Dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over Cauvery River Water reemerges amid drought

4 Apr 2024 by The Water Diplomat

The dispute over the allocation of the waters of the Cauvery River in India flared up again during March amid an intense drought largely attributed to the El Niño climate phenomenon. The Chief Minister of Karnataka State in India declared in Mid-March that the state will not comply with central government requests to release water to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is quoted as saying that even if the state of Tamil Nadu or the Indian central government were to demand the release of water, Karnataka would not comply due to the acute drought faced by the state.  

However, the leader of the opposition R Ashoka claimed that water had in fact already been silently released by Karnataka and tweeted pictures purporting to show ample water flowing in the Cauvery River.  

The allocation of the water of the Cauvery River between states is managed by the  Cauvery Water Management Authority . Disputed over the allocation of water of this river date back almost a century, and in 990, the Government of India constituted the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal to adjudicate upon the allocation of the water of the Cauvery River between the three Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu as well as the Union territory of Puducherry. The water of the river is used primarily for irrigation purposes.

In a parallel development, the city of Bengaluru – the capital of Karnataka - has been strongly affected by the drought. It is reported that nearly 7,000 of the 13,900 boreholes have currently dried up. According to the 2023 national groundwater assessment report, groundwater in Bengaluru is over exploited across all rural and urban districts. According to Arun Krishnamurthy of the Environmentalist Foundation of India, there is a need for greater regulation of groundwater in India, as the country has some 40 million borewells and open wells and some 250 km³ groundwater is withdrawn every year, which is more than the USA and China combined. The Environmentalist Foundation is a conservation organisation which engages in habitat restoration, and in its vision, the restoration of degraded surface water bodies help to replenish groundwater supplies. Other commentators such as the Centre for Ecological Sciences have pointed out that Bangalore was previously known for being a city with extensive green areas as well as no less than 201 lakes.  These helped to capture rainwater and ensure infiltration of water into the underlying aquifers. The surface area of lakes has declined from the water spread area has dropped from 2,324 hectares in 1973 to 696 hectares in 2023, which has impacted on the water table.

The present drought is exceptional: Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar stated that Karnataka has not faced a drought of this intensity in the last 30-40 years. Approximately 24% of India’s total land area was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions in February this year, due in part to the El Nino phenomenon. In the same period, 9% of India’s land area was experiencing extreme drought conditions. In India, the El Nino phenomenon is associated with weakened monsoon winds and dry weather – historically, more than half of El Nino years have been associated with droughts in the monsoon