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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Millions Still at Risk in South Indian Water Dispute

Article by: Trisha Shankar

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The Bandh

The Cauvery River, a water source for millions of South Indians, is drying up – putting the conditions of its states along the river to the test.

In September 2023, the bustling South Indian state of Karnataka came to a standstill with over 2,000 local organisations calling for a bandh (a general strike). Protests surrounded the release of Cauvery River water to its neighbouring riparian state, Tamil Nadu. The rekindled Cauvery water dispute, which dates back to colonial times was triggered by Tamil Nadu’s request for 24,000 cusecs (cusec: one cubic foot per second) of water per day. The request was rejected by Karnataka. The responding protests continued through the following months. A closer look at the disputes reveal their connection to the impact of climate change on the region. The consequences are particularly severe for rice farmers in the surrounding areas of the river, which has a knock-on effect on the rural areas and even India as whole.

Significance of the Cauvery

The Cauvery is a sacred river worshipped as the goddess Kaveriamma (‘Kaveri Mother’) and holds deep cultural and spiritual connections to surrounding communities. Beginning in Karnataka,  it continues through Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and empties into the Bay of Bengal. The river stretches over 802 kilometres and spans a basin area of 32,000 km2 in Karnataka and 44,000 km2 in Tamil Nadu. However, Tamil Nadu receives less inflow and this discrepancy has been the crux of the dispute.

Political Division

In times such as now, in which Karnataka’s rainfall levels are historically low, the state has been forced to make seemingly self-interested choices which limit releases of water to Tamil Nadu. Shyam Divan, advocating for Karnataka, argued that Tamil Nadu is using the water “for irrigation, but for Karnataka, it is drinking water as well as irrigation.” Other politically fuelled sentiments have defined the dispute, encouraging instances of violence erupting repeatedly over recent years.

The Local Impact of a Global Phenomenon

Unlike many rivers in the Himalayas, Japan, Europe, and elsewhere, the Cauvery does not flow from a glacier and thus depends solely on ample rainfall. However, with climate change drastically worsening, rainfall patterns in catchment areas are irregular, placing local communities in situations of insecurity. Climate change is projected to increase erratic rainfall patterns in South Asia and quadruple drought frequency by 2050. Water access for drinking and crop irrigation is made insecure, impeding the livelihoods of the majority of the rural population of both states.

Competing Claims

In early August 2023, Karnataka refused an order to release a pending 5,000 cusecs of water, as a result of experiencing 44% lower rainfall levels between June and August in this “distressed water year”. In response, Tamil Nadu requested a review from the court to enforce the initial claim to water, and the committee sided with the state. Although the situation appears to be dire, with both states continuing to make claims fuelled by their immediate struggle, there is a significant lack of clarity on the ways in which the issue of water scarcity can be combated in an environmentally cautious manner.

Agriculture in India

Scenarios like this require a scientific approach that prioritises climate adaptation, mediation and management. Major shifts in precipitation patterns have already had substantial impacts on both states, which are home to large agricultural sectors. Only limited academic research has been published regarding the climate element of this dispute. However, the available research recommends methods such as water harvesting, diversifying crop choice, and better planning of land usage to adapt to the limited rainfall. Farmers have also called for an approach aligning with food sovereignty, using knowledge passed intergenerationally in order to conserve water: one farmer spoke to Economic Times and was frank about the situation: “Forget the government, our traditional methods will work in this situation. Why can’t we try to grow crops from water that we conserve ourselves? There is absolutely no awareness or knowledge of how to sustain and work with nature.”

Rice Farming in the Cauvery Basin

In Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery Delta is known as the rice bowl of India, with the state producing six million metric tonnes of rice in 2021. The limited inflow to the Cauvery is impacting paddy growth, which requires a staggering 2,500 litres of water per kilogram of rice produced. Over the past decade, farmers have been forced to shift to sugarcane growth; the change in crop patterns and market prices causing a significant loss of income. Additionally, depleting sources of water lead farmers to depend on wells, or deepening existing ones. In 1991, Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery delta regions counted 27 wells. This number had increased to 478 by 2003. This adds a financial strain on the farmers, already grappling with strains of a booming population in surrounding cities – including increases in demand against sparse supply. Rice farming in Karnataka is under the same pressure, with limited water supply being distributed, barely enough to cater to the state’s water-intensive crop growth. Farmers are faced with an ethical dilemma regarding the calls from Tamil And:  If met, Karnataka’s farmers will be left with meagre levels of water. Food insecurity is projected to rise, fuelled by limited incomes of farmers, along with a fall in the growth of rice earlier this in 2023. A 50% fall in rice yield is expected by 2050.

The Future of the Cauvery River

The situation continues to unfold, with Tamil Nadu maintaining their claim for the water release. The deep impacts of climate change are observable in India’s south every day. Prominent voices are calling for a scientific approach to reduce the pain of the issue, prioritising climate adaptation, mediation and management, which may be the only way to forge a path out of this crisis.


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