January 9, 2012: Futurologists say that the next world war will be fought over water because fresh supplies will become increasingly scarce. Pakistan has already added water to the long list of disputes with India and people in India have grown concerned about what they say are Chinese efforts to dam the Brahmaputra River.
If the south Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu were independent countries with their own armies, they might have been at war by now over the water held behind a dam in Kerala that supplies Tamil Nadu. Protests and demonstrations have lasted for more than five years and tensions have been so elevated recently that some citizens have resorted to violence as India’s federal government, for the most part, has watched helplessly.
The Mullaperiyar dam on the Periyar river sits in and belongs to the state of Kerala. The state wants to repair or rebuild the 116-year-old dam with its own money, if necessary, because it fears that the dam could fail because it has developed leaks and because tremors around it have become more frequent in recent months. An estimated 3 million people live downstream from the dam and could be submerged if it is breached.
More than 100 years ago, Kerala agreed to divert the east-flowing river and leased a piece of its territory to the other state for 999 years. In return, Kerala now receives 1 million rupees, or about $19,000, a year. Historians believe that the king of Travancore signed the deal under pressure in the face of demands of the bigger state that was backed by India’s British rulers.
Tamil Nadu, a relatively more arid state that has chronic water problems, has refused to renegotiate the deal or agree to the construction of a new dam. The state’s leaders appear to be terrified that they will not be allocated as much water from a new dam as they draw from the river now. That fear persists even though Kerala officials have offered assurances that they will not change the current water sharing formula.
Officials in Kerala have often presented a muddled and inconsistent case for why the dam should be rebuilt. Some have argued that the dam was close to collapse, while others have said that simply reducing the amount of water stored behind the dam and building a tunnel to relieve the pressure of the water would be sufficient to protect the dam.
Independent scientists are divided on Kerala’s claims that the dam is in mortal danger, but they are no more convinced by Tamil Nadu’s assertions that it is completely safe after 116 years of use. The Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, one of the country’s leading universities, has concluded that the dam will collapse if the area is struck by an earthquake of magnitude 7 or more.
No one is certain whether another dam downstream could contain the water if the Mullaperiyar is breached.
A committee appointed by the Indian Supreme Court to study the issue has signaled that it is more inclined to support Tamil Nadu’s position. But as a compromise, it is likely to recommend the construction of another dam downstream. Kerala has not only agreed to bear the cost of such a dam, but also expressed its willingness to jointly manage it with Tamil Nadu. But the feasibility of such a dam is in question and its environmental impact may be significant.
In the case of another infrastructure project, Tamil Nadu officials have protested federal plans to set up a nuclear power plant on its eastern coast at Kudankulam. The state has argued that the plant could expose its residents to radiation. Yet, it does not share Kerala’s concern that an old and leaking dam might burst and drown millions of lives. Floods have killed far more people than nuclear meltdowns. About 25 years ago, a dam in Gujarat caved in and killed hundreds of people.
In Kerala, recent protests appear to be stoked by a regional party that is part of the ruling coalition government hoping to gain political points. An appeal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has calmed those voices, but a recent visit by Mr. Singh to Tamil Nadu, which is ruled by a different party that is not part of the government’s coalition, did not advance the cause of negotiations.
In theory, the dispute could be solved easily if the government repairs or rebuilds the dam while guaranteeing that Tamil Nadu will continue to receive ample supplies of water. Lives would be saved in Kerala and livelihood would be saved in Tamil Nadu.
Instead, the war of words and protests continue, threatening trade and peace between the states.