Water wars and the British Raj

Tempers flare when the monsoon fails. Choose your villains: Colonialism or climate change.

Published February 6, 2007 12:49AM (EST)

Not long after the British defeated the armies of Tipu Sultan, at the end of the 18th century, the colonial occupiers of India discovered that the local irrigation systems near Mysore, fed by the Cauvery River, had fallen into disrepair.

They proceeded to fix the problem, but in so doing sparked complaints in 1807 from the British official in charge of revenue collection downriver in Tanjore. Diversion of water upstream, griped the "Collector," was diminishing downstream flows, with potential negative consequences for agricultural productivity.

The British Resident at Mysore rejected the whining of his counterpart down south. And so began, according to some accounts, one of the world's longest-running fights over water, the Cauvery Water Dispute. Today, the primary disputants are the Indian states of Karnataka, which encompasses the former "princely state" of Mysore, and Tamil Nadu, which once roughly coincided with Britain's "Madras presidency."

On Monday, after 17 years of deliberation, a special tribunal delivered the latest in more than a century's worth of judicial or governmental rulings on regional water allocations. Tensions are high. Indian newspapers are reporting that Bangalore, the capital city of Karnataka, was eerily quiet on Monday, as schools, theaters and many businesses closed and residents stayed home. In 1991, an allocation decision that dissatisfied Karnatakans sparked widespread rioting and at least 20 deaths. Many residents of Karnataka are expected to be equally unhappy with the newest decision, which gives Tamil Nadu the bulk of the allocations. (Thanks to Kamla Bhatt for the original water dispute tip.

Karnatakans are still resentful that at the close of the 19th century Madras benefitted at the expense of Mysore because of an oddity of British imperialism. Although the British Raj ruled Mysore directly for 50 years in the 19th century, Chamaraja Wodeyara, a descendant of the traditional ruling family of Mysore, the Maharajas (whose tenure had been interrupted by the Moslem interregnum of Tipu Sultan and his father Haider Ali) contested the original annexation by the British East India Company in British court and, remarkably, won. This resulted in the "Rendition of 1881," which restored the Maharajas to their throne.

But the Rendition may have been a mixed blessing, because when the princely state of Mysore proceeded, once again, to lobby for more Cauvery water for local needs, Madras objected. And, say some of today's still-irked Karnatakans, Madras' status as an integral part of the British empire prevailed over Mysore's second-class vassalage. The British secretary of state for India ruled in favor of Madras.

The more I learn about Indian history, the less surprising it is to find that contemporary struggles that inflame ethnic and political rivalries have their roots in decisions made hundreds of years ago by the British as they went about their pioneering globalizing ways. Multinationals today can only dream of the power wielded by the British East India Co. But there's a separate moral to be gleaned from the twists and turns of the Cauvery Water Dispute.

Again and again, researchers or journalists who recount the story repeat the same sentence: When the monsoon came, there was peace.

But when the monsoon failed, tempers flared, riots broke out, and sabers were rattled.

The tensions that accompany resource scarcity are scarier than the legacy of British imperialism, and that's saying a lot. All over the world, water resources are under stress. Researchers have already documented changes in Indian monsoon patterns, which they attribute to climate change. A recent study by German scholars suggests that those countries currently experiencing water scarcity will find climate change only makes matters worse.

The longest-running official squabble over water may date back two centuries, but it's what lies ahead that should give us pause.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works India