It has been a rough couple of months for Karnataka. A Supreme Court order on September 5 directing the state to release water from the Cauvery river to neighbouring Tamil Nadu led to protests, bandhs, calls for curfew and violence in Karnataka. On its northern border with Goa, disputes over sharing the Mahadayi river refuse to die down. Through all this, as it has frequently knocked on the apex courts’ doors seeking its intervention in the disputes, it has been labeled a “quarrelsome state”.

While fighting fires over water on several of its borders – there is even a lingering dispute over sharing the Krishna river with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – Karnataka has also grappled with floods in its northern part on the one hand and a failed monsoon on the other, leading to empty reservoirs.

Massive shortage

The water shortage in the state is among the most serious in its recent history, according to official data on water levels in the reservoirs. For instance, the 50-year-old Tungabhadra dam on the Krishna river’s tributary, has about 38.5 thousand million cubic feet of water towards the end of the rain season – against the usual 75 to 90 tmcft at this time.

This amount is not even enough to meet the drinking water needs of the parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka that this dam caters to, leave alone irrigation and other purposes.

An official working with the Tungabhadra Board, which regulates and oversees the supply of water from the dam, said that normally, the reservoir has at least 40 tmct of water from November until the onset of the monsoon in June next year. Going by the current situation, he said, they would need a minimum of 20 tm cft more to release water for irrigation.

Tungabhadra Board Secretary D Rangareddy claimed that the board has initiated measures to check the misuse and pilferage of water from canals and river beds for irrigation and other non-drinking purposes.

Canal-fed areas of other dams in the state are no better. Barring Almatti and Basavasagar dams in Krishna basin, all other dams in Karnataka are at half or less than half their capacity. In some cases, levels are so low that water cannot be drawn from these reservoirs.

In the Cauvery basin in particular, rainfall in catchment areas has been poor. As against a total storage capacity of more than 104 tmcft, the four dams in the basin collectively have just about 22.8 tmcft of water. At this time last year, they had 49.49 tmcft. The Central team that visited dams in the Cauvery basin starting October 7 agreed last week that the water-storage situation was grim.

In the southern districts of Karnataka, there have been no rains at all, especially in hilly districts like Kodagu and Hassan along with Wayanad in Kerala. An official in the state Water Resources Department of Karnataka, who did not wish to be identified, said that Kodagu (earlier known as Coorg) has received its lowest rainfall of the century.

“Water storage in state's dams cumulatively stood at 250 tmcft against 290 tmcft last year on this date,” he said. "The quantum of water stored in Cauvery basin dams is so low that it is not possible for the government to meet the drinking water needs of the cities such as Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mandya, leave alone the villages lying on the banks of the rivers,” the official said.

Mahadayi row

Even in the Mumbai-Karnataka region (parts of the state that were in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency), which forms part of the Krishna river basin, water has been a precious commodity this year.

MLA NH Konaraddi, who is at the forefront of the agitation for release of water from the Mahadayi river, shared by Goa and Karnataka, warned of a severe water crisis in the days. “The water level in Malaprabha dam here is expected to reach dead storage in one or two months and towns and cities in Mumbai-Karnataka, especially the Hubli- Dharwad twin cities and Navalgund, Nargund and Gadag, are bound to face severe drinking-water crisis,” he said.

Much of the Mahadayi river flows through Goa, and farmers in Karnataka have been agitating for close to a year now, demanding more water for their fields. The Karnataka government had sought to divert 7.56 tmcft of water from Mahadayi to the Malarapha dam in the state, to feed Hubli and Dharwad, but the Mahadayi tribunal in July rejected the plea.

Konaraddi said the Centre should intervene and force the Goa government to release 7.56 tmcft of water. He said only the prime minister has the power to direct states to release water irrespective of the water-sharing agreement.

Amicable ways

In some cases, farmers have managed to work around the constraints and found amicable ways to resolve the disputes over water sharing. The Tungabhadra dam, for instance, caters to the farmers of the fields of Raichur and Bellary districts in Karnataka and Ananthapur and Kurnool districts of Andhra Pradesh. A network of canals, spanning about 325 km, lead water from the dam to both states and some of its water also irrigates fields in the Mahabubnagar district of Telangana, which was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

Rangareddy claimed that water-sharing was not an issue between these states. Farmers of both Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are living cordially, braving various hiccups, as they are convinced of the shortage of water,” he said. “We [the board] have briefed politicians, farmers and their leaders on the situation and they have reconciled to it. Unlike farmers in the Cauvery basin, those in Tungabhadra and Krishna basin have a close bonding and both have realised how to live cordially, forgetting pecuniary issues related to sharing of water.”

Farmers in the Tungabhadra canal area said they understand there is a water-shortage and have decided to alter their crop-growing cycles to cope with it. “I used to raise paddy on 200 acres of land leased by me from other farmers in the rainy season and in November,” said farmer Ravi Giriyapur. “But this year, I am sowing Bengal gram anticipating one or two spells of rain in late October or November, following the Tungabhadra Board’s decision to stop release of water [for irrigation] from October itself."

He said that a failed monsoon over the last couple of years has resulted in scarcity of water and hence there is no point in fighting over the resource.

A doctorate holder in tissue culture now living in Hedginahala village in Raichur, Ravi said farmers should to adapt to the situation and change cropping patterns instead of compelling the state governments to get embroiled in judicial procedures, which strain the relationships between states, their people and cause harm to social and economic situations as well.

The unpredictable monsoons, increasing population in urban areas and untenable farming practices have aggravated the crises over the last few years. Now, with the state elections just two years away, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government finds its hands tied and has had to take a firm stance against releasing water in several instances, owing to political compulsions. In this process, the state has earned a bad name, coming off as a bully to the courts and neighbouring states.