The Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Dispute: A Look into the Interstate River Water Dispute Governance

Introduction

India has 20 river basins, small and large, that flow across multiple states. As water is a vital resource for all, river waters are used for various purposes by the states through which they flow. We live in a country whose two-thirds of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. States like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and many more are majorly engaged in producing crops for India. Owing to the robust growth of the Green revolution since the 1960s, there has been a rapid increase in water demand in India. Apart from this, the water demand has also risen significantly in the manufacturing sector. The Indian Constitution gives the Centre the right to govern inter-state water disputes. The law has also introduced many Acts, Bills and Schemes, like the ISRDW Act of 1956, Dam Safety Act 2021 and River Boards Act 1956, for better administration of the water bodies so that any such dispute, like the SYL issue, does not arise in the first place. 

The limited supply and overuse of water have given rise to many conflicts between states sharing water bodies. There has to be clarity and cooperation between states regarding sharing water resources for optimal utilisation of the river bodies. However, the ambiguity of the legal framework and lack of a well-coordinated approach have compromised the proper usage of river waters. Over the years, the rivalry between States and between the State and the Centre has added to conflicts over sharing water resources. 

The Satluj Yamuna Link Conflict is in the news as both Haryana and Punjab cannot come up with an amicable solution. The dispute between the two over river waters has claimed many people’s lives. The Supreme Court, in September 2022, asked both the states to resolve their differences and arrive at a conclusion within four months. The Apex court claims water is a natural wealth and must be shared. The Attorney General, KK Venugopal, also enforced that the court would take a harsh stand in case of absenteeism from the meeting to settle the SYL issue.

This article will decode the inter-state water disputes, emphasising the Yamuna Satluj Link Water Dispute between Haryana and Punjab. We will also analyse the commonality of water disputes in India and look into the legal framework that settles such disputes.

Background of the SYL Canal,

The Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal is a 214 km long canal which aims to connect the Yamuna and Satluj rivers. It will also enable sharing of the Ravi and Beas rivers between Haryana and Punjab. The channel was designed to be 122 km in Punjab and 92 km in Haryana. With the division of Haryana and Punjab, the former could not utilise its water without a carrier channel. This was the primary reason for building the SYL Canal.

 The SYL dispute has been a bone of contention for decades. It all started with the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966 when Haryana was carved out of Punjab, making it the 17th State. Now, with the division of the States, autonomy, optimal utilisation of resources, and better management must ensue. However, the separation of states means the division of resources. Since both Haryana and Punjab are agriculturally dependent states, Haryana raised the issue of getting a share of its river water.                                                                         

The Central Government asked Punjab to provide a part of the water from the two rivers to Haryana. Punjab argued that it was against the riparian principle, which says that the water of a river belongs only to the states or countries through which it flows. However, Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act clearly stated that all rights and liabilities of Punjab concerning the Bhakra-Nangal Project and Beas Project would become the rights and liabilities of the successor States subject to adjustments made by agreeing to consult the Central Government. Haryana, the successor state, had to get its share of river water.

 Since both states could not agree on the issue, the government in 1976 determined the distribution of the waters of Ravi and Beas among the states of Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi to break the deadlock. As per the government’s decision, Haryana was allotted 3.5 MAF, Punjab 3.5 MAF, and Delhi 0.2 MAF out of the total water of 7.2 MAF that was to be allocated among the three states from the available 15.2 MAF of water from the Satluj, Ravi, and Beas.

 Showing dissent, Punjab filed a suit in the Supreme Court in 1976, questioning the validity of section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966. Haryana also filed a lawsuit for executing the central government’s notice to build the SYL Canal. Haryana began its portion of the canal’s construction in October 1976 and completed it in 1980. It spent 56 crores. In addition, Haryana also spent about Rs 250 crore on constructing the canal infrastructure in its area to utilise these waters. It also deposited one crore in 1976 and another one crore in 1979 with Punjab to start the construction.

 Seeing the failure of Punjab to construct the SYL Canal in their region, Haryana filed a suit for the implementation of the decision of the Centre on April 13, 1979, in the Supreme Court. In response to this, Punjab filed a claim in the apex court on July 11, 1979, challenging the orders of the Centre of March 1976.

 The conflict between the two states had significant consequences which would have to be borne by the people. As time passed by, the urgency to settle this dispute also increased. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi intervened and mediated an agreement among the three states of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan, under which the water supplies to the three states were revised and reassessed.

Consequently, both Punjab and Haryana withdrew their pending cases in court. The agreement also stated that Punjab would complete the construction of the SYL Canal by December 31, 1983. 

The construction of the SYL Canal in Punjab was initiated in March 1982 at Kapoori Village in Patiala. However, the Government of Punjab was unsatisfied with the revised water flow. According to the new water flow series of 1921‚Äď60, the 17.17 MAF surplus of Ravi and Beas waters was allocated to the states in the following manner.¬†

STATE MAF (Million Acre per Feet)
Punjab 4.22
Haryana 3.50
Jammu and Kashmir 0.65
Rajasthan 8.60
Delhi  0.20

The Punjab Government already opposed the idea of constructing the SYL Canal. The decision to allot just 4.22 MAF of water to Punjab further intensified the protest. A movement was started against it, called the ‚ÄúKapoori Morcha ‚ÄĚ. Violent protests started, creating an environment of terrorism in the state and making it an issue of national security. The political unrest regarding the SYL issue in Punjab led to the ‚ÄúPunjab Agreement.‚ÄĚ It was an initiative by Rajiv Gandhi, the successor of Indira Gandhi, to resolve the dispute. The agreement was popularly known as the ‚ÄúRajiv Longowal Accord‚ÄĚ as it was signed between Shri Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Harichand Longowal, President of Akali Dal (the then ruling government of Punjab), on July 24, 1985, in Delhi. Both parties agreed that setting up a new tribunal would be the best option to settle the dispute. The provisions of the accord also stated that the farmers of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan would continue to get water which would be no less than what they were using from the Ravi Beas system as on July 1, 1985.¬†

 Under the agreement, August 15, 1986, was set as the new date for completing the SYL canal, which would carry Haryana’s share of river water. Punjab’s opposition to the construction of the SYL Canal forced Haryana to reach out to the Prime Minister. On December 16, 1986, it was decided that the Central Government would bear the entire cost of the SYL Canal. A new tribunal, called the Eradi Tribunal, led by Supreme Court Judge V Balakrishna Eradi, was set up to reassess the availability and sharing of water. In 1987, the Tribunal recommended an increase in the shares of Punjab and Haryana to 5 MAF and 3.83 MAF, respectively.

Both Punjab and Haryana started questioning the decisions and reports of the Eradi Tribunal. Haryana requested that the 4.831 MAF of unallocated water from the Ravi and Beas rivers be allocated. On the other hand, Punjab asked the Tribunal to modify the report findings as it was contradictory to the Punjab Settlement. Punjab also questioned the Tribunal’s rejection of Punjab’s proprietary rights over the concerned river waters. The Tribunal could not reach a consensus about these issues and was dissolved in 1989.

In the 1990s, work on the SYL Canal resumed. However, it was again suspended due to the militancy in Punjab. Two senior engineers, the Chief Engineer, the Superintending Engineer, and some other workers working on the site were shot dead. Seeing the fluctuations in the progress of the SYL Canal, the Haryana government requested the Prime Minister to assign the work to a central agency. As a result, the Border Roads Organisation was tasked with completing the canal construction. However, even then, the construction could not be completed.

 The continuous delays were adding to the burden on the people of Haryana. Between the 1980s and 1990s, costs increased by 241.47% (from 176 billion to 601 billion). Haryana was losing agricultural production at the rate of 8 lakh tonnes per year and could also not correctly utilise the irrigation facilities. The excessive water in the canal was also causing floods in nearby regions.

 After making all the efforts to get the SYL Canal built, the Haryana government resorted to the Supreme Court in 1996. The hearings for this case were held from 1996 to 2001. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed Punjab to complete the construction within one year. However, in the event of a failure on the part of Punjab, the Central Government was supposed to take the matter into its own hands.

 In 2004, Punjab unilaterally enforced the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, just two days before the Central Government was to give the construction project to the CPWD(Central Public Works Department). The Act declared the water-sharing agreement null and void. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court, with the help of the Presidential Reference (article 143), stated that Punjab was backing out on its part of the agreement and claimed that the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, was constitutionally invalid.

For 12 years, both states were firm about their demands and choices concerning the SYL Canal issue. 2016, the Supreme Court ordered the Chief Ministers of Haryana and Punjab to negotiate a settlement regarding this issue. However, nothing fruitful came out of it. Punjab said there had been no scientific assessment of river waters in the state to date. River water availability also increased from an estimated 17.17 MAF in 1981 to 13.38 MAF in 2013. Punjab demanded a tribunal for a new assessment of the availability of water.

 In 2022, the Supreme Court again directed Punjab to resolve the SYL Canal issue within four months. The newly formed government in Punjab is willing to resolve the dispute.   

The Punjab Government already opposed the idea of constructing the SYL Canal. The decision to allot just 4.22 MAF of water to Punjab further intensified the protest. A movement was started against it, called the ‚ÄúKapoori Morcha ‚ÄĚ. Violent protests started, creating an environment of terrorism in the state and making it an issue of national security. The political unrest regarding the SYL issue in Punjab led to the ‚ÄúPunjab Agreement.‚ÄĚ It was an initiative by Rajiv Gandhi, the successor of Indira Gandhi, to resolve the dispute. The agreement was popularly known as the ‚ÄúRajiv Longowal Accord‚ÄĚ as it was signed between Shri Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Harichand Longowal, President of Akali Dal (the then ruling government of Punjab), on July 24, 1985, in Delhi. Both parties agreed that setting up a new tribunal would be the best option to settle the dispute. The provisions of the accord also stated that the farmers of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan would continue to get water which would be no less than what they were using from the Ravi Beas system as on July 1, 1985.¬†

 Under the agreement, August 15, 1986, was set as the new date for completing the SYL canal, which would carry Haryana’s share of river water. Punjab’s opposition to the construction of the SYL Canal forced Haryana to reach out to the Prime Minister. On December 16, 1986, it was decided that the Central Government would bear the entire cost of the SYL Canal. A new tribunal, called the Eradi Tribunal, led by Supreme Court Judge V Balakrishna Eradi, was set up to reassess the availability and sharing of water. In 1987, the Tribunal recommended an increase in the shares of Punjab and Haryana to 5 MAF and 3.83 MAF, respectively.

 Both Punjab and Haryana started questioning the decisions and reports of the Eradi Tribunal. Haryana requested that the 4.831 MAF of unallocated water from the Ravi and Beas rivers be allocated. On the other hand, Punjab asked the Tribunal to modify the report findings as it was contradictory to the Punjab Settlement. Punjab also questioned the Tribunal’s rejection of Punjab’s proprietary rights over the concerned river waters. The Tribunal could not reach a consensus about these issues and was dissolved in 1989.

In the 1990s, work on the SYL Canal resumed. However, it was again suspended due to the militancy in Punjab. Two senior engineers, the Chief Engineer, the Superintending Engineer, and some other workers working on the site were shot dead. Seeing the fluctuations in the progress of the SYL Canal, the Haryana government requested the Prime Minister to assign the work to a central agency. As a result, the Border Roads Organisation was tasked with completing the canal construction. However, even then, the construction could not be completed.

 The continuous delays were adding to the burden on the people of Haryana. Between the 1980s and 1990s, costs increased by 241.47% (from 176 billion to 601 billion). Haryana was losing agricultural production at the rate of 8 lakh tonnes per year and could also not correctly utilise the irrigation facilities. The excessive water in the canal was also causing floods in nearby regions.

After making all the efforts to get the SYL Canal built, the Haryana government resorted to the Supreme Court in 1996. The hearings for this case were held from 1996 to 2001. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed Punjab to complete the construction within one year. However, in the event of a failure on the part of Punjab, the Central Government was supposed to take the matter into its own hands.

 In 2004, Punjab unilaterally enforced the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, just two days before the Central Government was to give the construction project to the CPWD(Central Public Works Department). The Act declared the water-sharing agreement null and void. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court, with the help of the Presidential Reference (article 143), stated that Punjab was backing out on its part of the agreement and claimed that the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, was constitutionally invalid.

For 12 years, both states were firm about their demands and choices concerning the SYL Canal issue. 2016, the Supreme Court ordered the Chief Ministers of Haryana and Punjab to negotiate a settlement regarding this issue. However, nothing fruitful came out of it. Punjab said there had been no scientific assessment of river waters in the state to date. River water availability also increased from an estimated 17.17 MAF in 1981 to 13.38 MAF in 2013. Punjab demanded a tribunal for a new assessment of the availability of water.

 In 2022, the Supreme Court again directed Punjab to resolve the SYL Canal issue within four months. The newly formed government in Punjab is willing to resolve the dispute.   

PUNJAB AND HARYANA ARGUMENTS

Climate change has been a serious concern for the world. It cripples economic activity, destroys agricultural produce and damages lives. Untimely and uneven rainfall, overdependence on groundwater and poor cropping patterns are critical challenges in both states. Wheat production has recently slowed by 3% due to heat waves in Punjab and Haryana. It is not new to know that both states have fallen victim to climate change. 

 HARYANA’S STAND 

Haryana has significantly contributed to the central food pool despite covering a geographical area of just 1.34 per cent of India. It claims to have been denied its rightful share of water as assessed by the tribunal. The groundwater crisis in Haryana has threatened food security in the state. Almost 60 per cent of villages have been labelled as ‚Äúgroundwater stressed ‚ÄĚ. The drinking water problem has arisen in the southern parts of Haryana, where groundwater has been depleted up to 1,700 feet.¬†

The agroclimatic zones of Haryana can be divided into two parts. The northeastern zone comprises semi-arid and sub-humid lands, and the southwestern zone has mainly arid lands. The need for irrigation from a robust and stable water source like the SYL Canal is crucial in this dry area so that there can be an equal distribution of water in water-deficient regions of Haryana.

PUNJAB’S STAND 

Punjab has argued that since they contribute to the growth of wheat and paddy worth 70,000 crores every year, they have no water to spare. Reports have stated that many areas in Punjab may be dry after 2029. The primary reason behind Punjab’s water crisis is groundwater exploitation for irrigation purposes. With the advent of the green revolution, Punjab increased paddy production, a water-intensive crop. The overexploitation of water (about 79%) has put them in a position where they are unwilling and unable to share water with neighbouring states.

While both states have their reasons for this dispute, they must negotiate and cooperate for the country’s greater interest.

Is sharing water with Haryana impossible? 

There is no doubt the fact that climate change has drained both states of natural resources. However, the water crisis that both conditions are facing is a consequence of their actions. Is Punjab unable to keep its word of sharing water with Haryana?

DATA PUNJAB HARYANA
Annual Net Groundwater Availability  21.44 8.63
Critical Areas 5 11
Semi Critical Areas 4 5
Over Exploited Areas  103 55

In the table above, it is visible that the annual net groundwater availability in Punjab is more. The yearly replenishable groundwater resource of Punjab is 23.78 BCM, which is approximately 10.4 per cent. On the other hand, Haryana has an Annual net groundwater availability of 8.63 per cent, and the replenishment of groundwater resource is 9.31 BCM, which is 7.87 per cent. Apart from this, it is clear that the number of critical zones in Haryana is more. With the data above, it cannot be denied that the water crisis in Haryana is also alarming.

We have already discussed that water resources are overexploited in Punjab. It is also visible in the table above that the overexploited areas are almost double in Punjab. Another primary reason for the overexploitation of water resources is giving freebies. Free power given to the farmers in Punjab has led to injudicious water use and fuelled the water crisis. It is a standard theory in economics that the use of something which is free leads to exploitation of it. This is because the price attached to a service or product often reflects its supply. 

With the help of the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal, a significant problem can be solved for Haryana. While it is undeniable that Punjab too is water distressed, disciplined consumption of water resources, fertilisers and power can solve the problem for both states. It is not that Punjab cannot share water with its neighbouring state. However, if Punjab continues to be on the same track, i.e. exploiting groundwater, depending on chemical fertilisers and using poor agricultural methods, it is very close to ‚ÄėDay Zero‚Äô.¬†

WATER DISPUTES: NOT AN UNCOMMON PHENOMENON

Water sharing disputes have become one of the most contentious issues in the country today. They are concentrated in the peninsular region due to the limited availability of water in the rivers compared to the Himalayan region. Apart from the SYL dispute between Punjab and Haryana, many others, like the Cauvery dispute, must be addressed.

CAUVERY DISPUTE: A CLASH BETWEEN TAMIL NADU AND KARNATAKA 

 The Cauvery dispute is between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The conflict has been going on for more than 100 years over the use of Cauvery River waters. The government of Tamil Nadu argued that Karnataka was constructing the Kabini, Hemavathi, Harangi, and Suvarnavathi dams on the Cauvery and was expanding the ayacuts( irrigation works). This was diminishing the water supply to Tamil Nadu and adversely affecting the rights of the existing ayacuts.

 The Government of Tamil Nadu also stated that the Karnataka government had failed to implement the terms of the 1892 and 1924 Agreements relating to the usage, distribution, and control of the Cauvery waters. They asserted that the entitlements of the 1924 Agreement were permanent and that only those clauses that dealt with the use of surplus water for irrigation in the agreement could be changed. In contrast, Karnataka challenged the validity of the 1924 Agreement. According to the Karnataka government, the Cauvery water issue must be seen through a lens of equity and regional balance.

¬†The landmark judgement by the Supreme Court in 2018 regarding the Calso Cauvery dispute could also be used as a prime example for other dispute settlements. The Apex Court called the river a ‚Äúnational asset‚ÄĚ and reduced water allocation from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court stated that the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal did not consider Tamil Nadu‚Äôs stock of groundwater (20 TMC). It held that it would account for at least half of it and reduce the water share from 192 TMC supplied to Tamil Nadu.

The court also disagreed with Karnataka’s argument that the state did not denounce the 1892 and 1924 agreements after independence or even after the state reorganisation act 1956. It held that the 1924 agreement expired in 1974 after 50 years, and now the allocation of inter-State river water was governed by equitable apportionment. The judgement proved potentially revolutionary since the SC followed the International water laws, Article 3 of the UN Convention in this case. 

The Supreme Court, while allocating the Cauvery water, prioritised the principle of development and protection of the shared water equitably and reasonably as defined by article 5 of the UN Convention.

According to the Supreme Court, Karnataka would get 284.75 thousand cubic feet (tmcft), Tamil Nadu 404.25 tmcft, Kerala 30 tmcft and Puducherry 7 tmcft. A part of Karnataka’s share (4.75 TMC) was also allotted to Bengaluru, even though the city is outside the purview of the Cauvery Basin, given its rising water demand. 

THE FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO INTER-STATE RIVER WATER DISPUTES

 The Territorial Mindset of States:

 Over the years, the States of India, owing to single-party dominance, have developed a territorial perception. In the context of water sharing, they are unwilling to share their resources with the states in need. For example, Punjab has been under the governance of the Aam Aadmi Party and was earlier ruled by the Akali Dal. Haryana, on the other hand, has been under the BJP governance. 

 Climate Concerns:

Increased temperatures and high evaporation rates resulting in water scarcity have caused severe water disputes ( like the Satluj-Yamuna Link dispute). This, coupled with the rising demand for water for various purposes, has intensified the clashes in water-sharing agreements.

 Lack of a holistic approach towards conflict resolution: 

The Indian law specifies that the subject of inter-water disputes is a subject of the union list(Entry 56). However, there is no direct acknowledgement of it in the state list. This permits the state to outline the user rights of waters according to their convenience. In the context of the Cauvery Dispute, Tamil Nadu that the principle of prior appropriation should form the basis of river sharing. On the other hand, Karnataka argued that the Harmon Doctrine should be the basis of the water-sharing agreement.

 Asymmetrical access to river water in riparian states:

The ramifications of colonial rule and accommodation in the post-independence period have led to the reorganisation of many state boundaries. This has further intensified the disputes in water-sharing agreements as there is a lack of consensus on agreements before and after the division of boundaries in the riparian states. For instance, the dispute over Punjab river waters is also an outcome of the bifurcation of states.

 The politicisation of water dispute settlement:

The growing nexus between water and politics ha the disputes into greed for votes. This has also led to increasing dissent by states ( Punjab’s stance in the case of the SYL Dispute).

Indian Laws on Water Sharing:

 The existing framework for inter-state water disputes includes several constitutional provisions and acts.

Under the 7th schedule of the Indian Constitution,
  • ¬†Entry 17 of the State List deals with water supply, irrigation, canals, drainage, storage, and power.
  • Entry 56 of the Union List relates to the Union Government for regulating and developing inter-state rivers to the extent declared by Parliament to be reasonable in the public interest.
  • Section 262 states that the Parliament will deal with any dispute concerning the use, distribution, or control of the waters in any inter-State river body. It also says that Parliament can bar the supreme court or any other court from exercising jurisdiction over such disputes.¬†

The Government has introduced two acts under this section:

The Interstate Water Dispute Act of 1956.

The Act deals with resolving water disputes in India. Under the Act, if the state government requests the central government regarding any water dispute and the central government believes it cannot be settled through arbitration, then a separate tribunal shall be constituted to adjudicate the conflict.

 The Act was first amended in 2002 to include the significant recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. The amendments directed a one-year time frame to set up the water disputes tribunal and a three-year time frame to decide. In 2017, the Interstate River Water Dispute Bill was proposed, which aimed to constitute a separate Tribunal with a permanent establishment to prevent the need to set up a Tribunal for each water dispute, which is undoubtedly time-consuming.

 While the Act has proven revolutionary in the context of river dispute settlements, there have been delays several times while constituting the Tribunal. This gives enough time for states to invest resources in constructing and modifying dams and canals. Due to this, the Court has no choice but to favour that state to avoid the wastage of resources.

 In 2019, the Bill was further amended to replace the resolution mechanism by the Central Government. The Central Government would be responsible for setting up a Dispute Resolution Committee to negotiate the water disputes. If the Centre fails to conclude, the disputed agreement will pass to the Water Dispute Tribunal.

The River Boards Act 1956

The Act enables the central government to create river boards. These boards advise on inter-state disputes with a coordinated approach, keeping in mind the states concerned. However, the Act has not been used to create any such boards. The boards made are generally through alternative channels.

River Basin Management Act 2018

The proposed bill aims at establishing a river basin authority for regulating and developing inter-state river bodies. It is based on principles like participation, cooperation, equitable and sustainable water use, and integrated management. In 2019, it was also proposed that a separate master plan would be made for each river basin for management and development purposes.

 The River Basin Authorities consist of the Governing Council, Advisory Council, and Executive Board. The structure of these councils appears to be centralised and bureaucratic, despite having Chief Ministers of the state being a part of the councils. This can pose a threat to fair and unbiased judgments.

 Dam Safety Act 2021

Parliament passed the Dam Safety Bill 2019 in 2021 to maintain and operate dams in India. The Act envisaged a National Dam Safety Authority, a National Committee on Dam Safety, and state dam safety organisations to regulate irrigation dams in the country. However, these agencies are mainly headed and appointed by the Central Government, which might threaten the state’s autonomy over dam safety decisions. Another problem with the Act is that the Central Water Commission, responsible for the technological and economic appraisal of all the dam projects is also the authority to audit the same project (if the project fails). 

International Laws on Water Dispute:

International water laws and transboundary dispute settlement are crucial for peace, cooperation and better governance. Under it, there are two primary laws: 

  1. Customary Law: Customary Laws are practices which are generally accepted as laws. However, since there is always subjectivity in what can be taken as binding, Customary laws sometimes cannot solve the problem of transboundary disputes.
  2. Treaty Law: A comprehensive framework of treaties, agreements and laws is necessary for resolving Transboundary conflicts. A set of doctrines and principles govern national and international dispute settlement.  

United Nations Conventions: 

  • ¬†The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary and International Lakes( Water Convention), 1992: ¬†It is an international environmental agreement, and one of five UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission of Europe) negotiated ecological treaties. This Convention aims to improve national attempts and measures for the protection and management of transboundary surface waters and groundwater. The Convention included provisions on monitoring, research, development, consultations, warning and alarm systems, mutual assistance and access, and the exchange of information. It also obliged Parties to enter into bilateral or multilateral agreements or other arrangements.

There are two protocols under this Convention:

  1. Protocol on Water and Health: The protocol negotiated in 1999 addressed the problems of access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation. It aimed to reduce rising waterborne diseases like cholera, hepatitis etc. Some of the areas of work of the Protocol are small-scale water supplies, water supply and sanitation in extreme weather events, water-related disease surveillance, and equitable access to water and sanitation.
  2. Protocol on Civil Liability: It was initiated by a joint special session of the Parties to the Water Convention and the Parties to the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents. It aimed to give individuals affected by the transboundary impact of industrial accidents on international watercourses a legal claim for adequate and prompt compensation. 
  • United Nations Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, 1997: It discussed the rights and obligations of a watercourse state and its ability to enter into ‚Äėwatercourse agreements. It was also stated that the Convention should not affect the rights or obligations of states that are not party to such agreements. It talked about the utilisation of water resources equitably and reasonably, and the participation of the Watercourse states in the use, development, and protection of an international watercourse.

Two principles form the core of this convention:

  • Equitable Utilisation: The water sharing basis comes under Article5 and 6 of the UN Watercourses Convention. It entitles a watercourse State to an equitable and reasonable share of the uses and benefits of the particular watercourse. It also obliges the state to reciprocate and not deprive other States of their respective rights in this regard.¬†¬†

While this principle is of utmost importance in settling disputes, the distribution of watercourses is mainly based on the quantity of water and not the quality. Moreover, the data regarding the water quantity sometimes gets outdated, and judgement is made based on past facts.

 For example, In the case of the Ganges river basin dispute between Bangladesh and India, The Farakka barrage was built based on the prior records and the data on the quantity and quality of the Ganges river. However, when the situation changed due to increasing pollution, people in Bangladesh had to face acute water shortage problems.

  • ¬†No Harm Rule:¬† This rule is dealt with in article 7 of the UN Convention, 1997, which says that the States should take precautions while using the watercourse, and if their activities cause harm to other states, then that State is liable to pay compensation.

    

 In the case of the construction of pulp mills on the Uruguay river by Uruguay, a widespread protest started in Argentina when they accused Uruguay of violating treaty provisions. Uruguay was supposed to notify and consult Argentina before taking actions which could affect river water quality. In the end, the verdict was that the no harm principle was applied by the Court to provide a remedy to the people of Argentina. 

The formation of commissions and agencies is common in the resolution mechanism in India and other countries. Commissions like the Permanent Indus Commission to settle the Indus River dispute between India and Pakistan, and the International Boundary and Water Commission for Mexico and United States water dispute, are landmark examples of agencies that have helped settle bitter conflicts. 

All countries must settle disputes by keeping international doctrines at the core of their judgement. The water dispute settlement process can become less cumbersome with a combination of national and international principles, agreements and laws, and cooperation between boundaries and trans boundaries. 

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  1. Inculcating a collective approach toward dispute settlement and ensuring that state interests do not overshadow the country’s general interest is the right step toward cooperative federalism.
  2. A well-designed framework with a detailed analysis of socioeconomic factors must be made to replace the ambiguous institutional structure.
  3. We have already discussed how the central government’s concentration of power can jeopardise state autonomy. The authoritative committees should have legal, environmental and economic experts who can better analyse the dispute and make a fair judgement. Moreover, the role of Gram Panchayats and local urban bodies can be a game-changer in waterbody administration and settlement. These administrative bodies, working on a ground level, can help collect reliable data and even help in preventing intra-state disputes. 
  4. There should also be a cropping pattern change to avoid a state groundwater crisis. For instance, in the SYL Dispute, both Punjab and Haryana argued that they had no water to spare for their neighbouring states. 
  5. The ISWD Act has prescribed time frames for the tribunals to settle disputes. However, there should be a limit and even shorter time intervals that a tribunal can ask for an extension. The government needs to be stringent about the extension of dates. It is clearly stated in the ISWD Act:  “The Tribunal should give its judgement within three years from the date of its constitution. However, if the decision cannot be provided within three years for unavoidable reasons, the Union Government may extend the period suitably, not exceeding two years. It should be implemented within two years from the date of notification of the award. If the decision cannot be implemented within two years for unavoidable reasons, the Union Government may extend the period suitably. “

 

While negotiating a settlement is not easy, such deadline extensions may lead to a casual attitude toward resolving disputes. 

CONCLUSION:

The current water dispute mechanism is opaque and unclear. The limited water availability and overexploitation of it have led to such altercations. There is a need to understand the drastic consequences of such disputes that can adversely impact social, economic, and environmental factors. We must focus on strengthening and evolving our water governance architecture by adopting a multifaceted approach toward solving interstate water dispute agreements.

REFERENCES: 

Vision IAS, Interstate Water Governance from Conflict to Cooperation file:///C:/Users/Smriti/Downloads/13cc0-inter-state-water-governance-from-conflict-to-cooperation.pdf

Indian Kanoon, State of Haryana v State of Punjab 2004 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/291736/

International Research Journal of Commerce and Law, Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal concept of proprietary rights in sharing of water: A justification https://www.academia.edu/38689232/SUTLEJ_YAMUNA_LINK_CANAL_AND_CONCEPT_OF_PROPRIETARY_RIGHTS_IN_SHARING_OF_WATER_A_JUSTIFICATION

Central Groundwater Board Report on Haryana, Ministry of Water Resources http://cgwb.gov.in/gw_profiles/st_Haryana.htm

Central Groundwater Board, Water quality issues and challenges in Punjab http://cgwb.gov.in/WQ/Punjab%20Book%20Final%20for%20Printing.pdf

Central Groundwater Board Report on Punjab, Ministry of Water Resources http://cgwb.gov.in/gw_profiles/st_Punjab.htm

United Nations, Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997 https://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/8_3_1997.pdf

International Court of Justice, International Water Law cases https://www.internationalwaterlaw.org/cases/icj.html

Ministry of Jal Shakti, The Sarkaria Commission http://jalshakti-dowr.gov.in/acts-tribunals/acts/sarkaria-commission

Department of Economic and Statistical affairs, Government of Haryana, Agricultural Section https://esaharyana.gov.in/agriculture-section/

PRS India, Interstate River water Disputes Amendment Bill 2019 https://prsindia.org/billtrack/the-inter-state-river-water-disputes-amendment-bill-2019

The Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966 https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1966-31.pdf

Krishnadas Rajagopal, The Hindu, Supreme Court curtails Tamil Nadu’s share of Cauvery Water https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/supreme-court-reduces-allocation-of-cauvery-water-to-tamil-Nadu/article61481926.ece

The Hindu, ‚Äė‚ÄėFree power for farmers fuelling water crisis‚ÄĚ, Environment Minister https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Free-power-for-farmers-fuelling-water-crisis-Environment-Minister/article14639379.ece

Drishti IAS, Interstate river water disputes https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/inter-state-river-water-sharing-disputes

Drishti IAS, Dispute over Satluj Yamuna Link Canal https://www.drishtiias.com/daily-updates/daily-news-analysis/dispute-over-sutlej-yamuna-link-syl-canal#:~:text=1960%3A%20The%20dispute%20can%20be,its%20share%20of%20river%20waters.

Nandini is an aspiring policy researcher. She is interested in public policy, economics, research and analysis. With her zeal and passion, she wishes to make this world a better place