Thursday, January 18, 2007

Owens river valley, Kaveri, Mullapperiyar - water disputes in the world and lessons learned

This is the tale of three rivers and how tricks, deception, imperialism, coercion, false science and historically established use took water away from its real owners for good. No one will be able to deny Los Angeles its established use right over water from Owens valley. No one will try to deny Madras its established use right over Kavery and Periyar water without risking bloodshed. There are lessons to be learned. The most important of them all is 'Water is precious. Find ways to preserve it.'.

Owens River in Northern C

Owens river runs through the ill fated Owens valley in Northern California. The valley is approximately 75 mi (120 km) long, trending north-south, and is bounded by the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Inyo and White Mountains on the east. The mountains on either side (including Mount Whitney) reach above 14,000 ft (4,300 m) in elevation, while the floor of the Owens Valley is at 4000 ft (1,200 m), making the valley one of the deepest in the United States. The bed of Owens Lake, now a dry alkali toxic flat, sits on the southern end of the valley. The valley provides water to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the source of one-third the drinking water for Los Angeles, and is famous as the scene of one of the fiercest and long-running episodes of the California Water Wars.

1898 - Frederick Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles created the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and appointed his friend William Mulholland as the superintendent.
1898-1905 Eaton lobbied Theodore Roosevelt and got the local irrigation system cancelled and used the inside information from Bureau of Reclamation to learn about the water rights in Owens valley.
1905 - Through purchases and bribery, Los Angeles purchased enough water rights to enable a gravity-fed aqueduct to deliver the Owens water to Los Angeles.
1913 - Completion of the 223 mile (359 km) Los Angeles Aqueduct to divert water from the valley to Los Angeles.
1924 - The water right purchases by LADWP using questiuonable practises led to anger among local farmers, which erupted in violence in 1924, when parts of the water system were sabotaged by local farmers.
1970- LADWP completed a second aqueduct from Owens Valley. More surface water was diverted and groundwater was pumped to feed the aqueduct. Owens Valley springs and seeps dried and disappeared, and groundwater-dependent vegetation began to die. The valley became a alkali dust bowl. Years of litigation followed.
1997 - Inyo County, Los Angeles, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and other concerned parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding that specified terms by which the lower Owens River would be rewatered by June 2003. LADWP missed this deadline and was sued again. Under another settlement, this time including the State of California, Los Angeles promised to rewater the lower Owens River by September 2005.
2005 - LADWP announced it was unlikely to meet this extended deadline.
2006 - Water was returned to the Owens River on Dec. 6, when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Inyo County Supervisor Susan Cash symbolically concluded the most celebrated water war in American history. Hollywood movie China Town is based on this epic water war.

Water wars in India is equally full of high drama and politiking. Raw emotions are plenty among the neighbors Karnataka, Tamilandu, Kerala and Pondichery over Kavery water and between Tamilnadu and Kerala over Periyar.

Kavery River in Southern India:
Kavery originates from Karnataka and flows through Tamil Nadu and discharges in Bay of Bengal. There were disputes as long back as 1807 between Mysore Prinley State (Now Karnataka) and Madras Presidency (Tamil Nadu) states. The center of the dispute is the agreement signed between two states in 1892 and 1924 which required Mysore to obtain Madras' consent for any water it wished to utilize or for any project it wished to undertake to utilize the waters. Karnataka deems these agreements as having been between unequal partners because while Mysore state was a princely state, Madras formed a part of the British Raj. After many Supreme Court interferences, Tribunals, Interim Awards, River Authority, Monitoring Committe etc, the dispute continues even today with occassional flare up of emotion between the states and its people.

Periyar River in Kerala:

Periyar river originates from the western ghats and flows west ward to Kerala and then discharges into Arabian Sea. The center of the controversy between Kerala and TamilNadu is the Mullapperiyar dam commissioned in 1895 to divert water from the river to arid districts of Madras Presidency through a tunnel cut through the watershed divide. 999 year lease was signed in 1886 between princely state of Travancore and Madras Presidency for the construction of the dam for sum of Rupees 40,000. Kerala deems these agreements as having been between unequal partners because while Travancore state was a protectorate under British Rule, Madras formed a part of the British Raj. Sounds familiar?

Kerala always believed that its a water surplus state. So it never found itself frugal in giving away her water. They now realise that it is a myth based on very old and inaccurate water data. But they realise the impossibility of denying water Tamil Nadu enjoyed for centuries. Kerala agrees to give water to its neighbors rain shadow areas (The monsson winds hit the western ghats and rains in Kerala leaving rain shadow on the other side of the mountain range). Their main contention is about the safety of the century+ old masonry dam made of lime and sugar mixer. It has been showing signs of aging and leaking for many years. Kerala wants the century old dam to be reconstructed using modern day technology while Tamil Nadu sites the central water commission report regarding the dam safety to increase the dam height to 143 feet from the current height of 136 feet. Supreme Court gave Tamil Nadu permission to increase the heigh considering the report. However Kerala Assembly had passed a legislation in August 2003 reserving for the State the right to decommission a dam, if found unsafe, by draining out the waters stored in its reservoir. Kerala maintains that Central Water Commission did not consider the earth quake risks to the dam while preparing the report. Supreme court gets involved again and asked both parties to find a political solution. The discussion broke down and the ball is in the court again. Some politicians from both sides takes extreme position. Some Kerala politicians want the lease cancelled unilaterally siting lack of maintanance of the leased property and unequal nature of the parties in the lease agreement. Some in Tamil Nadu wants the dam height to be the original 152 ft.

So what are the lessons learned from these water disputes?

1. Never enter into an agreement of unequals. Owens valley farmers were tricked into selling their lands (water rights) to LADWP for paltry sum. State of Mysore, a princely vassal (a person/entity under the protection of a feudal lord to whom he/it has vowed homage and fealty) state under British Raj, had to be content with an unfavorable agreement with the British Province of Madras. State of Travancore signed a less gain - all pain 999 year lease agreement with the British Province of Madras for a sum of Rs 40,000. (Inflation was not something they were mindful of back then)
2. Settle the disputes sooner than later. Prolonged water usage , even if the water right is acquired by questionable means, renders some degree of legitimacy which becomes harder to nullify later on. It is impossible to reverse the water usage pattern without huge human sufferings.
3. Do not try to put a price on water. Water is priceless. If you want to sell water rights, sell yours not your grand grand kids. They will not pardon your short sight.
4. Water is precious. Find ways to preserve it rather than wasting TMCs (Thousand Million Cubic feet) to water logged irrigation lands, seeping canals and man made sodic lands.

No comments: