Cauvery dispute: Are dams the solution to water scarcity and more food grains production?

cauveryBy Sadhan Mukherjee*

The raging dispute over sharing the Cauvery River water between Karnataka and Tamilnadu states is turning out to be a tug of war also between legislature and judiciary since the Karnataka assembly has resolved not to share Cauvery water with Tamilnadu despite the Supreme Court order.

Another water dispute is shaping up between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over Mahanadi water. There is another dispute growing between Bihar and Madhya Pradesh over Sone River water. There is also growing tension between Andhra and Telangana over sharing of Krishna River water after the formation of two states from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. There are two other claimants to Krishna water – Karnataka and Maharashtra. Krishna originates in Maharashtra, passes through Karnataka and then through Telangana and Andhra before emptying into Bay of Bengal.

With the Interlinking Rivers Project (ILR) already initiated, one wonders what the situation would be like with further sharing of water.

Additionally, we have water disputes with neighbouring countries. Pakistan has charged us with violating the Indus Water Treaty and is threatening to go to the International Court of Arbitration to seek remedy. There are disputes on sharing Teesta and Ganga waters with Bangladesh. Nepal has accused India of unequal treaties impinging on its sovereignty and the benefits of dams built with India’s help largely going to India. Even on the ILR project, it seems, India has not even consulted Bangladesh and Nepal who are stakeholders in these rivers.

In my post in linkedin.com (click HERE to read), I had said that rivers which originate in one country and then pass through another or more countries before reaching the sea or ending in a particular area of another country, cannot be monopolised by one country. This practice is followed all over the world and the same logic applies to inter-state rivers. Not that the Indian states deny that logic but the dispute is about the quantum of water available to each state.

There is yet another side to the issue which asserts that putting up dams and barrages at random reduces not only the flow of water but also leads to accumulation of sediments reducing the depth of water over the years making the river bed more and more shallow. The unbridled practice of states putting up barriers to divert the waters for irrigation and industry needs defeats the very purpose of development in the long run. It is true that we need more food grains production in view of our growing population. But are dams and barrages the solution to water scarcity and more food grains production?

As per the data of National Register of Large Dams in India (2015) there were 4877 large dams in the country with 313 more under construction. Maharashtra tops the list with 1845, followed by 906 in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat 632 and Chhattisgarh 258. But not one of the states is free from effects of droughts and water scarcity.

The World Commission on Dams has concluded that a mere 10-12 per cent of India’s food grains production comes from the big dams. It is the groundwater that has been India’s main source of irrigation, estimated to be 70 per cent more productive than canal irrigation. It is said that recharge of ground water is more beneficial to increase agricultural production.

This is highly relevant in the context of the Integrated River Linking Project (ILR) that the central government is pushing forward at a tremendous cost. The ILR is likely to displace 1.5 million people and will submerge 27.66 lakh hectares of land. It will also obstruct the natural ecology of rivers since as many as 14 Himalayan rivers and 16 rivers in Peninsular India are involved in the project.

Former Planning Commission member Mihir Shah (2009-14) has pointed out that “the (ILR) scheme will deeply compromise the very integrity of the monsoon cycle”. Inflows from rivers help maintain high sea-surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal, critical for creating low-pressure areas and of the monsoon. Shah underlined that reducing the flow of river waters into the sea could bear “serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent.”

There is also considerable doubt about the feasibility of the project. On September 16, the Godavari and Krishna rivers—the second and the fourth longest rivers in the country—were linked through a canal in Andhra Pradesh. The project was completed at a cost of Rs.1,300 crore. The second, the Rs.11 lakh crore Ken-Betwa linking project, has also been given approval last month. Not only will it take away 105 sq km of tiger habitat area but also displace 1585 families of 10 villages.

The project is aimed at providing irrigation facilities for 6,35,661 hectares of land in Chhattarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh districts in Madhya Pradesh, and Banda, Mahoba and Jhansi districts in Uttar Pradesh as well as bringing drinking water to a large number of people and also help generate about 78 MW of power.

But it seems there is a big flaw in the Ken-Betwa plan. Currently the presumption is that Ken River has more water than Betwa River. Any change in that balance therefore may result in a disaster.. `

There is also a fear that with climate change, the water surplus rivers may become water deficit rivers. Prof. A. Gossain of Delhi IIT says: “If in future, this basic assumption goes haywire for any system, wherein our perennial systems – mostly Himalayan – don’t retain the same character of being donor basins, then the whole concept goes for a toss. This will happen if the glaciers don’t sustain their glacier mass due to climate change,” (The Hindu, May 7).

Apart from the Ken-Betwa linking project, the other such projects in the works are the Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga, involving Assam, West Bengal and Bihar; Par Tapi Narmada Link to transfer water from the water surplus regions of Western Ghats to the water deficit regions of Saurashtra and Kutch and Damanganga-Pinjal link, which will provide water for Greater Mumbai.

The ILR project is bound to lead to further disputes among the Indian states as water is a state subject under the Constitution of India. It may also aggravate the discord with the neighbouring countries. Already it has been argued that such a project will affect 100 million people of Bangladesh who live downstream. As many as 54 rivers from India flow into Bangladesh.

Whatever the plans governments of India and states want to implement for augmenting water supply through river projects, there is no doubt that if water supply to other states and countries are further affected, the situation will become very tense with an uncertain future.

*Veteran journalist

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