The year 2016 was eventful, to say the least when it comes to the water scenario in the country. The year saw severe droughts affecting 33 crore people across 10 states. The states of Assam and Bihar experienced severe flooding, the Ganga clean-up plan has so far been a failure and the lakes and other water bodies in the urban India continue to be under threat due to encroachment and water pollution. Not to mention cyclone Vardah that wreaked havoc in Tamil Nadu. The passing year also saw water conflicts--inter-state, inter-ministerial as well as international--of various intensity. The water wars were indicators that India is reeling under severe water crisis.
Let us take a look at some of the major water wars that hogged the limelight this year.
Ministries fight over Ganga projects
After the deluge of 2013 in Uttarakhand, several committees that were set up to look into the cause had blamed unplanned urbanisation in the region for the disaster, following which the Supreme Court had put a stop to the work on more than 24 hydropower projects in the upper Ganga. But despite the apex court order, the environment ministry approved six new projects--171 MW Lata Tapovan, 4 MW Khironi Ganga, 24 MW Bhyunder Ganga, 195 MW Kotli Bhel, 300 MW Alaknanda and 108 MW Jhelum Tamak--in Uttarakhand. The water ministry got concerned about these projects as they were perceived as interruptions to the flow of the Ganga and a hindrance to the revival efforts of the river and sought the SC's intervention. The SC asked both the ministries to take a unified stand on the matter. In August 2016, however, the water ministry took a softer stand and agreed to the six projects on condition that the project proponents must ensure a minimum water flow in the rivers.
Despite finding an amicable solution to the above conflict, the two ministries were again at loggerheads with each other over declaring 100 kilometers of Ganga in Uttarakhand as pristine and allowing 10 hydro projects and mining to come up in the Bhagirathi valley. The environment ministry withdrew its consent from a joint affidavit with the water resources ministry on this leading to a delay in the much-needed protection of the eco-fragile areas of Uttarakhand.
India and Pakistan battle it out
After the Uri attack by Pakistani terrorists on the Indian border in September 2016 that claimed 19 Indian soldiers, the tension between the two neighbouring countries escalated when India decided to scrap the 56-year-old Indus Water Treaty that regulates the sharing of water between India and Pakistan. Along with this, India decided to maximise its use of the Indus water causing concern for the Pakistan government as the majority of the country is dependent on the Indus river water. The latter demanded the World Bank, which brokered the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960, to initiate a court of arbitration (CoA) process to resolve the dispute involving the 330-MW Kishenganga and 850-MW Ratle hydroelectric projects being built by India. The World Bank accepted Pakistan’s request which intensified the water war between the two neighbours with India accusing the World Bank of bias. For now, the World Bank has temporarily halted the arbitration process between the two countries in order to give them time to consider alternative ways to resolve the disagreements. A worried Pakistan, however, has gone ahead and asked the World Bank to re-examine the pause on the treaty. While Pakistan has shown its disagreement to any changes in the treaty, the Indian government has appointed an inter-ministerial task force to look into all the strategic aspects of the treaty and exploit maximum water of the Pakistan-controlled rivers, including the Jhelum.
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fight over Cauvery water
The long-standing conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery water raised its ugly head once again with Karnataka proposing a dam on the Cauvery river at Mekedatu and violating the orders of Cauvery water dispute tribunal by not releasing water to Tamil Nadu in June and July, 2016. The conflict that started in September and spilled over to October saw violent protest erupting in the neighbouring states. When Tamil Nadu accused Karnataka of diverting water and moved the Supreme Court (SC) against the violation of the court order to release water, the SC ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu for 10 days. Going against the court order, Karnataka released only 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu and sought modification of the orders citing lack of water in its reservoirs for sharing as the reason. The SC responded to Karnataka’s plea by reducing the quantum of water to be released to 12,000 cusecs.
Later on September 20, the SC further reduced the quantum of water to 6000 cusecs to be released for another seven days which too, was not complied by the Karnataka government. Moreover, the Karnataka government adopted a resolution to use the Cauvery river water only for drinking purpose which implied that the water situation in the state was so severe it was not capable of sparing any water to its neighbour. The SC, however, gave no respite to Karnataka against its resolution and ordered the state to release water for two more days. It also asked the Centre to intervene and constitute the Cauvery Water Management Board to resolve the conflict between the two states. Finally, after much deliberation, the Karnataka government agreed to release 2000 cusecs of water daily to Tamil Nadu.
The technical team appointed by the SC to look into the matter has revealed that both the states are facing acute water shortage and that the water application techniques of both the states are outdated and have very low conveyance efficiency. The team recommended modernisation of these techniques in order to resolve the long-standing dispute between the two states. Thanks to the Cauvery dispute, farmers in both the states are incurring a loss of around Rs 1,000 crore to Rs 2,500 crore each year.
Punjab and Haryana spar over Sutlej-Yamuna link
Another old dispute of river-water sharing that resurfaced in 2016 was the one between Punjab and Haryana over the Sutlej-Yamuna link (SYL) canal that has been under construction since 1977. Not ready to spare even a single drop of its river water, Punjab filed a petition in the SC to cancel agreements under the 2004 Act for sharing the water of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej with its neighbours, especially Haryana. Moreover, the state denotified the land acquired for SYL and even passed the bill against the construction of the canal to which the Haryana government objected. However, the petition filed by Punjab in the apex court was not only rejected, but its unilateral decision to terminate the water-sharing agreement with its neighbours was also termed unconstitutional by the court. Following the court’s verdict, the Punjab government passed another resolution demanding royalty from the neighbouring states--Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan--for using its water. Along with this, Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal ordered the state government to not allow anyone to carry out the construction work of the canal. But in November 2016, both the Punjab and the central government were served SC notice over the SYL canal works. The issue has become a matter of political opportunism with no political party thinking on ways to conserve water. Moreover, this rift over the canal has also revealed that both the states are facing acute water scarcity.
Mahanadi river dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh
A tiff between the Odisha and Chhattisgarh government arose when the latter initiated the construction of barrages in the upper catchment of the Mahanadi river. This meant that the Chhattisgarh government would be utilising 27.48 million acre feet of the river water as against a total availability of the minimum flow of 20.61 million acre feet in the river. Irked with its neighbour, the Odisha government demanded the water ministry to set up a tribunal to resolve the river dispute between the two states. Along with this, the latter also requested the Chhattisgarh government to halt the construction works on the river with immediate effect. But with no victory coming its way on the issue, the Odisha government moved the apex court. However, the Mahanadi water sharing being raised by chief minister Naveen Patnaik also seems to be a political strategy of his government to divert the public attention from a host of scams it is embroiled in and a crumbling healthcare system it is responsible for.
Mhadei river dispute
Goa is another state at war with Karnataka over river-water sharing. Earlier in 2016, Goa accused Karnataka of violating the court order on the Mhadei river water by going ahead with the construction of the Kalasa-Banduri canal. In July, the Karnataka government sought lifting of 7 TMC of river water, which was declined by the Mhadei water dispute tribunal in favour of Goa. The order, a major setback to Karnataka, resulted in protests and bandhs in the state. In another major victory to Goa recently, the Karnataka government has been forced to withdraw its plea filed in the SC challenging the Mhadei water disputes tribunal’s order, as the apex court refused to interfere with the tribunal’s decision.
In the light of the various water conflicts that arose in the country this year, the Centre has decided to subsume the existing tribunals into a single, permanent tribunal to adjudicate all inter-state river water disputes. With a single tribunal, the Centre hopes to resolve the grievances of states in a speedy manner.
Though the year 2016 did not end on a positive note with no water dispute getting resolved, we hope 2017 has some great news in store for the parched lands of India.