Goa’s Mandovi river is picture perfect – a wide, placid river fringed by coconut palms and dotted by the boats that we think of when we think of the coastal state. For Goans, the Mandovi is a lifeline, as she provides them with drinking water and fish. She also waters the rice crop they live on, and aids transport – cargo ranging from iron ore to coconuts are carried down the river on boats of varying sizes.

What many of us outside the area may not know is that the Mandovi has a double identity. For the first 35 km of her 87 km length, she flows through Karnataka, where she is known as the Mhadei. Here, the river is not a lifeline, but a promise – one that has led to a bitter fight between the two neighbours.

The dispute

In 1973, Karnataka’s attention was first drawn to hydropower generation from the Mhadei. Since then, the state has planned a series of dams on the Mhadei’s tributaries. In 2002, Karnataka – without consulting Goa – successfully approached the Ministry of Water Resources and asked it to divert 7.56 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water from the Mhadei basin to the Malaprabha basin in Karnataka. “Karnataka is planning 12 dams on all tributaries to divert all water to the Malaprabha and Supa reservoirs,” said ST Nadkarni, chief engineer, Water Resources Department of Goa. Since there has been an increase in the demand for water in Goa since the dams were first proposed, the state is hotly contesting it.

ANS Nadkarni, the advocate general of Goa, confirmed Nadkarni’s statement. “Karnataka now wants to divert 24 TMC of water from the basin,” said Nadkarni. “First they said it is only for drinking water, but Goa has proved that politicians have promised irrigation water to the people of Karnataka.” Though the issue is still with the Mhadei Water Dispute Tribunal, Karnataka is proceeding with the construction of the Kalasa-Banduri canals in violation of the tribunal order.

What Karnataka wants

While Karnataka has not yet been able to use the waters of the Mhadei within its catchment, water is in high demand in the state’s central districts. “The water diverted from the Mhadei basin will be used in nine talukas of four districts in the state,” said Vijay Kulkarni, president of the Kalasa-Banduri campaign committee. “Presently there is a dire shortage of water in that area. The only source of irrigation is through borewells, which few farmers have. Several villages are tanker fed.”

Supporters of the diversion, notably Prithviraj Chavan, the former chief minister of Maharashtra, say that “the water is being wasted as the river empties into the sea.” There have been several demonstrations in Karnataka seeking the diversion of the Mhadei’s waters.

Goa disagrees

But Goa hotly disputes the idea that the water of the Mandovi that flows into the sea is a waste as there is considerable saline ingression. Already, 52 km of the Mandovi’s 76 km length in Goa lies within the saline zone. “In the summer, salt water comes up to Usgaon,” said Pratap Singh Rane, leader of the Opposition in Goa. “Just above Usgaon are our drinking water jackwells and agriculture belt. If there is no fresh water in the river, salt water will go further upstream”.

Besides their drinking water and livelihood, Goans are also concerned about the impact of any diversion of water on the Mandovi’s ecosystem. The region where the Mandovi enters Goa is one of the most pristine forests in the Western Ghats, which is itself a biodiversity hotspot.

The controversy

Each of the points made by Goa and Karnataka is refuted by the other. Some of them are borne out by facts, others are just the states’ points of view. If Karnataka claims that Goa does not utilise (i.e. extract) all the water, Goa points out that instream flows are crucial to the state’s agriculture and drinking water. While Karnataka asserts it is only claiming its rightful share under equitable principle, Goa accuses Karnataka of being a bully.

Both accuse the other of being unreasonable. “Karnataka is forcing the issue upon us,” said Dayanand Manjrekar, the minister of water resources for Goa. Nadkarni accused Karnataka of fighting with all its neighbours. “Karnataka is a singular state which has water disputes with all its neighbours,” said Nadkarni. “Like we have an Education Department, they have a Disputes Department.” Karnataka’s water resources minister MB Patil believes Goa is totally devoid of any humanitarian consideration.

It is unlikely that the issue will be laid to rest when the tribunal gives its decision. “The government of Goa has undertaken to stand by the Tribunal’s decision no matter whose favour it is in,” said Rajendra Kerkar, secretary of the Mhadei Bachao Andolan. “But this is not a dilemma that can ever be solved. The struggle has no option but to go on.” Karnataka's Vijay Kulkarni was more direct. “If the result is not in our favour, we have planned a big demonstration,” he said.

Beyond the Mhadei or Mandovi

Why should we worry if two states are engaged in a never-ending dispute over a 87 km long river? Because they are not alone.

Water harvesting should be in every regional development plan.

— ANS Nadkarni, advocate general of Goa.

Every state in the Deccan peninsula is engaged in a water dispute with at least one of its neighbours. The main rivers of the peninsula – Cauvery, Krishna, Godavari and Narmada – are all the subject of Tribunals. Besides this, there are several other disputes in the country over the sharing of waters and upstream-downstream rights. In Northern India, the issue acquires an international dimension; water is a source of tension between India and nearly all of her neighbours.

The Ministry of Water Resources recently acknowledged that cooperation of all the states is essentially required for the success of the government’s ambitious interlinking of rivers programme. Within the present federal system, it is unlikely that this cooperation will be achieved. This is true of all the proposed links, but especially so where sharing waters is already under dispute. The other alternative, which is to bring rivers under the Centre, has the potential to create new problems while failing to resolve existing ones.

Is there a solution?

The answer comes from the people involved in the dispute. “Trying to resurrect a dying river or transferring water from outside is futile,” said Kerkar. “Neither is it ecologically sound nor is it politically possible when there are fights within villages.” Instead, he suggests that governments and communities should protect the catchment areas of their local rivers. This needs to be combined with water-wise agriculture, by selecting a cropping pattern that is appropriate for the region’s water availability.

This sentiment is echoed by Goa’s advocate general ANS Nadkarni. “Water harvesting should be in every regional development plan,” he said. “It is the fundamental duty of every citizen to harvest water.”

Or as water policy expert Ramaswamy Iyer suggested, it’s time to abandon the Promethean attitude to nature and shift from the techno-centric manipulation of rivers to learning to co-exist with them.

This article was originally published on India Water Portal.