India Intelligence Report

India Urgently Needs Inter-State River Water Dispute Management


The Kerala Assembly unanimously passed an amendment of its 2003 Irrigation and Water Conservation Act to obviate the Supreme Court (SC) verdict that allowed the height of the Mullaperiyar Dam to increase from 136 to 142 feet. The bill sought to safeguard the people living in 5 districts downstream from the dam and insisted that the water level be retained at 136 ft even if the height was increased to 142 ft in the 110-year-old dam. Asserting the Assembly had the authority to enact such a law, Chief Minister Oomen Chandy said he would elicit more legal opinion before proceeding. The all-party meeting wanted to send a united “voice of Kerala” message that it was concerned about the safety of population should anything happen to the dam upstream. Kerala and Tamil Nadu (TN) were at variance over the height of the dam as the water starved wanted to save more water for itself.

There are an increasing number of water disputes in India—especially in the South. Lower riparian states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Pondicherry states seek to get more water from upper riparian states like Karnataka and Kerala. Hence, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Pondicherry are at odds with Karnataka over the number of dams and the eventual flow of water on the Kaveri. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are fighting over Krishna. Maharashtra and Karnataka fight over Bhima. Tamil Nadu and Kerala fight over the Mullaperiyar dam height.


Water management is tricky business in India not just for domestic political reasons but for bilateral relations as with China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While International laws will allow more privileges to the lower riparian states in general, India cannot seem to overtly follow such policies since that will mean Bangladesh and Pakistan demanding more water on the Ganges and Indus. It cannot overtly support upper riparian states because that will increase the case for China will controls Tibet where over 70% of the water coming into the subcontinent originate. Further, a domestic upper riparian favoring system will also encourage China to blast through the Himalayas, as it threatens to, to get warm air from the Indian Ocean to enhance its agriculture. If China follows through that threat, it will be death of monsoons in India and also endanger the survival of a billion people.

Many politicians are quick to suggest nationalization of rivers saying that a Central Authority is better suited to arbitrate over water sharing. History does not agree with this quick-fix solution. The Cauvery River Tribunal authority is one of the least effective bodies often disagreeing, politicking, and postponing decisions. States even challenge SC verdicts as the decision is not in their favor or is simply politically distasteful. Hence, Karnataka refused to obey a SC order to release water to Tamil Nadu in the 90s prompting it to threaten the dismissal of the State Government, which then prompted it to accede. In the latest case, Kerala is trying its luck at disobeying the order saying that the order was limited to increasing the size of the dam but not maintaining a full quantity. Such legal over-smarting maneuvers will surely not withstand judicial scrutiny. Therefore, rather than politicize the debate and management, what is really needed is a scientific and dispassionate management of river water for the benefit of the nation.

The Government desperately needs independent and apolitical body that will measure water inflows and outflows, maintain rainfall records, check water pollution through city sewage and industrial effluents at logical points, control unauthorized water diversion and pumping, review and authorize water storage systems, and monitor productivity and output of water usage. Moreover, States must institute strong processes where rain water is harvested to recharge ground water, increase local storage in tanks, revive century old storage tanks, abolish “developmental” activities of tanks, remove water feeder systems into tanks, and actively reclaim sewage water for agricultural purposes. Further, farmers need to be educated on ground water usage, water management through drip and pot irrigation, integrated farming, and controlling fertilizer and pesticide runoffs. 

With the near bankruptcy of many state electricity boards, Governments have started withdrawing electrical subsidies or free power to farmers. An unaddressed area is the theft of power by unscrupulous farmers to power then water pumps to pump out ground water.  This not only affects ground water tables but also steals money from the country. 

The United Nations says that the next major war will be over water. If the country does not institute changes immediately, the next major war in India will be a civil war over water.