Water Water Everywhere, But Not A Single Drop To Share


Most of India’s rivers are natural and don’t really care for man-made political boundaries. So when people from 1 state are asked to share this water with other populations, they seem to get very angry. However, in times of droughts and economic development, the Government has to lay down a truce.

Here’s how the Indian Government usually handles the disputes over rivers…

When river adjacent states fight over the shared use of a river, they fall under the purview of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 – The Act lets the Central Government set up tribunals to decide who gets how much water so that the conflict is resolved quickly and fairly.

However, the judgments of these tribunals are not always effective and can sometimes make the situation much worse. Considering that there are over 25 major rivers (and tributaries) in the country, it’s safe to assume that there are also a lot of river related disputes.

Here are the 5 biggest disputes over water so far:

1. Indus Water Treaty

There are a total of 6 rivers that flow from India to Pakistan, namely Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum. The 2 countries have been in a dispute over the sharing of water of these rivers since Partition. An agreement was reached on September 19, 1960, when the 2 countries signed the Indus Water Treaty. According to the treaty, India would control over the 3 eastern rivers, i.e. Beas, Ravi and Sutlej, while Pakistan got the 3 western rivers; Indus, Chenab and Jhelum.

Since the Uri Attack in 2016, India has used the treaty to diplomatically pressure Pakistan as the Indus River is vital to Pakistan’s agriculture and economy. Calling for a review of the treaty, PM Modi said, “Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously”. While the treaty cannot be dissolved completely, India has been using far less than the 20% water that they are allowed to use of the Pakistan controlled rivers. Increasing the usage, even if within limits, can adversely affect Pakistani agriculture.

India is trying to use the rivers for hydroelectric power with 3 projects – Pakal Dul, Lower Kalnai and Miyar hydroelectric plants – on the line. Pakistan is opposing these in fear that they can be used against them to block the rivers and is demanding to see the plans for the projects. After talks in Islamabad on 21st March, India has critiqued the World Bank for trying to mediate with an invitation to hold talks in the U.S., terming it to be against the “spirit of the treaty”. With the current Indian hard line stance, the future of this treaty looks to be very interesting.

2. Cauvery River Dispute

The Kaveri River flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The 2 states have a long-standing dispute over water sharing arrangements on this river, 1 which dates back to colonial times. A 50-year agreement was reached in 1924 over the then-existing colonial Indian states of the Madras Presidency and the princely state of Mysore.

Once this agreement expired, the dispute was taken up once again by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal was set up to resolve the differences. The Tribunal’s final order (division of water by volume) came into effect in 2013, but both sides were pretty unhappy with the verdict. On 5th September 2016, the Supreme Court asked Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu. Angry at this decision, the state observed a bandh to protest this decision. Then, when the SC decreased the amount of water to be released, Tamil Nadu protested with a bandh. It’s safe to say, this dispute is far from over.

3. Narmada River Dispute

The Narmada River begins in Madhya Pradesh and flows through Maharashtra and Gujarat. This conflict started when the massive infrastructure development projects were proposed in independent India. An amendment to a hydro electricity project already underway in Gujarat threatened plans for hydropower development in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal, established by the Central Government to resolve this issue, gave its final verdict in 1969, awarding a share of the water to a fourth state, Rajasthan, which is gravely water-scarce. This verdict was relatively well accepted, and the states agreed to abide by its provisions. However, gaining the full benefit of their share of water was more difficult than imagined. For example, the delayed construction of Gujarat’s Sardar Sarovar Dam.

4. Mahadayi River Water Dispute

The Mahadayi River, also known as the Mandovi River, flows from Karnataka into Goa and then into the Arabian Sea. While it is relatively short in length (77 km), it is hugely significant because it is the lifeline of the state of Goa, and also passes through water-scarce regions in Karnataka. The conflict over the river began when Karnataka sought to divert some water from the river’s upper reaches, leading Goa to approach the Supreme Court in 2006. The Union Government established the Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal in 2010, and its verdict is still awaited. This issue was prominent in the news in 2015, as Karnataka was in the midst of a severe drought but was unable to access Mahadayi water due to the unresolved dispute. No wonder they’re trying to hold on to the Cauvery water so much.

5. The Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal dispute

The dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna link has recently been in the news. This conflict originates in the division of Punjab along linguistic lines in 1966 into the states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. To ensure an equitable distribution of water among these new states, the SYL project was initiated to divert water from the Sutlej River in Punjab to Haryana. Despite the canal being 90% complete, the Punjab government has refused to complete its part of the construction, saying that they have no water to spare. Punjab has gone as far as to defy Supreme Court judgments against its stand. Its leaders have recently declared that the canal will not be constructed at any cost and land would be returned to the farmers in the area.

In a developing country like India, the inter-state river water disputes need to be resolved quickly and effectively so that they don’t create additional barriers in economic development. Since timely resolutions are clearly not the norm (as seen in the above examples), these conflicts sometimes fester for decades. This works to the deterrent to the various stakeholders in these disputes, and polarised politics in some states makes the situation even more difficult. Any successful resolution would need the involved parties to come together and negotiate, or at least abide by the verdict of the empowered authorities.

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