Valan was referring to the Cauvery, a 475-mile river that supports farmers in three southern Indian states. After the poor monsoon last year, the river became the subject of a bitter legal battle that drew in the nation’s Supreme Court and ended only in February with a federally mandated water-sharing deal between Karnataka, the state in which the Cauvery begins, and Tamil Nadu, its downstream neighbor.
As India’s economic growth drives a rising thirst for water, and with its annual rainy season projected to become increasingly erratic in coming years because of climate change, many states across the country are fighting over their shared rivers. In the west, a tribunal has been working since the fall to find a solution to three states’ claims on the Mahadayi, or Mandovi, River. Another tribunal is trying to solve two eastern states’ dispute over the Vansadhara.
There are similar tensions on an international level. Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, last week asked China for more openness about its plans to build dams on the Brahmaputra, a vast Himalayan river that flows into India from the Tibetan region of western China.
India’s river disputes “have become more severe, and they will continue to become more severe,” said Ashok Jaitly, who sits on a national government committee that is drafting a law on water management. “Water use is increasing, but the supply is fixed.”
With India ruled by a fractious coalition government, state-level spats can destabilize national politics. The dynastic Congress party, which leads the coalition, controls fewer than half of the country’s 28 states and relies on alliances with regional parties, which often put local and populist causes first. The river disputes are one such example, said Tushaar Shah, a senior fellow at the International Water Management Institute, a research group headquartered in Sri Lanka. “I do think [the disputes] are getting worse. It’s become a political issue, and state politicians are always playing to the galleries.”
One regional party from Tamil Nadu recently left the Congress-led coalition after the federal government refused to alter foreign policy to fit its demands.
India will need 1.5 trillion cubic meters (396 trillion gallons) of water per year by 2030, about double its existing supply and more than a fifth of the projected global demand, according to a 2010 report from the International Finance Corp. and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Yet as the population swells, India’s water supply per person is dropping. The country has an annual average of 1,545 cubic meters (408,145 gallons) of water available per person, according to India’s 2011 census — qualifying it as a “water-stressed” nation under World Bank criteria.