The Godavari flows with a languorous grace, its sheets of multi-fingered brown moving as if in slow motion between the hills. Cows, goats and sheep graze in the distance, and the hills are thickly carpeted in various shades of green. It’s hot here at the dam site near Ramayyapeta village of Polavaram mandal in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district.

On the river as old as time, at a time as tumultuous as its flood, the project in the works has a special resonance in the Andhra region.

Conceived as a multipurpose project supplying water for drinking and irrigation in East Godavari, Visakhapatnam, West Godavari, and Krishna districts, and for generating power, it has often run into rough waters. According to the ministry of water resources, “the ultimate irrigation potential of the project is 4.368 lakh hectare and annual power generation will be 2,369.43 million units.”

Also, it “envisages transfer of 80 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of surplus Godavari water to Krishna which will be shared between Andhra Pradesh (AP), Karnataka and Maharashtra in proportion of 45 TMC by AP and 35 TMC by Karnataka and Maharashtra as per the decision of the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal (GWDT) award.” After many revisions, the project cost is at Rs. 16,010.45 crore (2010-11 prices).

There are downsides as well. A report by the Gramya Resource Centre for Women says Polavaram will displace “a total of well over 4,00,000 people”. But the real fear here in Andhra Pradesh is that the dam’s reservoir is in the proposed Telangana state. That could make the seething waters still more turbid. It’s a vital issue that the rhetoric on a new state has missed entirely.

Somaraju, a shepherd, leans on his stick as he talks. “From January, we can see sand mounds here and there in the river. Now that the rains are good, water is flowing,” he says, keeping an eye on his 50 goats and sheep. On the other bank, which falls in East Godavari district, the river bends, and people regularly visit the Gandi Posamma temple there. He has heard people saying Polavaram will not be completed once the state is bifurcated.

On another hill, slightly away from the bank, trucks gasp their way up the serpentine road to pick up debris. They wheeze down, stones tumbling as they hit the undercarriage. Earthmovers, like giant ants, claw at the rock in the distance. Flags, half-red and half-white, flutter in the wind, showing the alignment for the dam.

The floods have abated and people can breathe easier. “The river came and stood here for more than 15 days,” says a labourer, loading scrap on to a tractor.

Many people have given up their lands for the project. Some have been compensated, some not yet. Some were given house sites which they aren’t ready to accept.

So, like the river, the stories go on.

In a few hours, dark clouds scud across the sky, turning it a metallic grey. The light-green eucalyptus leaves shimmer like clusters of LEDs. Goats and sheep scamper like children on the last day of school.

The skies open up.

It’s been raining fear and loathing in Seema Andhra since the proposed division of Andhra Pradesh was announced. The decision, if it could be called that, has carved a canyon between those for and those against. Unlike Charlton Heston parting the waters in The Ten Commandments, this parting will be permanent.

Reactions shift from talk of doomsday to quiet resignation, and everything in between. As with most things, some seem far-fetched, but many are well-grounded. They vary from “the river will not be there,” to “we won’t get water for second crop”, to “separation doesn’t deprive Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra of any water it has been getting”, to “life will go on”.

Perceptions have become acute, accentuating both categories. Everybody here in Polavaram agrees that no good will come of this. Wags—there are many of that species—request Telangana leaders to take the whole of Andhra into their domain. “Why only ten districts? Take all of ours too, please.”

Life, as people know it and tell it, will not be the same. It’s astounding that two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, bound in covalent bond, should give rise to such varying emotional valence, but it does. Times are such that it is simply irresponsible to not speculate.

The division announcement has turned the Godavari and Krishna deltas into deltas of distress. They are twin deltas, almost touching each other, and the rivers support the whole enterprise of life.

“We are not going to get water for a second crop,” says P. A. R. K. Raju, hydrologist and professor of civil engineering at S. R. K. R. Engineering College, Bhimavaram. Sitting in an office whose walls are adorned with satellite images of rivers, and pictures of gatherings with farmers and scientists, he reels off a litany of water woes in the offing.

“Water problems will start from the end of the first crop itself,” he says. “We get all the water for our second crop from the Sileru reservoir in Andhra Pradesh, an interstate hydroelectric project with power sharing between Odisha and Andhra. The water has to pass through Khammam district, which is in Telangana. So if Telangana constructs a structure at Vararamachandrapuram, we will not get even one drop of water.”

Telangana, for its part, will not be able to use all the water flowing through the Godavari, for there are innumerable technical problems.

“Let’s say there is a crack here,” he explains, pointing at the thick glass on his table, and tracing his finger for water flow. “Water will flow in the crack and emerge at the other end. The crack is the rift valley: the Pranahita-Godavari valley. The river flows through a geological fault at an elevation of about 50 metres, and emerges near Polavaram in Andhra at 45 metres.”

Telangana is on the banks of that crack, so to say, and at a higher elevation, “its command area is anywhere between 200 metres and 600 metres,” he says. Lifting water to such heights for agriculture can be fiendishly complex, and may never pan out in the long run. It’s precisely to do this that the Pranahita-Chevella lift irrigation scheme with 13 lifts and the Devadula lift irrigation scheme with six lifts were conceived, and are being executed.

“Experience throughout the world shows only one lift will work,” he says, and the conception of projects and lifts hold no water.

“Telangana cannot, in any case, draw Godavari water in excess because of the high cost of pumping the water hundreds of feet to make use of it,” says Dr R. Jagadiswara Rao, a retired professor of geology and principal, S. V. University College of Arts & Sciences, Tirupati.

To get an idea of what it means to bifurcate the state, bring your palms close in front of you and touch the fingertips of one hand with the corresponding fingertips on the other. You have a hill, and topographically, Telangana is on either side of the foot and slopes and top (Warangal hugs the top and a bit spills out of the top) of the hill, while the Godavari and the Krishna flow on either side.

Now split the hill vertically (taking into account Warangal’s jutting out), and you see what’s happening with the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.

As many as eight inter-state projects between Seema Andhra and Telangana will come into play, Raju says, and the feuds will go on for as long as the Indian Union exists. Water sharing will be very difficult because many projects lie on the inter-state boundaries: part of a project in one state and the other part in another state.

To make matters worse, water is primarily a state subject—which has led to as many skewed approaches as bends in a river—and there is no fundamental consensus at the national level on how to approach water issues.

The old Mark Twain aphorism —“whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting"—rules.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Union secretary for water resources, says, “Erstwhile Andhra Pradesh’s share of the waters of the Godavari will first have to be allocated to the two new states.” It’s similar to the Centre’s notification allocating erstwhile Punjab’s share of Ravi-Beas waters to the new states in the case of Punjab and Haryana, following the Punjab State Reorganisation Act.

Iyer says, “Once the new state is fully, constitutionally established, it can ask the central government to set up a tribunal under the ISWD (Inter-State River Water Dispute) Act. The government has a year to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement, but if that fails it will have to set up a tribunal.”

Apart from of the sharing of waters and inevitable disputes, the Godavari delta is prone to storms and cyclones. Already, the sea is encroaching onto the coastal freshwater zones. Once the flows fall further due to more dams upstream, it will wreak havoc on the delta.

Rising sea levels caused by global warming are a real threat, although no data exist to correlate the facts in this region. In many places, the sea has already encroached, and the soil has eroded. Lagoons, estuaries, tidal channels, and mangroves—habitats for many species of fish, shell fish, sea grass, and edible molluscs, a lifeline for innumerable fishermen—are going to be affected.

So this is not just about Telangana and Seema Andhra. That is only a minor issue, and can even be enjoyed in a schadenfreude kind of way, for Telangana cannot use all the waters. The real issue is with Maharashtra.

As an upstream state, Maharashtra does not release water to Telangana unless its reservoirs are full. In the same way, Telangana will not release water to coastal Andhra until its reservoirs are full. Already, there are as many as 30 minor, medium, and major projects on the river in Maharashtra alone.

A more accurate description of the situation would be: Seema Andhra vs Telangana vs Maharashtra vs Vidarbha, if it’s formed vs Karnataka vs Chhattisgarh vs Odisha vs Madhya Pradesh vs the Centre vs left canals vs right canals vs socio-economic  factors vs farmers vs monsoon vs fish vs fishermen vs wildlife vs drought vs floods vs land vs climate change vs the environment vs people vs ecosystems vs sea transgression vs…

“Bifurcation will be the final nail in the coffin of Rayalaseema,” says Dr Nallappa Reddy, a retired ONGC scientist. “The only perennial problem for Rayalaseema has been water, water, and water. It will turn into desert sooner than expected, unless the environment changes its fate for the better.”

Rayalaseema depends heavily on the already seriously overexploited Krishna waters. The river is under immense stress because of the upstream projects in Karnataka.

Once, under one of the most prosperous and powerful kingdoms in the 15th century—the Vijayanagara kingdom, the region flourished. Present-day Anantapur was the seat of its power. Thanks to the height of the Western Ghats, the south-west monsoon bypasses almost the whole of Rayalaseema, so it’s a place of little rain. Krishna Devaraya, greatest of the rulers of Vijayanagara, built many percolation tanks in the region to recharge groundwater, and for drinking and agriculture. For centuries, people depended on these tanks.

But erratic rainfall and wild monsoonal changes over the last 50 years have meant most of the tanks are going dry and the water table is falling.

Drawing upon an experience while accompanying a hydrologist friend who was conducting a survey, Dr Reddy says, “In many villages around our place near Anantapur, I found no groundwater but farmers did not understand and went on digging bore wells one after the other to save standing crops.

“In the process many became paupers overnight. That was the beginning. I remember that the region started facing acute shortage, and it has continued. This was why so many farmers committed suicide in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”

He warns, “The region is fast becoming a desert.” On the plight of farmers, he says, “You must be from a farming background to understand the difficulties of farmers. Others can never understand these difficulties, uncertainties. It is a curse to be a farmer in drought-hit regions.”

Explaining the possible effects of bifurcation, he says, “There are three projects in the pipeline to provide water to Kurnool, Anantapur, and Chittoor (Handri neeva); Kadapa and Chittoor (Galeru-Nagari); and Kurnool, Kadapa and Nellore (Telugu Ganga). But they depend on flood waters and do not have allocations in the Bachawat tribunal. If the state is bifurcated, they’ll fall by the wayside.”

The only solution, he says, “is to link the Godavari and Krishna. In fact, a few (Polavaram and Dummugudem) projects were already conceived and some work has been done to realise them. We need to complete them as early as possible. You need to have political leaders who are visionaries.”

The Krishna is already nicked and cut along its entire course. Experts suggest that not much damage can be done in the case of the Godavari because terrain discourages the holding of vast amounts of water at a single place.

“But you never know,” Dr Reddy says.

The Krishna is being put under still more stress; Maharashtra and Karnataka depend on it for irrigation. Moreover, the seven projects underway for Rayalaseema, and Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda districts in Telangana, depend on an “additional 200 TMC allotted by the Brajesh Kumar tribunal by taking 65 per cent dependability.”

Based on the additional allocation of water, the projects were initiated. As Dr Reddy says, “The future of these projects is in danger if the bifurcation occurs.”

He adds, “Some major projects were conceived to link Godavari and Krishna (Polavaram and Dummugudem-Nagarjuna tail-end projects). If these had been completed before bifurcation, the Krishna delta could have been saved, and maybe some additional water provided to Rayalaseema. “

Rivers are everybody’s idea of the vein of life in Seema Andhra. Bifurcation feels like cutting the vein. Considering all these issues, the Sri Krishna Committee suggested options but the overarching message remains: “The united Andhra option is being suggested for continuing the development momentum of the three regions and keeping in mind the national perspective.” Its message, in the end, was something written on water.

In the river that holds no grudges, in the land that is full of them, cussedness alone explains the water problems in a state blessed with two perennial rivers.

Speaking of the glory of rivers, Dr Reddy says, “The Krishna and the Godavari are the oldest rivers in the country. Geologically they can be traced to exist for more than 150 million years. Many scientists presume that the Godavari valley has remained more or less same for the last 60 million years. This is one river basin that is so fantastic for geological studies because this is the one emerging fast as the country’s most prospective basin for hydrocarbons.”

From the other side of the canyon, things look different. B. Prabhakar Reddy, a software engineer with Liquidhub in Hyderabad, says, “I don’t foresee any problem whatsoever in water sharing. This is a political game for Hyderabad because all politicians have properties in the city.”

He continues, “In the united state, Telangana suffered loss; development has been delayed or ignored.” But after formation, “Telangana will speed up development for its people.”

Beyond political boundaries and geographical frontiers, beneath historical grudges and social structures, our world is a web of oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, aquifers and watersheds. But for that, we would be walking deserts, forever prone to kicking up blinding sandstorms, wind or no wind.

Irrigation and the fluid state of water politics ensure that things always simmer. By their very nature, water issues are about competing interests and clamorous claims. It’s simply not possible to do something on one stretch of water and not harm people living along another stretch. It’s not possible to do something with a stretch of river and not harm the river itself. You nick the river and the act will rebound on you at some time.

Sandra Postel, who directs the Global Water Policy Project, writes on its website: “At this moment, we as a society are like the frog that chooses to stay in a warming pot of water as the heat is gradually turned up—unable to grasp the dire consequences of incremental change. Inch by inch, water tables drop. Mile by mile, the rivers run dry. The trends are not good. Yet we stay the course, refusing to recognise that, for safety’s sake—for survival itself—a big change is necessary. We pretend not to know. Denial, as has been said, is not just a river in Egypt. It flows in every one of us.”

In her monumental work, Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last, she writes, “The overriding lesson from history is that most irrigation-based civilisations fail. As we enter the third millennium the question arises: Will ours be any different?”

Postel travelled the world to study water systems in major civilisations, from Egypt to ancient China. She concludes that all irrigation-based civilisations, except Egypt, fell. Soil degraded. Rivers and irrigation channels silted up. Salinity crept in. No amount of repair could retrieve them. Irrigation ultimately fails.

On why Egypt succeeded, she writes: “Egypt's system of basin irrigation proved inherently more stable from an ecological, political, social, and institutional perspective than that of any other irrigation-based society in human history. Fundamentally, the system was an enhancement of the natural hydrological patterns of the Nile river, not a wholesale transformation of them. Although it was not able to guard against large losses of human life from famine when the Nile flood failed, the system sustained an advanced civilisation through numerous political upheavals and other destabilising events over some 5,000 years. No other place on Earth has been in continuous cultivation for so long.”

Present-day irrigation on the Nile is a different story. Noting the state of vast areas in the US, India and China, she observes that the old mistakes that brought down civilisations are being repeated. Groundwater has been depleted and aquifers have no realistic chance of recovery in the long run.

Because countries cannot do without irrigation, she poses the mother of all questions: “How can we meet growing human needs for irrigation water without destroying the health of rivers, lakes and other aquatic systems? How can we grow enough food in a sustainable manner?"

The crisis is so complex that, she writes, “there is no obvious, off-the-shelf package available to raise water productivity. This new challenge will require a more diverse and creative mix of strategies that together make agriculture more information-intensive and less resource intensive.”

Whether united or bifurcated or trifurcated, as Norman Maclean puts it in A River Runs through It and Other Stories, we are “haunted by waters.”