Water has emerged as a major flashpoint between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. And while the Supreme Court has ordered Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of water from the Cauvery river every day up to September 20, the order has once again brought into focus the country’s dwindling water resources and the heavy price we are paying for the mismanagement of this crucial resource.
Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been largely bypassed by the monsoon this year. But the latter’s plight is said to be worse with 136 of its 172 taluks facing acute drought. Water levels in 13 of the state’s major reservoirs have also plummeted to unprecedented low levels. So when Supreme Court advocate Fali Nariman ( as counsel for Karnataka) argued that water levels in Karnataka’s reservoirs were `low’ as compared to that of Tamil Nadu, he was not exaggerating.
Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been quarrelling over the Cauvery waters for the last 100 years. Other southern states facing similar disputes are Kerala and Tamil Nadu and now the more recently formed Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
But the issue of why the country’s water resources have declined to these unprecedented low levels points to a deeper malaise. The World Resource Institute has warned that unless India changes its water-related strategies, it is on the path of being categorised a water-starved nation at par with some sub-Saharan nations.
There are several reasons for this. The increasing urbanisation and industrialisation have resulted in the rapid consumption of over 40 per cent of India’s available surface water every year. Northwestern India, known as the breadbasket of the country, is using as much as 80 percent of its surface water.
This is putting tremendous strain on groundwater resources. A recent NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) report has highlighted how India is losing the equivalent of one foot of groundwater every year.
NASA had used special satellites to study groundwater reserves in India and its hydrologist Matt Rodell has warned that if measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for 114 million residents in north-west India would include the collapse of agriculture and the severe shortage of potable drinking water.
This north Indian situation is being replicated in the southern states as well. Karnataka has witnessed a rapid depletion of both ground water and surface water reserves. Farmers of the state find themselves trapped in a double whammy. Thousands of farmers do not have access to irrigation water and depend on the monsoon.
A failure of the monsoon this year in their area has seen them turn in larger numbers to source ground water reserves to meet their drinking water and agricultural requirements. But over pumping of water has seen water levels dipping and also, more often than not, becoming more polluted.
The climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem. Demand for potable water and water for crops far outstrip the supply resulting in increasing interstate conflicts which in the years to come could also result in growing international conflicts with our neighbours.