Riparian Vs Catchment Hydropolitics

By: Nayan Sharma, Subash Prasad Rai and Harinarayan Tiwari
Inter-state water disputes have been the country’s bane ever since reorganization of India into linguistic states. A paradigm shift in water management, wherein riparian hydropolitics is discarded in favour of catchment hydropolitics, can put an end to disputes and promote overall development of river basins.
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Increasing industrialisation, growing population, pollution, changing resource and energy needs bring into light the precarious situation in which riparian states find themselves. Since transboundary water management mostly deals with specific cases, scientific knowledge on rivers is often lacking.

Studies indicate that water allocation is the major cause of conflict, whether between sovereign nations or regions within a state. However, we need to recognise that water is a transient resource that changes its form, quantity, quality, and location. We can neither store it indefinitely, nor be sure of its return on any given schedule. We are limited in our ability to control water. Small shifts in the distribution of this resource can have major impacts on societies that have evolved, thus leading to prospective conflicts between them.

There is no developed water allocation theory to facilitate inter-state water sharing. Contribution and need are the factors that can be broadly summarised. With reference to water, contribution refers to the relative volumes of precipitation received on the territorial dominion of a particular nation whereas need refers to the minimum required withdrawal of water for the sustenance of life. The basic issue of conflict with respect to water is that of allocation and equitable sharing of water. Water scarcity or drought-like situations are not alone responsible for conflicts. It is the lack of equitable water allocation during droughts that causes conflict. As Mohamed Suliman, Chair, Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) Network, states, “. . . violent conflicts arise mainly out of economic and ecological distortions”.

India is gifted with many rivers but inter-state water disputes plague many regions. Since almost all major Indian rivers flow through two or more states, inter-state disputes are an inevitable fallout of increased demand for water owing to rapid economic development. Some major inter-state river water disputes worth mentioning are:

  • The Aliyar and Bhavani river water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
  • The Barak river water dispute between Assam and Manipur.
  • The Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
  • The Godavari water dispute between Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Karnataka.
  • The Karmanasa water dispute between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
  • The Krishna water dispute between Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
  • The Mahi river dispute between Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
  • The Narmada water dispute between Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
  • The Ravi and Beas river water dispute between Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi.
  • The Sutlej-Yamuna link canal dispute between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
  • The Tungabhadra water dispute between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
  • The Yamuna river water dispute between Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.

The Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (IRWD Act) was enacted under Article 262 of the Constitution on the eve of reorganisation of states on linguistic basis. The Act was meant to resolve disputes that might arise regarding the use, control and distribution of inter-state rivers and river basins. Article 262 provides a role for the Central government in adjudicating conflicts surrounding inter-state rivers that arise among the states/regional governments.

The Central Government has often pitched in to resolve disputes through negotiations amongst the basin states, using the universally accepted principle of equitable apportionment of waters among states. Adjudication through appointment of water disputes tribunals has also been resorted to as and when required. A few tribunals appointed to resolve inter-state water disputes have been:

  • Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal;
  • Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal;
  • Mahadayi/ Mandovi River Tribunal;
  • Ravi and Beas Waters Tribunal; and,
  • Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal.
  • Other inter-state water disputes include the Babhali Barrage and the Mullaperiyar dam issue.

Conflicts over sharing of waters are on the rise in the Indian subcontinent, with some even ending in violence. Events involving violence related to water that resulted in loss of lives have been highlighted in Table 1. The data has been collected from the world conflict chronology formulated by the World Water Council.

Political boundaries rarely embrace the boundaries of surface water resources i.e. lakes and rivers. Conflict may hence arise because the upstream riparian region’s consumptive use may adversely affect the water available for use by the region downstream.

Often, differing cultures and their concepts regarding the value of water and its use can be an obstacle to the spirit of cooperation and trust necessary for an effective agreement. Water is now acknowledged as a major limiting factor in the socio-economic development of a world with a rapidly expanding population. This necessitates understanding the pattern of water allocation in the past as against present demands that must be taken into account in international water agreements.

Some agreements promote the entitlement to a state to ‘draw’ a certain quantity of water from a particular source whereas other agreements promote obligation of a state to ‘deliver’ a certain quantity of water to another state. Such agreements, often, fail to note the risk of shortages or drought.

Table 1: Few incidents of violent water conflict in India
Table 1: Few incidents of violent water conflict in India

When an agreement authorises a state to draw a certain amount of water, the other state receives the left over volume. It confers the benefit of wet years on the residuary states but puts the entire risk of shortage on the same residuary state. When it is obligatory to provide a certain volume of water to another state on its border, the benefits of wet years as also the risks of shortage are placed upon the obligatory state. Risks and benefits can be shared by all states if allocation is done with regard to percentage rather than volume. But, since allocation by percentage is difficult to administer, such agreements are never articulated.

The Way Ahead

Keeping the diverse aspects of transboundary rivers and the various degrees of disputes and conflicts that arise, a paradigm shift in water management is in order, wherein riparian hydropolitics is replaced by catchment hydropolitics. Riparian hydropolitics caters to differing developing objectives, needs and requirements, which make it difficult to administer. On the other hand, catchment hydropolitics is built on a common objective of sustainable water resources development and management. In this, the varying objectives of riparian states can be merged for the welfare of the inhabitants of the basin, thereby reducing the possibilities of future water resources conflict. Thus, the technical and financial capabilities of the riparian states can be merged for socio-economic development as well as ecological conservation.

Most water resources projects have certain built-in biases in favour of some states. Thus, hydropower projects may supply proportionately less hydropower to the riparian states and more to non-basin states. This can be a major cause of tension among states. At the planning stage of water resource projects, the catchment approach needs to be introduced wherein the requirements of the riparian states should be down played and those of the basin promoted. The new approach would then consider fulfilling the water, environment, energy and food (WEEF) demands of the catchment as a whole and not of the states in particular. The needs and uses can also be prioritised so as to supplement sustainability of water resources. After the WEEF demands of the basin are fulfilled, inter-basin transfer of waters can be considered. This can also generate inter-basin cooperation on water resources projects.

This could be done through a River Basin Authority (RBA) formed by the central government to develop and manage river basin resources. The planning and execution of projects could then be carried out by respective RBAs and not the states. This will not only help generate cooperation, but check disputes, thereby promoting socioeconomic development. For this the government of India needs to overhaul its present policies of water management and thereby usher in an era wherein states become the major stakeholders to catchment hydropolitics and sustainability.


Riparian hydropolitics has given rise to several inter-state disputes related to sharing of water and water resources. It is time for the government to bring in a paradigm shift in its water management policies and switch to catchment hydropolitics, wherein river basins are developed under the aegis of respective RBAs. This will promote the well-being of the population of an entire basin, with states co-operating to make the best use of water resources, thereby bringing in much-needed socio-economic development.

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