The Sangam-era Tamil poetic work Pattinappaalai describes the Cauvery as an eternal river. “Vaan poithinam thaan poiyya malai kalaya kadarkaaveri ponal parandhu pon kolikkum” goes a line. Loosely translated, it means that even in the hot summer months, when the rain gods do not shower their mercy, the Cauvery, emerging from the hills of Coorg (Kodagu), continues to flow, helping to harvest gold from the land.
But today, anyone touring the land from Tiruchi to Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu, where an ancient Tamil civilisation flourished, will find that the river is now a sea of sand, with rocks and bushes dotting the dry river bed. It is only during the monsoon season that any water can be seen flowing. Ask any farmer in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu and he will tell you that the river has water only three to four months in a year.
For the thousands of tourists and pilgrims climbing the 300 steps to the hilltop at Talacauvery, the Cauvery’s source in Kodagu, Karnataka, no mystical spout awaits. It is here that the river is believed to emerge as a perennial fount, and is worshipped as Kaveriamma by the Kodavas. But on top of the Brahmagiri Hills in Kodagu, only mud and stones greet the eye. In the temple at the bottom of the hill, the priest says that it is only during October, after the monsoon is over, that you get to see a water spout under the rocks.
Problems at the source
Madikeri, the hill capital of Kodagu district, is surprisingly warm on an April morning. The Chief Conservator of Forests, Kodagu circle, S.S. Lingaraja, blames the rise in temperature on the rapid loss of tree cover due to reckless urbanisation in the town. “Last year, the State forest survey showed an overall increase in forest cover in Karnataka. Only in Shimoga and Kodagu districts had the forest cover shrunk,” he says.
Lingaraja cites a 2009 report authored by B.R. Ramesh, M. Seetharaman and others, for the Institut Francais de Pondichery, which compared satellite images of forest cover in Kodagu since 1977 to show how the dense foliage outside protected areas has declined rapidly. The authors blame the doubling of land under coffee plantations, and developmental projects such as the construction of dams and roads, for the loss of 28% of the forest cover during the 30-year study period starting in 1977.
Between 2013 and 2015, for instance, over 50,000 trees were cut in Kodagu to make way for high-tension power lines to Kerala. Says Colonel Muthanna, President of the Coorg Wildlife Society (CWS), “Now there is a proposal for a railway line between Mysuru and Kushalanagar, and another proposal for four national highways passing through the district. If these get approved, there will be disastrous consequences for forests.” In Madikeri, trees have been cut to make way for government buildings and hospitals. A Right to Information application by the CWS found that between 2005 and 2015, 2,800 acres of private land were diverted for commercial purposes such as construction of new resorts, hotels and offices. “Earlier, paddy cultivation was big in Kodagu, but now these are being reclaimed for real estate development. Paddy fields act as water sponges and help recharge underground aquifers,” says Roy Bopanna, Executive Director of the CWS. The activists are now demanding that the entire Kodagu region be declared a protected area and land conversion be restricted.
The loss of forest cover and change in land use has meant a decline in rainfall levels, adversely affecting the inflow of water into the Cauvery and its tributaries upstream. An annual rainfall chart prepared by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre shows that Kodagu district, in 1960, recorded over 4,500 mm of rainfall but between 2010 and 2015, the annual rainfall did not cross 3,200 mm. In the event of a poor monsoon, coffee plantation owners meet their irrigation needs by drawing water from the river, starting in December. “Coffee plantations require sprinkler water irrigation to the tune of 250 cubic metres per hectare, as per the cultivation guide issued by the Central Coffee Research Institute. Kodagu has over one lakh hectares under coffee plantation. Do the math and you will see how much river water is being drawn for irrigating coffee plantations alone,” says Gopakumar Menon, founder-trustee of the Nityata Foundation, an NGO that works on riverine ecosystems.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the flow of water in the Cauvery has declined upstream. S.C. Rangasamy, executive engineer of the Harangi Dam, says that post-December every year, there is a 40% drop in the flow of water coming from Talacauvery. He says that excessive withdrawal of groundwater using bore wells has caused a significant decline in the base flow of the river. “Kushalnagar is staring at an imminent drinking water crisis this summer,” he says. In March 2018, the local administration passed a government order restricting the withdrawal of groundwater except for drinking purposes. The order copy clearly states that according to an inspection carried out in the upstream areas, the flow of water in the Cauvery has virtually stopped there.
It is election season in Karnataka; yet the declining water level in the Cauvery has not come up as a major issue. Rather, the focus has been the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the distribution of the available Cauvery water between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The inter-State water dispute is over a century old. The fight is over an overexploited river basin where demand has far outstripped the supply of water (S. Guhan, 1993). Despite many attempts at resolving the dispute, neither the orders of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal nor those of the Supreme Court have been implemented faithfully. Earlier this week, the court rapped the Centre for not framing a Cauvery ‘scheme’ despite the court’s orders.
Political parties and farmers in Tamil Nadu have been pressing hard for the constitution of a Cauvery Management Board. According to the court, the Board’s mandate is to manage the distribution of water between the States during distress periods and control the schedule of release of water from the reservoirs. But given the complexity of the ecological crisis the river is facing, can the Board on its own fully resolve the ongoing water dispute? As environmentalists point out, the issue of rampant groundwater extraction, which directly impacts the flow of water in the river, has remained outside the purview of the Tribunal and the court. Disputes between the neighbouring States have escalated during periods of distress; only good monsoons have brought temporary relief in the past. With industries and the population expanding in Bengaluru, there is more pressure on the courts to ensure that Cauvery water is supplied to the city. Sustainable alternatives such as getting factories to use recycled industrial waste water and rainwater harvesting for domestic use have not been adequately explored. Bengaluru-based water conservationist S. Vishwanath says that in the Cauvery basin in Karnataka, at present only 23% of rainwater is harvested. In Tamil Nadu too, rainwater run-off flowing towards Kerala in the Cauvery basin has not been adequately tapped.
Despite the court imposing restrictions on sugarcane cultivation in Karnataka, in Mandya district, which is part of the Cauvery-irrigated farm belt of the State, sugarcane fields abound. Mandya’s farmers said that have not got Cauvery water to irrigate their fields in the past three years. “We have sunk bore wells as deep as 1,000 ft to draw water for our crops,” says G. Chandrashekar, a sugarcane farmer in Chendre village. Darshan Puttanaiah is contesting the upcoming Assembly elections from Melukote constituency near here. He says that sugarcane is not the ideal crop for this region, but with big sugar mills coming up nearby, the local farm ecosystem has evolved around the cash crop, deepening the water crisis.
In Bengaluru, engineers at the Inter-State Waters section of the Water Resources Development Organisation throw up their hands in resignation when asked about the implementation of the court order. “Karnataka has permission to irrigate only 40,000 hectares of sugarcane as per the February 16 court order. But farmers are growing much more than that. How are we to stop them,” an official asks.
The Bengaluru-based environmental research organisation ATREE has documented how the Arkavathi, a major tributary of the Cauvery in Karnataka, has been sucked dry by farmers using deep bore wells. In the Cauvery delta districts of Tamil Nadu too, similar unsustainable farm practices are common. With the riverbed remaining dry for most of the year, farmers are reclaiming it for cultivation. In the 25-km stretch from Melur in Tiruchi to the Grand Anicut, there are several banana plantations and coconut trees on the riverbed, irrigated by motor pumps sunk deep into the river. P.R. Pandian, president of the Coordination Committee of All Tamilnadu Farmers Association, says that this practice is a common sight right from Mayanur in Karur district, where he saw some 150 bore wells drawing water illegally from the Cauvery riverbed.
S. Nallasamy, a farmer leader from Erode, is critical of the Supreme Court decision allowing Tamil Nadu to draw an additional 10 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) of groundwater. “Indiscriminate withdrawal of groundwater is the reason why droughts keep occurring in the State,” he says. “Motor pumps installed by men can go hundreds of feet underground to draw up water, but can the roots of trees go that far?”
The rights of other species
With the spotlight on the dispute between the two riparian States, not much attention has been paid to the various other life forms that the river sustains. Fishes, otters, birds and butterflies, too, need the Cauvery water.
Though the Supreme Court has asked the Karnataka government to maintain 10 tmc of Cauvery water for environmental purposes, the State has not followed this directive. Officials at Krishnaraja Sagara Dam say that water is released from the dam only during the monsoon, when adequate inflow is available. On a hot summer afternoon at the Brindavan Gardens by the dam, families from Mysuru arrive to cool off by the numerous fountains sprinkling water to the flowers and grass. But downstream, at the Butterfly National Park near Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, forest officials are forced to pump out groundwater from the riverside to keep the place humid enough for the 98-odd species of butterflies.
Sandeep Chakrabarti, an angler with the Wildlife Association of South India, says that the population of fish species such as the Mahseer has dwindled considerably due to a reduced flow of water in the river. “The Mahseer is one of the most charismatic fish species found in the Cauvery, but this ‘underwater tiger’ is yet to capture the imagination of the world,” he says. Only about 100 otters survive in the river now without fish, says Nityata Foundation’s Menon.
The reduced flow of water in the river has also caused a spike in pollution levels. In Srirangapatna near Mysuru, people take dips in the shallow waters of the Cauvery at the bathing ghat. They are perhaps unaware that faecal coliform levels in the water are prohibitively high, making the water unfit for bathing. Professor K.S. Lokesh, an environmental engineer who studies pollution in the Cauvery at the JSS Science and Technology University, Mysuru, says that the quality of water in Srirangapatna and Nanjangud near Mysuru has been steadily declining for the past 14 years. He blames it on pesticide run-off from agricultural fields and the lack of adequate municipal waste water recycling in the major towns of Karnataka. The Noyyal, a major tributary of the Cauvery, no longer brings water. Its flow consists of untreated effluents from Tiruppur, the textile export town in Tamil Nadu. In Erode, another textile town by the banks of the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu, chemical discharge flows into what is left of the river. On one side of the bridge by the Bhavani Kattalai barrage on the Cauvery here, stagnant green water with dead fish greets the eye, while on the other side, effluents released by the 200-odd dyeing factories and mills in the area come into view. The stench makes it difficult to breathe and the toxic concoction sears the eye.
Ecosystem under threat
The Cauvery has been a cradle of human civilisation. But today, all along the course of the river the ecology stands devastated by human activity. The riverbed is heavily encroached on both sides in several stretches. In Tiruchi, for instance, large chunks of the riverbed have been taken over for construction of residential apartments and hotels.
In parts of Kodagu, especially near Siddhapur, sand mining on the banks has widened the course of the river, reducing its pace. While sand mining on the riverbed was a major issue in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu until recently, judicial interventions and a concerted effort to switch to M-sand (manufactured sand produced from crushed granite) for construction has curbed this menace to a considerable extent. However, in parts of the Cauvery delta districts in Tamil Nadu, villagers continue to mine river sand using bullock carts. Over the years, such practices have reduced the water retention capacity of the river.
Every waterfall, gorge and rapid on the Cauvery is sought to be captured for power generation. At Gaganchukki in Shivasamudram falls, the 115-year-old Seshadri Iyer hydroelectric project lies dormant. But even as the water levels in the falls were reduced to a trickle, in the forebay tank inside the power plant, water brimmed up to the edge. Environmentalists are worried that hydel power projects on the river may be diverting too much water into reservoirs, thereby affecting the natural flow of the river. In 2013, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People drew attention to how 98 mini-hydel power plants commissioned or allotted on the Cauvery basin were diverting drinking water meant for Bengaluru. The construction of dams on the river has had its own consequences. A Central Water Commission report in 2015 pointed out that sediment flow to the Cauvery delta has stopped due to siltation in the dams.
Poompuhar, or Kaveripoompattinam, in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, where the Cauvery meets the sea, symbolises a civilisation in ruin. This is where you finally see some water in the river. But soon you discover that this is sea water entering the river from its mouth. A local resident complains that the State government, after having destroyed the natural sand bars at the mouth of the river, has dumped rocks along the shore to stem coastal erosion. But the rocks have not been helpful. Sea water ingress has been a major issue facing farmers in Nagapattinam, as the groundwater has turned saline at many places. About 25 km south of Poompuhar, in Tarangambadi (Tranquebar), much of the Masilamani Nathar Koil, a 14th century Pandiyan-era temple, has been swallowed by the sea.
Kaveripoompattinam was once a busy port city, the capital of the Chola kings, where maritime trade prospered. But today, like the river after which it takes its name, the town is a shadow of its storied past. The Silappadikaram Art Gallery overlooking Cauvery’s confluence with the sea looks dilapidated. Musical instruments from the past lie silent on dusty shelves. Above the statues of Kannagi and Kovalan, the protagonists of the Tamil epic Silappadikaram, cobwebs dangle from the ceiling. Where a river is on its death bed, the civilisation it birthed also struggles to survive.