Is the Cauvery River Dispute Meandering Off Course?

The 19th century Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has an ecological side that no one talks about.

4 min read
Hindi Female

The Cauvery water dispute has been plaguing Karnataka for a century now and recently, for almost a week, there have been protests against the Supreme Court’s order to Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water for Tamil Nadu.

Since there is no relief in sight, farmers and pro-Kannada groups have organised demonstrations, shut-downs and have even threatened violence against Tamilians in Karnataka. Chaos and ruckus over the dispute are not new to the two states. It is only one of the umpteen times that the Cauvery water dispute has left Karnataka and Tamil Nadu shattered.

While the centre of the dispute is the distribution of water from the Cauvery basin to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, little has been said about the River Cauvery and what remains of it, after more than 100 years of a protracted water tangle.

  • The Cauvery dispute started in the year 1892, between the Madras Presidency (under the British Raj) and the Princely state of Mysore.
  • It was decided to divide the river water between the two states.
  • The 765-km-long river cuts across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. A lot of its basin area is covered by Kerala and Puducherry.
  • The basin is now claimed by four states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.
  • The river dispute has attracted some of the most extreme protests and dharnas.
  • In 2013, the Centre was mandated to constitute the Cauvery Management Board, a decision Karnataka protested.
  • 100 years on, the four states continue the bitter fight.
The 19th century Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has an ecological side that no one talks about.
People stage a protest against releasing of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, 7 September 2016. (Photo: IANS)

The Cauvery water dispute intensifies during years that see less rainfall. Dearth of rain implies a smaller catchment of water, affecting water distribution and agricultural needs. This snowballs into a political showdown.

The Cauvery river basin is a water-deficient one. With a total average annual run-off of 790 tmcft, the total demanded quantity of water is 1,135 tmcft. This implies that whatever may be the method of ‘justice’, there is bound to be a shortfall.

The 19th century Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has an ecological side that no one talks about.
CM Siddaramaiah at the all-party meeting he convened in the wake of recent protests in Karnataka involving the Cauvery issue. (Photo: IANS)

The water utilisation level at the Cauvery basin is the highest among all rivers in the country. As much as 90 percent of the basin had been exploited by the early 1990s. Thereafter, it was all about limited water availability, multiple user, increased agricultural activity and diverted land use shrinking the basin further.

What makes things worse is the fact that while everybody from the region – from film stars to social who’s whos – have allied with their respective states, the voices and opinions of water planners or technologists have rarely been heard. Rather, what dominates discussions is the flawed understanding of what constitutes a ‘river’ and how it should be governed.


The Cauvery conflict involves ‘re-sharing of a resource that is already being fully utilised.’ The solution demands a different approach and a new pattern in thinking. Some of this has been repeatedly tried but rarely discussed in the mainstream.

With the history of the dispute crossing 100 years, the list of ecological and scientific solutions has been longer.


Untangling the Cauvery Dispute: Manage Demand, Not Supply

  • Create an additional storage reservoir to store overflows from a healthy monsoon year to a drought year.
  • Transfer of water from the Godavari river and from the west flowing coastal rivers of Karnataka into the Cauvery basin.
  • The states in dispute tailor their agricultural economy i.e. drop one crop season. Reduce cultivation of water guzzling crops like paddy and sugarcane. Sugarcane crops and liquor factories demand water. Growing less sugarcane and more food crops along Karnataka can solve the crisis to a great extent.
  • Let Neerkattis, the traditional water managers find a solution. A Neerkatti is a traditional water expert. With no political authority, he has community-driven administrative power. Water managers still play crucial roles in states like Uttarakhand.
  • Stop managing rivers as per the colonial agreements. Water be brought in the Concurrent list of legislative subjects from the State list, so that the disputes can be decided upon by the Centre and not just the state governments.

In 1924, in a settlement, Tamil Nadu got a bigger share of water, since in the colonial times, it was the most significant and the leading agricultural state. But Karnataka and it’s start-up capital Bengaluru has seen a manifold increase in its water consumption in the last few decades. Now it demands more water and there is no way the right can be settled.

The only way forward is to let nature take precedence over politics.

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Topics:  Tamil Nadu   KARNATAKA   Cauvery conflict 

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