. From its declaration that a “Normal year” will be a year in which the Cauvery yields 740 TMC to divvying up this yield with an arbitrary 10 TMC to spare for “environmental protection”, the Tribunal’s award exposes its hurry to deploy reductionist arithmetic hydrology rather than confront the confounding elephants in the room – ever-increasing demand, climate change and land-use change.

The inimitable Ramasamy Iyer says it best in his article already cited above:

Finally, interstate or inter-country river-water disputes often arise because the combined water demand of all the co-riparian states or countries exceeds the water that is there in the river in the lean season. The “development” that we have embarked on involves a heavy draft on natural resources as well as the infliction of heavy damage on those resources and on nature itself. In the context of water, this leads to inter-use, inter-sector, inter-area and interstate conflicts. There is ever a demand for more water and still more water; we are asking for water that does not exist. Unless we abandon this competitive, unsustainable demand for water, and learn to use prudently, effectively and harmoniously the water that is available, there will be no end to conflicts. The notions of “development” and “growth” that lead to that kind of demand need to be re-examined.

If tensions rise only in times of scarcity, it is the notion of scarcity and the scarcity itself that need to be addressed. Scarcity is a function of demand and supply. It can be reduced by increasing supply and reducing demand. In the case of the Cauvery, the same policies that increase demand (and trigger growth) – construction boom, infrastructure development, intensification of agriculture – also harm the river system and its ability to produce and carry water. For the Cauvery, and most of India’s rivers, available supplies can be enhanced by preventing pollution and safeguarding the river’s catchments, banks and riverbeds. Replacing water-intensive agriculture and industrial practices can free up more water than we currently need. Rather than find new uses for it, this water should be reserved for the river. The 10 TMC of water allocated for “environmental protection” by the tribunal is meaningless considering that just one city – Bengaluru – dumps 20 TMC sewage into the Cauvery.

Today’s planners try to spare water for ecological flows, not realising that ecological flows are what keep the river a river.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.