Earlier this week, Washington Post published a piece on the violence in Karnataka over the sharing of the Cauvery waters with Tamil Nadu. It asked a simple but a critical question: Indians are rioting over water. Is this a glimpse into the future?
Yes, it is.
This round of violence over the Cauvery waters got prime-time attention because it happened in Bangalore, India’s swish info-tech hub. But there are several low-intensity water wars happening across the country, and some may also go out of hand, if they are not tackled now. Unfortunately, many such skirmishes/battles over water go unnoticed because they take place in rural areas.
In June, I was in Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, a perennially water-starved district in the Bundelkhand region. In one of the villages, I met Shankar, a farmer. “Last night, people from our neighbouring village stole our water,” he said angrily.
“They brought their cattle to our water tank… we will take this up with their panchayat leaders because we hardly have water left for our cattle. Ours tank is the last source of water in this area,” he explained.
Villagers have now decided to take turns to guard the tank at night.
Shankar’s neigbour Arvind did not mince words: “There will be violence if they don’t listen to us”.
Experts say that water wars will become a norm in India due to climate change. Rainfall is expected to increase with greater variability, which could mean more droughts and floods. The Post report mentions a 2013 study by Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley that looked at 60 case studies on climate change and found “strong causal evidence” linking climate events to human conflicts. For each standard deviation in change in climate toward warmer temperatures or extreme rainfall, the authors showed, the frequency of interpersonal violence rose 4% and intergroup conflict rose 14%.
More evidence comes from the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJOLT), which aims to map 2,500 environmental conflicts and injustices by the end of 2017: It shows that more than 200 conflicts in India are caused by ecological disputes and scarcities of basic resources such as water and forests.
“Conflicts related to water management appear highest in India with 59 cases, followed by conflicts in fossil fuels and climate justice category with 47 cases and the industrial and utilities conflicts category with 36 cases,” VV Krishna, EJOLT project director and professor at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, said in a recent interview.
Speaking to HT on the Cauvery water conflict, KJ Joy, who co-edited Water Conflicts in India: A Million Revolts in the Making, said that Cauvery-type water wars break out also because tribunals (including the Cauvery Tribunal) don’t give a “clear direction as how to share during shortages and also institutional mechanisms to deal with it”.
Very often conflicts over sharing of water arise in distress years. And then this is exploited by identity-based organisations. “Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu should have foreseen the situation arising out of the Supreme Court verdict on September 5 and taken preventive steps,” he added.
These conflicts also arise because there is lack of real time data, leaving room for rumour-mongering. “Only now there seems to be a directive to the Central Water Commission to put real time hydrological data on the public domain,” he added.
As India firefights the Cauvery issue, a similar conflict is brewing over the Mahandi waters between in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The Chhattisgarh government had proposed constructing more than a dozen barrages on the Mahanadi. Odisha fears that such projects would hamper water flow into the Hirakund dam built on the river that originates in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district.
Then there is Andhra Pradesh and Telangana jousting over the Krishna and Godavari waters (one of the important issues underpinning the demand for a separate state had been water), and Punjab, Haryana and Delhi over the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal. Add to this is Karnataka and Goa’s fight over the sharing of the Mahadayi river waters.
If rivers have become source of conflicts, so have dams. There have been the strong protests against the Sardar Sarovar Project and the Polavaram dam. Similar protests have been seen in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. Other categories of water conflict include the one between industry and agrarian sector; water pollution and privatisation of the critical resource.
There is a virtual institutional vacuum in deal with micro watershed, sub-basins and basins in negotiated settlements around water allocation, and for conflict resolution. Though the different water polices have been talking about river basin organisations there is nothing on the ground.
“This is all the more important in the case of inter-state water conflicts – we need institutions that cut across administrative/political boundaries and can engage with the sub-basins and basins as integrated hydrological entities. In fact we need democratic, multi-stakeholder platforms for every sub-basin and basins in the country which are legally mandated,” said Joy.
Paradoxically, India has been able to resolve, at least to some extent, some of the trans-boundary conflicts with its neighbours. For example, despite all the tensions, the Indus Water Treaty still functions. There are occasional problems, but they are sorted out through discussion and dialogue.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about inter-state water conflicts.
Probably that’s what promoted some years ago Priyaranjan Das Munshi, former Union minster for water resources, to say: “I am not a minister for water resources, but for water conflicts”.
The author tweets at @kumkumdasgupta.