Business Standard

What is the Cauvery water dispute, and why is it making headlines again?

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been locked in a decades-long battle over the sharing of water from the Cauvery River

Cauvery, Kaveri river

BS Web Team New Delhi
The Supreme Court (SC) on Monday agreed to constitute a bench to hear the Cauvery river water-sharing dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. 

The Tamil Nadu government had moved the Supreme Court seeking fresh directions for releasing Cauvery water to Karnataka. Following Tamil Nadu's petition, the Karnataka government also filed an appeal in the Supreme Court.

What is the water dispute about?

The long-pending dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery waters rears its head whenever there is a deficit Southwest Monsoon in the region.

Strange as it may sound to people in the north reeling under the onslaught of rains, at the heart of the current Cauvery issue is prolonged monsoon deficiency in Karnataka. The cropping pattern in the two states, as well as the "adhoc manner" in which the vexed problem has been dealt with all along, has only exacerbated the situation.

Last week, Tamil Nadu petitioned the Supreme Court to direct Karnataka to release 24,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) of Cauvery water daily to support standing crops.

The court ordered Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu for 15 days.

However, Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar appealed to the authority to reconsider the decision due to scarcity issues faced by the Cauvery basin area since the start of the monsoon this year.

The state has written to the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA), requesting that it reconsider the order directing the state to release 10,000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu.

The 'distress formula'

According to Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), there needs to be a roadmap for all rivers in the country for all seasons, not just during drought or monsoon.

"So far as Cauvery is concerned, there should be a proper 'distress formula' for when there is a bad monsoon. The tribunal has laid down the principle for normal years but there is no guidance for years when monsoon is deficit," Thakkar was quoted as saying by The Hindu.

The environmentalist further stated that a 'distress year' should also be clearly defined.

"What is the definition of a 'distress year'? There are two issues, one, when the monsoon is less and two, when the inflow in the river is less. The duration of the 'distress period' should also be specified," he added.

According to the CWDT or Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal's final verdict, Karnataka is supposed to supply 177.25 thousand million cubic feet to Tamil Nadu at Biligundlu in a 'normal' water year between June and May. 

Of this, 123.14 TMC is to be released between June and September—when the Southwest Monsoon is here in the country.

Cauvery River and the dispute over it

Cauvery is one of the major rivers flowing through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It rises at Talakaveri in the Brahmagiri range in the Western Ghats in Karnataka and flows into the Bay of Bengal. The river is also known as Ponn, which means the golden mother.

The perennial, monsoon rain-fed river enters Tamil Nadu through the Dharmapuri district, making its way to Bay of Bengal. Worshipped as the Goddess Kaveriamma, it is also known as Dakshina Ganga—the Ganga of the South.

The Cauvery water dispute is long pending and political.

Cauvery is an interstate basin originating in Karnataka before passing through Tamil Nadu and draining into the Bay of Bengal. The other two riparian states are Kerala and Puducherry.

However, most of the river's total watershed falls in Tamil Nadu.

There are other issues, notably the way its waters are used.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continue to engage in "unsustainable water-intensive cropping patterns" which must change if the aim is to finalise some lasting solution to the problem,especially considering the climate change, Thakkar stated.

When monsoon fails to deliver

A bad monsoon year indicates a water shortage in Karnataka. According to reports, between June 1 and August 17, Karnataka recorded 499.4 mm of rainfall against the normal of 587.9 mm, a deficit of 15 per cent.

In August, the state recorded yet another massive deficit. Though neighbouring Tamil Nadu received normal rainfall during this period, farmers there rely on Cauvery's water for irrigation.

However, Karnataka farmers are protesting the release of water in mind a deficit Southwest Monsoon.

As of August 21, rainfall over the country during the second half (August to September period) of the Southwest Monsoon season is projected to be normal (94 to 106 per cent of Long Period Average).

However, the IMD predicts that below-normal rainfall is very likely over most parts of Peninsular India and western parts of northwest and central India. 

All eyes are now focused on the subsequent Northeast Monsoon.

BJP vs Congress over Cauvery water

On Monday, the Opposition BJP organised 'Mandya bandh' in protest against the Congress government's decision to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.

BJP leaders and former Karnataka Chief Ministers HD Kumaraswamy and Basavaraj Bommai have criticised the state government and accused it of betraying people for the sake of politics. 

The BJP has alleged that the Congress government is releasing water to help Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ally in the newly-formed Opposition block INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

"If the state government releases Cauvery water just because they [DMK] are part of INDIA, farmers of Mandya and Mysuru and residents of Bengaluru will face shortage of drinking water in the coming days," Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmer Welfare Shobha Karandlaje was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times (HT).

"At a time when our farmers are facing an acute water shortage, why is it necessary for us to satisfy the dictates of the Cauvery Water Management Board? The Tamil Nadu government approached the Supreme Court [seeking the release of Cauvery water]. What is the Karnataka government's position on this? Why are our Congress friends silent on this issue," Kumaraswamy questioned.

On the other hand, the ruling Congress in Karnataka has convened an all-party meeting on August 23.

"We have convened the all-party meeting to discuss the inter-state river disputes on Cauvery and Mahadayi. Chief minister Siddaramaiah will chair the meeting to be held in Vidhana Soudha at 11 am on Wednesday. Some members of parliament have also been invited. Several issues pertaining to the matter will be discussed," deputy chief minister DK Shivakumar, who holds the water resources portfolio, said.

Don't miss the most important news and views of the day. Get them on our Telegram channel

First Published: Aug 21 2023 | 7:40 PM IST

Explore News