As Chennai, Bengaluru grapple with water shortage, time to consider a compact with Cauvery

Cities can no longer rely on romanticized local water resources, but must place themselves in a river basin and take responsibility for the ecological health of the river as a whole. Take the case of the Cauvery in the context of the water starved southern metros.

Chennai is reeling under a severe water shortage and Bengaluru, the NITI Aayog says, will run out of groundwater by 2020. What ties these two large metropolis is, unfortunately, a dispute over a river. It is an unhealthy link.

Both these cities are not exactly in the Cauvery river basin , though dependent on the river for their water requirements . Only one third of Bengaluru is in the river basin and Chennai is not in the river basin at all, yet draws water from the Veeranam tank within the delta.

A civilizational change is transforming the river. An urban way of living is fast becoming the norm, moving away from an agricultural base, which lasted for centuries. The change is gut wrenching but inevitable in the model of economic development that we have adopted. The GDP base, as well as the population, is shifting to cities.

Bengaluru has about 50% of Karnataka’s population in the Cauvery basin and generates 60% of the GDP of the state. It is a population and economic powerhouse, providing livelihoods, generating revenue and feeding the social sector in the state – things such as education and health-facilities. It draws just 11% of the Cauvery water allocation for Karnataka and will draw at most 19% of the waters, while supporting almost 1/3rd the population of the entire state by 2031. 80% of this water consumed will be returned as treated wastewater , benefitting the rural area in this and another river basin. In net effect, Bengaluru will be using less than 4% of Karnataka’s share of the Cauvery waters. Agriculture comes nowhere near such efficient use of water.

While local resources such as ancient tanks must be revived, rainwater harvesting done through a million recharge wells and wastewater treated, we must understand that our megalopolises can no longer be dependent on a rather romanticized local water resource. Cities must place themselves in a river basin and take responsibility for the ecological health of the river as a whole, local and regional. New York is a classic example with the Catskill mountain protection.

Chennai, similarly, will need to link itself to the Cauvery through the Mettur reservoir and Veeranam tank. This link will be relatively more environmentally benign than the desalination plants now proposed. Once these great urban centres are linked to the river Cauvery , they must bring their economic and knowledge might to protect and ecologically revive the river and its basin.

The Cauvery must flow into the sea in much more volumes than it does now. The delta must be revived and salinity intrusion halted. The catchments in the Western Ghats must be protected; the Kabini, the Hemavathy, the Cauvery itself and all its other tributaries would need specific dedicated river basin institutions to understand, monitor, plan and manage these tributaries holistically.

Unless we set the governance framework right, create the right institutions, empower them with capabilities and finance and then hold them accountable if things will not show permanence in improvement.

We all know what is to be done: forest protection, sand mining reduction, pollution prevention, rainwater harvesting, soil conservation et al. but HOW should it be done? Only through an institutional framework.

A crisis is an opportunity but only if the right lessons are learnt and the right solutions put forward. The right thing to do would be to come to a compact on reviving the river and the civilization of the Cauvery: ecologically, socially and then finally, technically. As we watch inflows to the Cauvery pick up, notice how important the Kabini is, and it is so because relatively it has the best catchment …learn, plan, do, repeat.

[This post appeared first in the author’s Facebook page and has been republished here with permission.]

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