The Cauvery Dispute: A World Divided Over Water


The Cauvery Dispute: A World Divided Over Water

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

There is a compelling scene in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road: Immortan Joe, the tyrannical warlord who rules over a vast and epic wasteland, stands atop the Citadel. He is about to set his trusted commander, Furiosa, in an armoured truck to collect precious gasoline. Before he sends her off, a large crowd of hungry people, draped in rags, appear. Immortan Joe slowly unleashes a torrent of water from the Citadel. And soon, all hell breaks loose. The people rush toward the gushing water, some dipping their rags to squeeze a few drops on their tongues, and some collecting it in a bucket to keep for later.

This scene is also quite reminiscent of another compelling episode, but from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Set in St Antoine, which Dickens calls as one of the poorest districts in Paris, a casket of wine falls down from a carriage and spills on the streets. And the people, ragged, dirty, and hungry, descend upon the spilt wine, as if it’s a feast. Soon, a tall, thin man, dips his finger into the wine, and writes in bold letters on a wall – Blood – indicating that instead of wine, blood would flow through the cobbled streets of Paris. This scene allows Dickens to paint a persuasive picture of the social divisions inherent in Europe at the advent of the French Revolution.

These two scenes, one set in the future, and the other in the past, when read together, in a way, also allow us to see how the structure of events, from the past to the present to the future, doesn’t change. What was wine then, has become oil now, and might, in the not so distant future, become water. The events of the last year or so, seem to have brought that truth rather more forcefully into our collective reckoning.

Bengaluru, seen by all and sundry as the poster city of India’s global footprints, with streets dotted with neatly arranged row houses and tall glass buildings, has become the perfect embodiment of the Indian middle-class dream. But a few days ago, when it was declared that the city was heading to a Cape Town-like situation, that narrative fell apart. In September 2016, the city witnessed a curfew and self-styled protectors of Karnataka’s “pride” descended onto the streets with full fury, burning down buses and targeting the Tamil-speaking populace. All over a river.

As we watched the violence unfold, a very crucial question was left out. Why is water today leading to violence? When did the rivers – pristine, blue, and transparent, which have served throughout history as something of a life-giving force, around which great civilisations of past years have sprung – suddenly, through a twist of both history and fate, become a symbol of ethnic, regional, and national hatred?

This dangerous mixture of ethnicity with conflict over a resource such as water is not restricted to the Indian subcontinent alone.

A report published by the Arlington Institute in 2007 argued how India is staring at a massive water crisis. The report showed how in 2006 between the domestic, agricultural, and industrial sectors, India used approximately 829 billion cubic metres of water every year, which is approximately the size of Lake Erie. Measured in terms of surface area, Lake Erie is the fourth-largest lake in North America, and thirteenth globally. By 2050, demand is expected to double and consequently exceed the 1.4 trillion cubic metres of supply. In such a scenario, where the demand for water is growing exponentially, the supply for the same is growing narrower by the year. Similarly, as figures from the International Monetary Fund show us, Pakistan faces, perhaps, one of the biggest water crises on the planet, with a per capita annual water availability of roughly 35,300 cubic feet. The situation soon changes from being bleak to being calamitous, when we compare water availability to the water intensity rate, which is highest in the world.

Water intensity rate is basically a measure of water consumption, in cubic metres, per unit of GDP. The country’s largest economic sector, agriculture, for instance, consumes almost ninety per cent of the water resources available to it. In other words, if the waters from the rivers allotted to it were to be stopped by India, in the future, the country would witness one of the greatest droughts in human history, thereby putting a large question mark over its very existence.

Unlike other conflicts over resources that we witness now – conflicts that are more or less between nations, over oil, for instance – the conflict over water, as the Cauvery water dispute shows us, has the potential to break open ideas of nationalism inside out, bringing out latent regional and ethnic fault lines out in the open. Although ostensibly about the non-sharing of water from the River Cauvery, the vocabulary of the mayhem that was unleashed on the streets not only sought to see the Tamils as a possible other, but more than anything, became a signifier of Kannada pride.

This dangerous mixture of ethnicity with conflict over a resource such as water is not restricted to the Indian subcontinent alone. The famous 1948 Arab-Israel conflict that occurred immediately after the formation of Israel as a state, led to a series of armistice agreements. The issue of water sharing from the Jordan–Yarmuk system turned out to be a major problem between Israel, Syria, and Jordan. In 1955, an agreement between the Arab countries and Israel, known as the Johnston Plan, sought to solve this contentious water problem between the nations by allocating water from the Jordan basin to these countries. But given the fragile relations between Israel and the Arab states, soon this arrangement fell by the wayside and led to one of the primary reasons behind the infamous Six-Day War, which was fought between Israel and the neighbouring states of Egypt in 1967.

One of the important questions that both futurists and historians have pondered over alike has been the arrival of the next big global conflict. If the two World Wars were fought over territory and ideology, if behind America’s global “War on Terror” lies the politics over oil, it is quite plausible that the next great global conflict can very well be over water.

This is an updated version of a piece previously published.