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Essay On Water Conflicts In India

Water sharing disputes across the country (and even beyond) are only going to escalate with increasing demands, and also with increasing pollution & losses reducing the available water. Climate change is likely to worsen the situation as monsoon patterns change, water demands going up with increasing temperatures, glaciers melt and sea levels rise. The government’s agenda of interlinking of rivers would further complicate the matters.

The ongoing Cauvery Water Dispute [iv] has once again brought the focus on interstate river water sharing disputes in India and what has been our experience so far. There is no solution of Cauvery water dispute in sight and the engineer-dominated Cauvery Management Board that the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal Award has recommended is unlikely to help matters.

Current Tribunals Some of the water disputes that are ongoing now include the Mahadayi water dispute between Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra, the Vansadhara Water Dispute between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh,the Krishna Water Dispute between Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Cauvery Water Dispute between Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puduchery and Ravi Beas Tribunal Between Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. For all these five cases, the Tribunals set up under the Inter State Water Disputes Act of 1956 are still in office and supposed to be functioning, though in case of Cauvery and Ravi Beas disputes, there is no activity happening at the Tribunals. Even in case of Krishna dispute, the only issue the Tribunal is now discussing is the water sharing between newly created states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. So for example in the 2016-17 budget of Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR for short)[i], there is provision of Rs 0.68 Cr for Ravi Beas Tribunal, Rs 2.8 Cr for Cauvery Tribunal, Rs 2.6 Cr for Krishna Tribunal, Rs 4.52 Cr for Vansadhara Tribunal and Rs 3.1 Cr for the Mahadayi Tribunal.

Past Tribunals The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal award came in 1979, the Godavari Krishna Disputes Tribunal award was announced in July 1980 and the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal award was announced in Dec 2010. These tribunals no longer function. However, in case of the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal, after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the water distribution issue between these two states has been referred to it, so it is functioning again.

The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal award did not entirely resolve the issue, the dispute between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh lingered on many years after the Tribunal Further Award in 1979. Major project that the tribunal decided about, namely the Sardar Sarovar Project, is still incomplete, 37 years after the tribunal award and several petitions have been filed subsequently, since the Tribunal did not hear the affected people, who continue to struggle. Even people of dry region of Kutch, in whose name the project was justified, went to the Supreme Court, asking for greater share in Narmada waters. The Tribunal award is up for review in eight years, and the states are already gearing up for next round of fight.

In case of Godavari Tribunal decision, the Polavaram dam that was one of the key aspect of the decision, continues to be under construction and large number of disputes and litigations are still pending. The Krishna basin disputes has already seen need for second tribunal and its work is still ongoing.

All this shows that none of the tribunals have been able to resolve water sharing conflicts permanently.

The Indus treaty between India and Pakistan[iii] is often cited as an example of successful water sharing dispute resolution. However, the Indus Treaty basically divides the six rivers between the two states, giving absolute right to use waters of Beas, Ravi and Sutlej to India and most of the rights over waters of Chenab, Jhelum and Indus to Pakistan. The limited rights that upper basin areas of India have over the three western rivers, remains to be fully used, but many of the projects on these rivers have been challenged by Pakistan, and at least one of them was even taken to International Court of Justice at Hague.

There have been number of agreements between India and Nepal, including on Kosi, Gandak, Sharda and Mahakali rivers, but Nepal continues to have so much resentment that one cannot call any of them as successful examples of river water sharing.

Other ongoing Disputes In addition to the tribunals, the MoWR website lists three more disputes as ongoing disputes. The Polavaram (also known as Indirasagar) Dam in Andhra Pradesh has led to a dispute with Odisha and Chhattisgarh as the dam is going to submerge large parts of tribal areas of these states, but there has not even been an environment and social impact assessment, nor public consultation process. The Ministry of Environment and Forests have given a stop work order, but strangely, the order keeps getting suspended, and in the meantime, the Union Government has declared the project as a National Project and offered to fund it fully, though the project will be implemented by Andhra Pradesh. However, several petitions remain pending in the apex court against the project. Telangana has also raised a number of issues about the project, including share in benefits and backwater impacts. How is the project going ahead in spite of these issues, remains a mystery.

The second dispute that MoWR lists is about the Bhabali barrage on Godavari river. The MoWR website says about this dispute: “The State of Andhra Pradesh in May, 2005 brought to the notice of the Central Government that Government of Maharashtra was constructing Babhali barrage in the submergence area of Pochampad Project (Sriramsagar Project) in violation of the Godavari Water Dispute Tribunal (GWDT) award dated 7.07.1980. Babhali barrage is located on the main Godavari River in Nanded district; 7.0 km upstream of Maharashtra – Andhra Pradesh border. The Pochampad dam on Godavari River is 81 km downstream of Babhali barrage. Pochampad storage stretches to a distance of 32 km within Maharashtra territory and its submergence is contained within river banks in its territory under static conditions.” Following the creation of Telangana state on March 1, 2014, the dispute now is between Maharashtra and Telangana, but with signing of an agreement between these two states recently, this dispute may now be a history, though the MoWR website is yet to take cognizance of this.

The third ongoing dispute that MoWR lists is about Mulla Periyar Dam between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The dispute here is basically about safety of an over 120 year-old dam, which if it beaches, will affect Kerala, when all the benefits are going to Tamil Nadu. Kerala, in rare magnanimity seen in interstate water disputes, has offered that Tamil Nadu will continue to get all the water it is currently gets, even though Tamil Nadu does not have much share it the basin, but the beneficiary state of Tamil Nadu is refusing to allow decommissioning of the dam. The dam will have to be decommissioned at some stage, sooner its safety issue is resolved, better it will be.

As the temple of Koteshwar is about to be submerged in the Narmada valley by the Sardar Sarovar Projects. SSP has submerged numerous archeological sites, thousands of hecaters of forests and living villages. Since affected people had no role in Narmada Dispute Tribunal, the dispute between the state and the people remains unresolved till date. Photo: Karen Anderson

However, there are a number of other simmering issues. One major dispute that is soon likely to go the tribunal way is Mahanadi water sharing issue between Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Odisha government has already sent letters to the Centre, referring to the Inter State Water Disputes Act of 1956. The meetings of the Chief Secretaries and the Chief Ministers called by the Centre has not helped resolve the issue so far.

A dispute between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh on Palar River Water sharing has been brewing for some years. Another between Tamil Nadu and Kerala has started with Kerala seeking stage I environment clearance for Atapadi irrigation project on a tributary of Cauvery. The Sutlej Yamuna water sharing issue between Haryana and Punjab also keeps raisinging its head from time to time. There is also unresolved water sharing issue between Upper Yamuna Basin states. Between Maharashtra and Gujarat, the issue of water sharing of Tapi River remains unresolved now for some years, blocking the approval for Par Tapi Narmada and Damanganga Pinjal River Link proposals. However, none of these issues have so far gone the tribunal way.

Principles of water sharing The tribunals have been using a number of principles while deciding about water sharing between contending states. The Helsinki rules were issued in 1966, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses were finalized in 1997, the World Commission on Dams report came in Nov 2000, the Berlin Rules were issued in 2004. All of them have certain commonalities, but they differ in some aspects. This brief article will not allow detailed analysis of these rules and conventions, but we need to adopt and use them according to our situations. India’s National Water Policy and Draft National Water Framework Bill also mention some principles.

Map based on Google Earth by Bhima Singh Rawat, SANDRP. Note that Mahadayi and Mandovi is the same river

Environmental flows for rivers Earlier tribunal awards like the Narmada tribunal did not provide any water for the river downstream from the Sardar Sarovar Dam. It said that, since the downstream river was entirely in Gujarat, Gujarat can allocate water for the river from its own share. More recent awards like the Cauvery award of 2007 and the Krishna award of 2010 have provided some water, but the quantum is so small that it sounds more like tokenism.

So for example in the Cauvery award, there is a token provision of 10 TMC (thousand Million Cubic Feet), less than 1% of available flows or 740 TMC, for the river.  But even for that provision there are absolutely no practical mechanisms to ensure the river gets it throughout its stretch. It seems to escape the attention of the tribunals that if there is no river, how will the states get their share of water?

In that context what the interim award dated July 17, 2016 of the Mahadayi Tribunal says is educative: “Rivers are important for many reasons. One of the most important things they do is to carry large quantity of water from the land to the ocean. There, seawater constantly evaporates. The resulting water vapour forms clouds. Clouds carry moisture over land and release it as precipitation. This freshwater, feeds rivers and smaller streams. The movement of water between land, ocean, and air is called the water cycle. The water cycle constantly replenishes Earth’s supply of freshwater which is essential for almost all living things. Except some few rivers, all rivers ultimately flow into the sea whether it is Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal etc. Before merging into the sea the water of the river is available for consumptive and non-consumptive uses by the States concerned. Therefore, merging of water of river Mahadayi to the Arabian sea irrespective of uses, cannot be considered to be wastage of water. The plea of wastage of water may become relevant if surplus water is available. As indicated in the earlier part of this order, this tribunal has come to the conclusion that the State of Karnataka has failed to establish at this stage that the surplus was is available at the three points from which the water is sought to be transferred to Malaprabha basin if water available is 108.72 tmc at 75% dependability in the Mahadayi basin. For this reason, it is difficult for the Tribunal to accept the case of Karnataka that water goes into the sea is wastage.”

Implementation of Tribunal Awards Some of the tribunals have made provisions for implementation of the awards. So for example, the Narmada Tribunal Award made a provision of Narmada Control Authority, to which Rehabilitation and Environment Sub Groups were added. This arrangement has been useful to some extent due to provision of some independent members in the Environment Sub Group, though they are missing in other bodies. The Cauvery dispute lingers on over nine years after the Final Award of the Tribunal and on Sept 20, 2016, the Supreme Court has directed constitution of the Cauvery Management Board as provided in the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal Award. However, this engineers dominated body do not seem to have right constitution for river basin management in this 21st Century.

The government has been considering setting up of a permanent River Water Disputes Tribunal, but we need change in the interstate water disputes act to ensure that river, environment and communities get a voice in the functioning of the Tribunals.

In Conclusion It can be seen from the above facts that almost in every case, the dispute between states have arisen when a state goes for construction of major dam on interstate rivers. So there was no dispute on Narmada till Gujarat decided to build Sardar Sarovar Dam. There was no dispute on Mahadayi till Karnataka decided to build diversion structures under the Kalsa-Bhanduri Project[ii]. At the root of a number of disputes are dams like Polavaram, Mulla Periyar and Bhabali barrage. In Cauvery basin, the dispute started when the upstream state Karnataka proposed dams, threatening the water availability for irrigation systems in Cauvery delta.

Even if we look internationally, India shares at least 54 rivers with Bangladesh, but the dispute is there is only about Ganga River, after construction of Farakka barrage and regarding Teesta barrage after construction of another diversion barrage there. For rest of the rivers, there is no dispute so far.

If the plans of Inter Linking of Rivers get implemented, then the existing scenario is likely to undergo major change and the disputes are likely to multiply and would be much more complicated. A glimpse can be seen in Gujarat and Maharashtra where Par Tapi Narmada Link is still opposed by Maharashtra despite BJP Government in both states.

So the most successful way of sharing rivers is not to build large dams! In 21st Century water management scenario, we can avoid more disputes and complications by using the available water of our rivers in more prudent, sustainable and environment friendly way, without necessarily involving large dams and diversion structures or inter linking of rivers. But it seems we are going to learn only hard way!

In this context it should be mentioned here that, while the disputes and tribunals are about sharing of surface waters, India’s water lifeline today is groundwater. But strangely, the tribunals do not even include groundwater use while calculating and apportioning water use.

The biggest problem in the way the interstate water disputes have been handled by the central and state governments, the tribunals and the judiciary is that there is no place for the river, the people who depend directly on the river and those who get affected by the decisions of these bodies. Nor is there any role for environmental, social and cultural issues related to the rivers.

The legal and institutional architecture has no place for these stakeholders currently. We need to urgently change this.

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com), SANDRP

Note: An edited version of this has been published under the title “Interstate Water Issues: Disputes Aplenty” in Oct 14, 2016 issue of FRONTLINE magazine, see: http://www.frontline.in/cover-story/disputes-aplenty/article9153555.ece?homepage=true




[iii] For an article on Indus Treaty, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/10/04/so-who-will-suffer-in-the-indus-water-imbroglio/

[iv] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/cauvery-is-there-will-for-way-forward-will-constitution-of-cmb-help/

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 Category: Inter State Water Disputes      Tags: Bangladesh, Brahamaputra, Cauvery, china, Farakka, Godavari, Indus, Krishna, Mahadayi, pakistan, Teesta, Vamsadhara

China’s grand plans to harness the waters of the Brahmaputra River* have set off ripples of anxiety in the two lower riparian states: India and Bangladesh. China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream; it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.

The 2,880 km-long Brahmaputra originates in Tibet, where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo. It flows eastwards through southern Tibet for a distance of 1,625 kilometers and at its easternmost point it swings around to make a spectacular U-turn at the Shuomatan Point or Great Bend before it enters India’s easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh. Here it is known as the Siang River. After gathering the waters of several rivers it announces itself as the Brahmaputra in the state of Assam. The river snakes lazily through Assam to then enter Bangladesh, where it is known as the Jamuna. In Bangladesh it is joined by the Ganges (known as the Padma in Bangladesh) and Meghna and together these rivers form the world’s largest delta before emptying their waters into the Bay of Bengal.

As with other rivers originating in the icy Tibetan plateau, Beijing’s plans for the Brahmaputra include two kinds of projects. The first involves the construction of hydro-electric power projects on the river and the other, more ambitious project, envisages the diversion of its waters to the arid north.

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In November last year, China’s plans for the Brahmaputra took a leap forward when the first unit of the $1.5 billion Zangmu Hydropower Station project, which is located in the middle reaches of the river, became operational. Once completed – five other generating units of this project are due for completion this year – the project is designed to generate 2.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

Besides the Zangmu power station, the Chinese government has approved other hydropower projects along the Brahmaputra. It maintains that all these are run-of-the-river projects that involve no storage or diversion and that they will not affect the river’s downstream flow into northeast India. Still, its plans have generated apprehensions in India’s Northeast and in Bangladesh, where the Brahmaputra is a veritable lifeline and a core part of the cultural life here.

Fuelling anxiety over the Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra is the impact that a reduction of the flow of the Ganges has had on millions in the region. India’s damming of the Ganges has reduced the water flow into Bangladesh. The increased salinity of soil has adversely impacted agriculture and over the last several decades millions of Bangladeshis have been forced to relocate, many migrating to India’s northeast. This migration changed the demographic composition of vast tracts of Northeast India (especially in Assam) and triggered serious ethnic conflicts and insurgencies there. Will a reduction in the flow of the Brahmaputra add fuel to the conflicts already raging in the region?

“India has nothing to be worried about,” Romesh Bhattacharji, a former Indian bureaucrat who has travelled along much of the India-China border, told The Diplomat. The Zangmu hydropower station being a run-of-the-river project, “the Brahmaputra’s waters will continue to flow to India as before, after their brief storage period is over.” As for the other dams that China proposes to build on the river, “they are on tributaries like the Nyingchi further to the east from Zangmu and none of these are large storage dams,” he pointed out, reiterating that “there is no need for India to panic.”

Others are less optimistic. China’s dams on the Brahmaputra may be run-of-the-river projects but they are “a matter of utmost concern to lower riparian countries,” argues Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary of Water Resources with the Government of India and currently an honorary research professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. A “break in the river between the point of diversion to the turbines and the point of return of the waters to the river … can be very long, upwards of 10 km in many cases, even 100 km in some cases; and there would be a series of such breaks in the river in the event of a cascade of projects,” he points out. Besides, “far from being environmentally benign, as often claimed,” a run-of-the-river hydroelectric project “spells death for the river.” Turbines operate intermittently in these projects, “which means that the waters are held back in pondage and released when the turbines need to operate, resulting in huge diurnal variations – from 0 percent to 400 percent in a day – in downstream flows. No aquatic life or riparian population can cope with that order of diurnal variation.”

Northward Rerouting

More worrying than China’s construction of hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra is the proposed northward rerouting of its waters at the Great Bend. This diversion would result in a significant drop in the river’s water level as it enters India. It will have a serious impact on agriculture and fishing in the downstream areas as the salinity of water will increase.

Bhattacharji dismisses these fears. Drawing attention to the enormous technological and other challenges posed by the difficult terrain through which the Brahmaputra runs in Tibet – it flows here at an altitude of around 3500 meters above sea level – he points out that if the Chinese have to divert its waters to the north, they will have to haul the water up over an altitude of another thousand meters at least. ”It’s impossible to even think of such a diversion,” he observes. Besides the technological challenges, there are financial and environmental costs that stand in the way of implementing the water diversion plan.

Even if the diversion project goes ahead, its impact on India will not be severe, Bhattacharji argues, as the “Brahmaputra gets most of its waters after entering India.” It is the Brahmaputra’s tributaries in India and the heavy rainfall here that provides roughly 70 percent of the water volume of the Brahmaputra River, points out Jabin Jacob, Assistant Director at the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies.

Even though the Brahmaputra gathers the bulk of its volume in India, Iyer warns against “complacency.” The 30:70 ratio applies to the rainy season only. Besides, “30 percent of the flows is not an insignificant figure, and even a 10 percent diversion could have serious consequences,” for downstream areas.

Analysts predict that “water wars” could break out between India and China. “Upstream dams, barrages, canals, and irrigation systems can help fashion water into a political weapon that can be wielded overtly in a war, or subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state. Even denial of hydrological data in a critically important season can amount to the use of water as a political tool,” warns strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney.

Other experts reject predictions of a Sino-Indian war over the Brahmaputra.

“China and India see themselves as responsible regional and global powers and a war of any kind between them will not only set back bilateral relations but also damage their reputations internationally. At the moment, this is not a cost that either side is willing to pay,” Jacob argues.

However, the lack of communication on the issue is deepening suspicion and tension. This underscores the need for dialogue that includes all the riparian countries. China must share data with India and Bangladesh on its dam construction and other plans for the Brahmaputra.

Meanwhile in a bid to exploit the immense hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra and importantly, to establish prior use rights, the Indian government is on a massive dam building spree – including mega dams as well micro-hydel projects – in Arunachal Pradesh. Environmental and other norms are being flouted in the construction of these projects. These could worsen the water flow for the people further downstream in Assam and Bangladesh, deepening existing problems and triggering new conflicts.

Some have suggested that a joint India-Bangladesh effort on the question of China’s damming of the Brahmaputra may be effective. This is unlikely given China’s preference for bilateral approaches to dispute resolution.

And importantly, there is little difference between the strategies of India and China on dam building or water diversion. India may worry about Chinese plans for diverting the Brahmaputra’s waters but the present Indian government too is keen on diverting India’s northern rivers. While such plans are still on the drawing board, it has not consulted its neighbors, the lower riparian countries, on this project or on hundreds of others in the past.

Ask the Bangladeshis. They will tell you that both China and India are arrogant upstream superpowers.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].

* The Brahmaputra is known by different names in the course of its journey to the Bay of Bengal. This article will use the name “Brahmaputra” to refer to the river through all its stages.

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