Even as the Cauvery water agitation in Karnataka enters the third day, following the Supreme Court ordered release of 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery water a day to Tamil Nadu, all eyes are now on the Supreme Court’s supervisory panel to assess ground realities.
Meanwhile, the Centre too is working on a permanent distress-sharing formula between states sharing river water, according to a report in the Deccan Herald this morning.
But, let’s take a step back and go beyond the headlines of the historical dispute between the two states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu dating back to the British rule. Based on the February 2007 ruling of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), with a final award of 419 tmc to Tamilnadu, 270 tmc to Karnataka, 30 tmc to Kerala and 7 tmc to Puducherry, Karnataka has to release 192 tmc water annually to Tamil Nadu. In distress years of failed or deficit monsoon, this becomes very difficult for Karnataka to release this water.
The water resources department of Karnataka points out how the catchment areas in the four states work. Cauvery, an inter-state river, runs east and finally empties into the Bay of Bengal. It rises at Talakaveri on the Brahmagiri Range of Hill in the Western Ghats, in Kodagu district of Karnataka, at an elevation of 1.341 m (4,400 ft.). The entire catchment area of the Cauvery Basin is 81,155 sqkm and covers three states, and one union territory. The catchment area in Karnataka covers 34,273 sqkm, Kerala 2,866 sqkm, Tamil Nadu 43,868 sqkm, and Karaikkal region of Puducherry 148 sqkm.
The principal tributaries of Cauvery in Karnataka are the Harangi, Hemavathi, Lakshmanatirtha, Kabini, Shimsha, Arkavathi and Suvarnavathy. All these rivers, except the Kabini River, Arkavathy River and Suvarnavathy River, rise and flow fully in Karnataka.
Now, let’s cut to the current situation. There are four issues as I see it:
1. An ever-growing and expanding Bengaluru and nearby villages are heavily dependent on Cauvery water for drinking needs.
2. Hefty BWSSB T&D losses of nearly 35 percent, while transmitting Cauvery water to Bengaluru from nearly 100 km, which leads not only to revenue loss but also to physical loss of water through leaky pipelines.
3. Cropping pattern in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are heavily dependent on Cauvery water.
4. In distress years and scanty monsoon, the four reservoirs KRS, Kabini, Hemavathy and Harangi of Cauvery get to dangerously low levels of depletion and there’s not enough water to go around.
Firstpost reached out to Shubha Ramachandran, water sustainability consultant from Biome Solutions, who sees a three-pronged long-term solution to the Cauvery dispute. Use the water which is available, reduce demand and look for ways to augment water supply through alternative means, she recommends.
Let’s take issue number 1 one. With nearly all the lakes in Bengaluru dried up and ground water sources depleting, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) goes as far as 100 km to get water from Cauvery to supply drinking water to Bengaluru. But this turns out to be an expensive proposition, as Bengaluru rests on an altitude of 3,000 feet above sea level and Cauvery water has to be pumped up.
Nearly 80 percent of the drinking water for Bengaluru comes from Cauvery and 20 percent from Arkavathy. A senior BWSSB official told Firstpost, that the Arkavathy had completely dried up.
According to BWSSB, the reservoir was last filled naturally in 1988, and with continual failure of the monsoon, this reservoir too is fed by Cauvery water.
In earlier years, 185 MLD came from the Arkavathi but it was totally inadequate to meet the growing population of Bengaluru to 8.5 million, as per the 2011 census. Today, it is estimated that Bengaluru’s population is 10 million and BWSSB has to increasingly depend on the River Cauvery, and 1,350 mld comes out of Cauvery for the city. Another 110 villages that came under Greater Bengaluru are yet to be covered by the Cauvery Water Supply scheme (CWSS).
However, Cauvery water alone is not enough to cater to the complete drinking water needs of Bengaluru. It is estimated that there are 3 lakh borewells that go as deep as 1,000 feet, and any number of water tankers plying in Bengaluru supplying drinking water to homes.
Shubha Ramachandran feels that Bengaluru’s water needs need not be river dependent at all. "Reduce demand by augmenting water sources through Rain Water Harvesting (RWH)," she says.
Now, although BWSSB has made it mandatory for any building construction in 30 x 40 and above dimension sites in the city to adapt RWH, most of these houses or apartment blocks use the RWH only to water their gardens or allow it to flow back to ground. Ramachandran feels that most homes in Bengaluru do not know how to use RWH water. She mentions several experimental projects in Bengaluru where the large areas are RWH-fed, including taking care of drinking water. "The reason many homes allow the RWH water to flow into the ground is because they are still getting Cauvery water."
Ramachandran also speaks of how Bengaluru must think of using Storm Water Drains (SWDs) for rainwater to flow freely, so that it can be re-used. "We also need to treat our waste water. Some of this treated waste water can be discharged into lakes to recharge it," she says.
But, many of the SWDs in Bengaluru have been encroached upon, and let’s hope these SWDs are back in force, once the demolition drive of the BBMP frees the SWDs. Meanwhile, most of the existing SWDs need to be desilted.
Meanwhile, there have been complaints from farmers in the Cauvery basin of silt in the reservoirs, which have not been desilted, again, due to lack of funds.
Now, let's look at issue number two: The Deccan Herald reported in March this year that around 300 million litres of Cauvery water is lost in transmission and distribution every day when the BWSSB supplies about 1,350 mld of Cauvery water to the city and the BWSSB does not have the funds to plug this T&D loss.
Writing for Firstpost, Sudhir estimated that with 35 percent of water meant for the city is wasted in leakages, out of the nearly 1,400 MLD that Bengaluru draws, 500 MLD is lost as leakage, 150 MLD allotted to industries, and the one crore Bengaluru citiizens would have to make do with only 750 MLD every day in 2016. This prediction has already come true!
BWSSB has to find the funds to plug these physical leakages on a war footing, if Sudhir’s other prediction (in 2013) that Bengaluru would have to be evacuated in 2023 has not to come true.
With issue number three where crops in the two states such as sugarcane and paddy are heavily water-dependent, farmers have to either go for drip irrigation, or adopt alternative farming methods like permaculture or organic farming, according to Ramachandran. "Do whatever you can do with the water available,” she says. Many of the newer farming methods need less water, she adds.
With Karnataka farmers cultivating 2.92 acres of land in the Cauvery basin, reducing the demand of scarce water is important. Worldwatch Institute talks about a 2002 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation which noted how, "organic systems can double or triple the productivity of traditional systems" in developing nations. Organic farming can not only save water; it can also save money for the farmer.
But will farmers be willing to move away from commercial farming, where they would have already invested on heavy machinery, hybrid seeds, fertiliser, pesticides, which help them get a higher yield, is a moot question.
Then let’s take issue number four: Ramachandran feels a plan must be in place in distress years where both the governments let farmers know how much water can be released that year and the farmers of both the states can then plan their crops accordingly. According to her this is doable, if several departments from the central government and state government sit together and work on a feasible plan.
This is where Centre intervention is necessary. The Ministry of Water Resources has to come up with a scientific and permanent distress sharing formula, taking into account deficit rainfall, depleted storage in reservoirs, cropping pattern and its resultant demand on water by both upstream and downstream farmers, depleting ground water table, and drinking water needs of the two states.