India’s Water Crisis: Inter-State River Disputes Rage Amid Water Scarcity

The Cauvery river water dispute with Karnataka isn’t the only one affecting Tamil Nadu.

Felled coconut trees in northern Tamil Nadu. (Photographer: Parth MN)
Felled coconut trees in northern Tamil Nadu. (Photographer: Parth MN)

Amidst the unending swathes of coconut trees, rice fields and banana orchards, lie infrequent patches that seem conspicuously out of place in the interiors of northern Tamil Nadu.

These tombstone-like stumps are parked within a certain distance of each other on green outfields. Except they are not tombstones. A closer look reveals they are coconut trees felled by cultivators. A graveyard of sorts. Just not the type we would typically see.

Ratnamma, 60, trudging through the narrow, winding roads in Echangal village of Vellore district says 40 of her 200 coconut trees have died in the past three months. Those alive have not thrown up any significant yield.

“My village is located near a lake that is completely dry,” she says while carrying a water pot on her head. “My borewells and wells have dried up completely. We would strike water within 100 feet a couple of decades back. Today, even borewells drilled deeper than 800 feet are parched.”

Felled coconut trees in northern Tamil Nadu. (Photographer: Parth MN)
Felled coconut trees in northern Tamil Nadu. (Photographer: Parth MN)

The major source of water for 4.5 lakh hectares of farmland in five districts of northern Tamil Nadu—including Vellore and Kancheepuram—is the Palar river, which originates in Karnataka. It flows through Andhra Pradesh, where it’s spread across 48 km, before hitting Tamil Nadu and traversing a course of about 220 km in the state.

In 2014, the Andhra Pradesh government increased the height of a check dam located on their side of the border in Palar. It was raised from 7 feet to 22 feet, and in July 2019, work began to increase its height further up to 40 feet. This has thwarted the flow of water downstream into Tamil Nadu, which is seen as a violation of 1892 agreement between Mysore and Madras presidency. Being a downstream state, the agreement says, Tamil Nadu should be consulted before any construction on the river.

Asokan Ambalur, 53, activist with the Vellore-based River Ecology Committee, says Andhra Pradesh has constructed more than 20 check dams over 48 km. “It started in 1996,” he says. “But increasing the height of check dams served as the biggest blow. There are over 600 leather tanneries based here, which depend on water from Palar, along with farmers that cultivate water-intensive crops. They are all struggling terribly.”

India’s Water Crisis: Inter-State River Disputes Rage Amid Water Scarcity

S Janakarajan, President, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, says Palar is known for its riverbed aquifer.

“It has a huge 30-40 feet sand deposit downstream, which helps retain and replenish groundwater,” he says. “That is used for supplying water in the region of northern Tamil Nadu. That has stopped in the past 15 years or so."

“Check dams aren’t a problem. They are 5-7 feet high. Andhra Pradesh has built proper reservoirs. If the dam’s height goes up further, it would affect the areas in northern Tamil Nadu very badly. It has already affected the region adversely since 2014.”

The Palar river, along with canals that derive water from it, are bone-dry in the middle of August. The riverbed, dotted with odd trees, betrays no hint of the existence of a river.

The issue is complex. The Palar river flows through Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh, which is one of the driest regions in the country. Once known for its millet cultivation, it has turned into a desert with farmers caught in a quagmire. “They want to harness water for that region,” says Janakarajan.

A stretch of the dried up Palar river in Tamil Nadu. (Photographer: Parth MN)
A stretch of the dried up Palar river in Tamil Nadu. (Photographer: Parth MN)

Political Give-And-Take

While the Andhra Pradesh government has refused to yield on Palar, it has softened its stance on sharing of waters from the Krishna river.

NT Rama Rao and MG Ramachandran, then chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, respectively, had implemented the Telugu Ganga project in 1980s to provide drinking water to Chennai from the Krishna. Maharashtra and Karnataka are also part of the agreement, for the river flows through the two states as well. However, Janakarajan says, Tamil Nadu has rarely received its mandated share of water from the Krishna river. The matters got more complicated after Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated.

In the second week of August, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Reddy agreed to release 8 thousand million cubic feet from the Krishna river under the Telugu Ganga project after a delegation from Tamil Nadu, including Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, met with him.

Prabhu Shankar, executive director of Chennai Metro Water, says the 8 TMC feet of water from the Krishna river would substantially help in easing Chennai’s water crisis.

The city with a population of 70 lakh, spread across 424 square kilometres, had hit headlines earlier this year for running out of groundwater. A water train had to be summoned in July to provide drinking water to its residents. Even today, Chennai’s water supply stands at 525 million litres per day, against the required 830 million.

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Shankar says Chennai needs water to sustain till the onset of northeast monsoon, which brings 80 per cent of rainfall between October and December. “Usually the month of September gets most difficult to supply water because the stock dries out,” he says. “With Krishna water coming in, we should be able to fill our reservoirs up to at least half the capacity, which should be sufficient to restore supply to the maximum extent possible.”

The water released is a relief, but it has complicated the negotiations around Palar.

The opposition, led by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, has accused the Tamil Nadu government of being silent on the issue. DMK’s M Subramaniam, former mayor of Chennai, says the opposition and farmers are protesting but the government is going soft on Andhra Pradesh. “It’s inactive,” he says. “There is no communication between the governments of two states.”

But C Ponnaiyan, founding member of the ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, says the government has asked the centre to issue a directive to Andhra Pradesh to refrain from increasing the height of the check dam. “Because of the wrong interstate river policy pursued by the central governments over the years, state governments in power have been violating the inter-state water agreements,” he says.

Besides Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu is locked in water conflicts with Karnataka over Cauvery river, and Kerala over the water levels in the Mullaperiyar Dam that is the source of water for a few districts in southern Tamil Nadu.

“Inter-state water problems can only be tackled by the centre,” says Ponnaiyan.

Inter-State Water Disputes

There are at least nine major inter-state water disputes being resolved through individual tribunals, some of which have stretched on for years.

The tribunal to deal with Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was set up in 1990. A Supreme Court judgment in this regard came in 2018.

Since 1986, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan have bickered over Ravi and Beas rivers. While the tribunal submitted its report a year later, Supreme Court directed the states to resolve the issue last month.

Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa have a dispute over Mahadayi river. The tribunal was set up in 2010, which prepared its report in 2018, and the matter is in Supreme Court now.

Since 2018, a dispute over Mahanadi is brewing between Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

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To find a more centralised solution to such disputes, the Indian government passed the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in July this year, amending the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.

The new bill dissolves all the tribunals set up to handle different disputes across the country, and replaces it with one tribunal under which different benches would oversee different matters. It also introduces a formal resolution mechanism before setting up of the tribunal—which did not exist before. If the resolution mechanism fails, the tribunal has to conclude the case within two years, unlike three in the past. And the period of extension has been halved from three years to one and a half years.

Pradeep Purandare, water expert and former Associate Professor (Irrigation Management) at Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), says the new water dispute act prima facie seems like it can solve the water disputes relatively quicker. “Instead of having a tribunal for each dispute, if every dispute is handled by benches under one tribunal, it can improve coordination,” he said. “However, you can make an act, but at the end of the day it depends on how it is executed.”

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Purandare, though, feels the changes in the act could be undone by the fact that the states can still approach the Supreme Court if they don’t like the decision. “The tribunal’s decision should be final,” he said. “The Supreme Court isn’t a technical authority, and it should not entertain these cases. Once you empower technical authorities, that’s where the matter should end.”

Even though water is a state subject, Purandare said, central government has the power to decide on inter-state rivers. “When medium and major irrigation projects require money from the national plan, you need to approach the Centre,” he said. “While releasing money for it, the Centre dictates its terms and conditions.”

According to the Central Water Commission, India’s per capita water availability in 1991 was 2,210 cubic metres per year, which dwindled to 1,651 in 2011. A level as low as this is regarded as a ‘water-stressed’ condition. The projected figure for 2051 is pegged lower at 1,228 cubic metres.

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With the swater carcity rising, the battle to secure adequate water will continue. Between states and nations.

In 2016, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Rajendra Singh, famously known as India’s Water Man, was asked about the role of water in fostering world peace. “The third world war is at our gate, and it will be about water, if we don’t do something about this crisis,” he said.