- On February 16, the Supreme Court revisited the earlier Kaveri river water sharing formula and took away 14.75 Tmcft of water from Tamil Nadu and gave it to Karnataka.
- Of this, 10 Tmcft was to be accounted from the groundwater component from the delta region and 4.75 Tmcft was allotted additionally to Bengaluru city.
- This can have implications on climate resilience in the delta region and can increase the ecological footprint of Bengaluru city.
- On World Meteorological Day 2018 (today) the theme is “weather ready, climate smart.” By reallocating water of the Kaveri the Supreme Court judgement may have moved away from this theme.
Summer is the pilot car that the monsoon follows into the Indian peninsula from the Indian Ocean. Thus, Kerala, which is at the entry point for the southwest monsoon, is also the first point in the country to have its summer. February and March are the hottest months in this coastal state, and when the rest of the country simmers under the unrelenting heat of May, Kerala would have cooled a little, if the pre-monsoon showers are on time.
If the current temperatures in Kerala could be an indication – with Palakkad already crossing 400 C – this summer could be severe in much of peninsular India. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) will take time to announce its forecast for the southwest monsoon of 2018, so it is too early to say whether the monsoon rains could compensate for the summer heat.
As the rivers dry this summer, the quantum water in the Kaveri river will evoke greater interest and animosity, since the Supreme Court added an additional dimension to the complex water-sharing between the riparian states by reallocating the shares of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Even though Kerala and Puducherry are also riparian states in the Kaveri issue, it is the allocation between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that has garnered most attention.
Give and take
Traditional belief has it that Kaveri begins as a stream from under the Brahmagiri Hill at Thalakaveri in Kodagu district of Karnataka. The stream flows into a pond and disappears to later reappear at Bhagmandla, and gathering strength from other streams and rivers, becomes the mighty Kaveri. It flows as a single channel till it reaches Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, and breaks into the multiple streams of the delta.
The many streams and rivers that join to form the Kaveri originate and flow through the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For instance, out of the four rivers that originate out of the Nilgiris massif in Tamil Nadu, three – Bhavani, Moyar and Kabini – flow into the Kaveri.
Bhavani originates in upper Nilgiris, flows down through Kerala and again returns to Tamil Nadu and joins Kaveri at a town called Bhavani. Moyar, which flows through a geological fault line in the north and east of the Nilgiris, joins Bhavani at the Bhavanisagar dam. Even though the Kabini originates near the Gudalur plateau in Tamil Nadu, much of its inflow comes while it flows north through Wayanad in Kerala, before turning east and joining the Kaveri in Karnataka. Puducherry, on the other hand shares the deltaic region of Kaveri, and hence the water allocation has the four riparian states involved.
What the Supreme Court ordered
It is because of this multi-state character that allocating water has always been difficult and forever disputed. In its February 16 judgment, the Supreme Court used the principle of equitable apportionment of water and gave the highest priority to drinking water requirement of the overall population of all the states. Chief Justice Dipak Mishra, Justice Amitava Roy and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar delivered the judgment.
The Supreme Court, in its judgment reviewed the allocation made in the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on February 5, 2007. It concurred with the 30 thousand million cubic feet (Tmcft) that the tribunal had allocated to Kerala, and also with the allocation for Puducherry. For Tamil Nadu, the court said that the tribunal had not taken into account 20 Tmcft groundwater reserves that was available in the state, and from it 10 Tmcft was being brought into the allocation calculations.
The allocation for Karnataka was increased on two fronts. First, the city of Bengaluru was given 4.75 Tmcft. “The tribunal had drastically reduced the share of Karnataka towards domestic and industrial purpose for the reason being that only one-third of the city of Bengaluru falls within the river basin and also on the presumption that 50% of the drinking water requirement would be met from ground water supply,” the judgment observed. “The said view taken by the tribunal ignores the basic principle pertaining to drinking water and is, thus unsustainable. Keeping in mind the global status that the city has attained, an addition of 4.75 Tmcft is awarded to Karnataka.”
The 10 Tmcft taken away from Tamil Nadu was also transferred to Karnataka. “In totality, we deem it appropriate to award to the State of Karnataka an additional 14.75 TMC of water, i.e., 10 TMC (on account of availability of ground water in Tamil Nadu) plus 4.75 TMC (for drinking and domestic purposes including such need for the whole city of Bengaluru),” stated the judgment.
Reworking the allocation, the judgment said: “In view of the allocation of additional 14.75 TMC of water to Karnataka, the State of Karnataka would now be required to release 177.25 TMC of water at the inter-state border with Tamil Nadu, i.e., at Billigundulu.” The earlier apportionment to Tamil Nadu, as per the tribunal order, was 192 Tmcft.
“It will make the delta more vulnerable to climate change”
While water sharing from Kaveri has always been a contentious issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the new order adds an entirely different dimension to the discussion. It reallocates water from the Kaveri delta region, which depends heavily on the surface flow in the river to the needs of a city – Bengaluru. To make matters worse, while the agricultural fields are in the lower riparian state of Tamil Nadu, the city is in the upper riparian Karnataka.
Even though they are centres of economic activity, cities are points of consumption – where natural resources are insatiably consumed. The ecological footprint of this consumption is felt over wide geographical areas. Because of their economic and political power, cities also do not bother about their ecological footprint, and crave for more natural resources at the cost of the communities of the hinterlands. In such circumstances, was it sustainable for the court to take water from the farms of the delta to an ever-growing city?
“The judgement has raised two-fold issues,” said S. Janakarajan, former director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and currently the president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SACIWATER). “One is environmental and the other is economic.”
Encouraging extraction of groundwater from the Kaveri delta will raise environmental concerns and will also affect the livelihoods of the communities living there, he said. While with MIDS, he completed a large-scale study in 2015 for the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), on the quality of groundwater in the Kaveri delta region.
“According to my study and the data provided by the Central Ground Water Board almost all of the delta area in Nagapattinam district is saline and the same can be said of 80 percent of the delta in Thiruvaroor district. There is salinity and brackishness coming in into the rest of the delta,” Janakarajan said.
Since the delta is in the coast, pumping out of groundwater will result in seawater coming into the aquifer, he explained. It can also result in land subsidence, which is lowering of the floor of the delta. When faced with climate change and sea level rise, this would mean an increase in the vulnerability of the delta region to sea level rise.
The problem is compounded with the dams upstream trapping silt and not letting it flow into the delta. “The silt has stopped flowing for decades, and now we extract sand from the river bed, disturbing the elevation level, topography and the gravity of the river. I compared topographical sheets of the delta region from 1971 with remote sensing data from 2014 and realised that the low zone coastal zone is vulnerable to sea level rise,” Janakarajan observed.
Is it sustainable to take water from agriculture to a city?
Veena Srinivasan, fellow, Centre for Environment and Development at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), says that the question is whether the Supreme Court Judgement is a call for greater extraction in the delta region, or a mere acknowledgement of the water already being used being taken into the calculation.
“What is strange is that the judgement only takes into account the groundwater extracted in the delta region and not in the other parts of the entire river valley. If you want to calculate groundwater extraction you have to do it from everywhere,” she said.
“If water is not transferred, will people stay back in their farms, that’s the question that needs to be asked and answered,” said Srinivasan. “At the rate of land fragmentation in the villages, I am not sure if people can eke out a living from their small farm land parcels. Unless we can work out a development model where farm families can earn a reasonable income from their lands, rural to urban migration is inevitable.”
According to Balaji Narasimhan, associate professor in the Environment and Water Resources Engineering Division of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, only the agricultural sector can supply water to an urban area. “Agriculture is the larger consumer of water, and it has to become more water efficient as the cities grow,” he commented.
“Traditionally the first priority for water us is for the drinking water needs of urban bodies. Then comes agriculture and everything else. There would be water drawn from agriculture for cities and towns. It is happening within Tamil Nadu, where priority is being given to the needs of cities. The situation gets highlighted because in this case the city happens to be in another riparian state,” Narasimhan said.
“If the 10 Tmcft of groundwater can be replenished then its extraction and use is sustainable,” said Paul Appasamy, environmental economist and former director of the Madras School of Economics. “However, careful monitoring of groundwater levels is necessary to ensure that over-extraction does not happen in drought years.”
In fact, according to him, the real problem will come only in the years of distress. The crux of the water sharing will be to find a formula for sharing during the lean years. Without that the dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will continue.
Should Bengaluru take all?
Veena Srinivasan asks another question on why should Bengaluru city get all the water. Should it not be distributed equitably with other towns and villages? “Bengaluru has enough water, and the problem is with its distribution. Most of the water goes to the centre of the city and not much to the periphery. While the city has an average per capita availability of 130 litres per day (lpd), the central part of the city gets between 300 and 400 lpd.”
Janakarajan says that the city loses as much as 40 percent through transmission loss and wastage. “Bengaluru is a high-tech city, and why does it not talk about water recycling?” he asked.
Disturbed forests and burning lakes
A river is a drainage channel that takes rainwater into the sea. It is a channel that water cuts over millennia through the easiest access path to flow into the sea. In the process of cutting this path the river carries silt, which it deposits at the delta, where the river breaks into multiple channels. The silt and nutrients carried by Kaveri had sustained rice farming for thousands of years in the delta.
However, for the river to have water flowing throughout the year there is need for good forests in the catchment. The hill district of Kodagu, from where Kaveri originates, has been losing its rainforests with coffee planters letting the shade trees die so that they could be replaced with more utilitarian silver oak trees. So much so, in the recent years there has been an effort to support coffee farmers with payment for ecosystem services to help them maintain their rainforest trees.
If the disturbance of the rainforests in areas that can receive as much as 5,000 mm of annual rain is not bad enough, the district has also been hit with climate change. Since the coffee planters have been meticulously collecting rainfall data over decades, the College of Forestry at Ponnampet, Kodagu, working through a Coffee Agro-forestry Network (CAFNET) project, aggregated this data over 60 years from 116 farms and found that over the past 35 years the rainy season has decreased by 14 days and there is strong fluctuation of annual rainfall.
Similarly, in the Nilgiris – from where three of Kaveri’s tributaries originate – the native shola-shola forests and sacred groves have been under severe stress. While the evergreen shola forests have come under the axe, the grasslands have been planted over with soft-wood producing eucalyptus and wattle trees.
The result – even though average annual rainfall has remained same, the reliability has disappeared over the years. Thus, while Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fight over the Kaveri water, they are also finding it difficult to rely on a steady flow in the river.
Bengaluru, the city that is the recipient of reallocated water from the delta, has let so much effluent to collect in one of their lakes, that it froths and burns.
With climate change making rainfall and temperature profiles unreliable, the Kaveri valley may be seeing the deficit year scenario more often. The reallocation could then make sharing more difficult and also worsen the environmental situation.