Being here for three months working on watershed issues has indirectly led me to other unstable issues here in India. Water conflicts in India are becoming explosive and politicians are working hard to sustain them over a long period of time. Practically every state in India, particularly in the south, has at least one or more conflicts over water distribution with its neighbor. Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are at loggerheads with each other over the sharing of the Krishna waters; Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala are in conflict over the Cauvery; Kerala and Tamil Nadu are fighting over the 113-year old Mullaperiyar dam. The intensity and frequency of these conflicts are increasing. No doubt that it will become worse with the increasing uncertainty of climate change.
Despite having negotiated several settlements with Pakistan over water with the help of mediators, it seems as though it is very difficult for Indian states to handle internal conflicts over water. One of the reasons is that there is a lack of an efficient framework and mediating mechanism for conflict resolution, both within the government and civil society. There are a number of common themes among the conflicts over water in India. For example, it is common for downstream users to distrust upstream dam building and operation, and this kind of conflict exists within states and between regions, at levels ranging from the village to the basin level. The other important aspect is that India’s systems are not oriented towards building trust. In fact, very often, the contrary is the case, especially when such conflicts overlap with state boundaries.
Another issue I see is that there is a lack of a scientific approach to water management. The science and the policy of dealing with water sharing have both considerably advanced in recent times around the world and especially in the United States. Water management in India does not seem to have advanced as much. As a result of a lack of communication between scientists and policymakers (ala Copenhagen) river flows have fallen below levels and have disappeared in many important fishing communities. India seems to have its own brand of the “rule of capture”. Dam construction technology has led to a construction race that aims at capturing every drop of water that everyone is entitled to. The complexity of climate change adds another serious dimension to the conflict. While the precise change in rainfall is disputed, all climate models agree on the likelihood of the increase of extreme events – extreme surpluses and extreme shortages.