Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

it is inexplicable why groundwater has been excluded in any consideration of water allocations. Waters diverted and utilised, seep into the ground.

Water Conservation and Climate

The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal may help lay to rest a long-standing controversy. Yet there are some worrying omissions.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, Feb 14, 2007

The anxiously awaited final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal is on the whole a good settlement that should lay to rest this long-standing controversy. Karnataka has expressed dissatisfaction and Tamila Nadu has expectedly followed suit. Both sides will possibly seek clarifications within the 90-day period after which the Union Government is mandated to notify the Order from which there is no appeal to the Supreme Court. The protests and possible “appeals” are essentially a part of the political gamesmanship that regrettably attends the serious business of governance as all parties are prone to play to the gallery and tend to compete with their rivals to claim the affections of “the poor”, the patriotic, or whosoever can be conveniently or plausibly invoked.

The Tribunal has laid down a sharing formula for allocation between the four riparian states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry of an estimated 740 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water in the Cauvery basin on the basis of 50 per cent dependability (which means a quantum of water that is assured in at least 50 out of a hundred years, or once every other year). If the annual discharge falls below this level in any year, the shortage or distress must be shared in the same given proportion. However, all carry over storage from other than minor dams, as assessed on June 1, will be taken as part of the allocable total for the ensuing water year.

So far so good. If all the parties work this agreement on the basis of mutual trust and cooperation, they should find it possible and live within the means provided, sharing the distress in lean years. However, Indian water tribunals have unfortunately not looked at water in a holistic manner. Groundwater has been consistently ignored in the calculus though it does not constitute a separate water regime but forms part of a common and interactive hydrological system. When rivers are full they recharge aquifers and when depleted draw from the latter. Equally, excessive ground water pumping can lower aquifers and induce replenishment from adjacent stream flows. Similarly, canals and irrigation can recharge the water table. Hence the need for conjunctive use.

In the circumstances, it is inexplicable why groundwater has been excluded in any consideration of water allocations despite difficulties in making measurements with the same facility as in the case of surface flows. Waters diverted and utilised at any point also seep into the ground and may be regenerated lower down, depending on the soil strata and other relevant factors. But such natural replenishment has not been factored into the estimation of allocable water resources. In other words, we are left with a less refined accounting of available water resources than might be possible, especially given technological advances.

Another deficiency has been inattention to conservation, management and water use efficiency. The growing importance of other sectoral demands such as municipal and domestic water supply and sanitation, industrial use and even recreation and leisure, cannot be disregarded. But these are not directly addressed. However, ecological uses have been taken into account and the Cauvery Tribunal has allocated 10 tmcf for this purpose.

Nor again has there been any review of cropping patterns – paddy, paddy, paddy in the Cauvery delta and paddy-cane in Mandya, both water-guzzling combinations, though possibly more profitable than any other on account skewed price support policies. The maintenance of irrigation systems leaves much to be desired and antiquated practices and poor water regulation and the absence of gated structures results in wastage. Subsidized water and power in many areas is also responsible for excessive water use and over pumping. Much of this is justified in the name of the “poor farmer”, though ultimately, he is the prime victim of these deleterious practices. Technological innovations like drip and sprinkler irrigation, mulching and improved tillage practices like the system of rice intensification (SRI) have also been left out of the reckoning.

Tribunals, in short, have limited themselves to a narrow allocative function and have not leveraged their prestige and clout to point the way to systemic improvement, conservation and policy reform. The water bureaucracy, agronomists, politicians and planners are all way behind the times and seem singularly unable and even unwilling to anticipate the future.

There is increasing evidence that climate change is upon us. The consequences of aberrant weather have been widely and it is no longer possible to coast along with business as usual and old-fashioned demagogy. Water markets are frowned upon as being capitalist and exploitative. On the other hand, if an economic price was put on water, the “poor farmer” as much as politicians might soon discover all manner of worthwhile trade-offs and available water would not merely stretch further but yield more social value per unit used.

Water is much more than an agricultural issue. But to the extent that it plays a critical role in agriculture, our inability to institute overdue water reform, as in every other sector, has contributed to the current agrarian crisis. To that extent, the Cauvery Water Tribunal deserves only two cheers at best.

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