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Looming water crisis in India

Published: 9th Mar, 2020

According to the World Resources Institute's (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, India is among the 17 countries, facing “extremely high” water stress. It has more than three times the population of the other 16 countries in this category combined.



According to the World Resources Institute's (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, India is among the 17 countries, facing “extremely high” water stress. It has more than three times the population of the other 16 countries in this category combined.


  • WRI report: WRI's Aqueduct list ranked water stress, drought risk, and riverine flood risk across 189 countries and their sub-national regions, like states and provinces.
  • In the 17 countries facing extremely high water stress, agriculture, industry, and municipalities are drinking up 80 per cent of available surface and groundwater in an average year.
  • India ranked 13 on Aqueduct’s list of “extremely high” water-stressed countries, close to “Day Zero” conditions when the taps run dry. 
  • Northern India faces severe groundwater depletion. 
  • NSS 76th round: The 76th round of NSS data shows that 6% households in the country do not have access to piped water in their house. In rural areas, only 11.3% households have access to piped water. Hand-pumps are the main source of drinking water for 43% of rural households.
    • 42% of people in rural areas have to venture outside of their house every day—from 0.2 km to 1.5 km—to fetch drinking water. This figure is 19% in urban areas.
    • About 73% rural household and 51% of urban households never treat the water before drinking.
  • Composite Water Management Index (CWMI): CWMI 2019 developed by NITI Aayog reports that 16 out of 27 states still score less than 50 points on the index, out of 100. They account for 48% of the population, 40% of agricultural produce and 35% of the economic output of India.
    • NITI Aayog has declared that 21 cities, including Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru, are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020.
  • The water crisis in India: India’s water demand may exceed supply two times by 2030. The average all-India per capita water availability is expected to be 1,341 cubic metres by 2025, and touch a low of 1,140 cubic metres by 2050, close to the official water scarcity threshold.
    • India has only 4% of the world’s water and has to provide for 16% of the world’s population
  • Water crisis around the world: Two-thirds of the global population live under water-stressed conditions, and by 2025, about 1.8 billion people are expected to face absolute water scarcity. 


Water crisis in India – Reasons

  • High population pressure: The burden of activities of mankind has exceeded the tolerance power of nature and therefore, India—which has been blessed with water resources—might soon turn into a water-scarce country.
  • Removal of green cover: Most of the Indian riverine system is rain-fed, and due to large-scale removal of green cover, the retention capacity has decreased tremendously.
  • This has led to run-off of a major part of precipitation, leading to flash floods in many parts of the country.
  • Groundwater exploitation: According to UNESCO, India is the largest extractor of groundwater; it extracts nearly 25% of the world’s groundwater. Currently, India is extracting 62% of groundwater from its active recharge zone, of which almost 90% is for irrigation We have regions where water exploitation is more than 200%. 
    • India's water table is falling at a rate of 0.3 m per year. The water level in at least half the wells is falling. 
    • Moreover, India suffers from geogenic pollution (elements naturally present in the geology) of arsenic, fluoride, iron and nitrate.
  • Reasons for groundwater exploitation: The main reasons behind over-extraction of groundwater is over-reliance of citizens on groundwater due to (i) lack of storage capacity of water, (ii) poorly defined legal framework of groundwater that rests ownership of groundwater with landowners, (iii) lower pricing of urban water. These have resulted in groundwater mining in Indian cities.
    • Low per capita storage capacity: The per-capita water storage capacity of India is near 225 cubic metres, far below China, which has a storage capacity of 1,111 cubic metres per capita.
    • Unplanned growth: Most cities in India have seen unplanned growth, whereas master plans are mostly superimposed without any future resource considerations.
    • No provisions for rainwater harvesting: Lack of provisions for rainwater harvesting and water conservation structures in city plans have led to an overemphasis on groundwater in many cities.
  • Mismanagement of water in agriculture: Although water crisis is now a worldwide phenomenon, it is much worse in India due to mismanagement of water usage in agricultural operations.
    • High water consumption in agriculture: In India, agriculture consumes nearly 80% (65% in China) of freshwater and the rest 20% is used for drinking and other household activities.
    • Low agricultural output for each litre of freshwater: World Bank statistics show that while India produced $0.5 of agricultural GDP (in 2010) for a litre of fresh water, this figure is $1.6 for China (in 2012) and $3.9 for Israel (in 2004).
    • There has been no increase in agricultural output per unit of water usage in our country during the last three decades.
  • Bad agricultural policies: Four crops (rice, wheat, cotton, and sugarcane), accounting for just 46% of the country’s gross cropped area, take up 65% of the gross irrigated area and consume 70% of all the water used in agriculture.
    • Skewed public procurement: Due to public procurement focus on just two/three states, paddy is grown on all of Punjab’s irrigated area despite the state’s low irrigation water productivity (IWP) of  19 kg/lakh litre for the crop, while in high IWP states like Assam (51 kg/lakh litre) and Odisha (30 kg/lakh litre), paddy accounts for just 11% and 35% of the gross irrigated area.
    • Excess buffer stock: In 2019, FCI’s actual stock exceeded the buffer stock requirement by 36.4 million tonnes.
    • Agricultural subsidy burden: Free power to farmers not only leads to excessive withdrawal of groundwater but also increases soil salinity, which jeopardises farm sustainability.
    • Exports water: India’s agri-trade growth has also meant that it exports four times as much embedded water as it imports, while China exports just a tenth of what it imports.
  • Climate change: Climate crises and global warming are only deepening the water-stress. It impacts the availability of fresh water.
  • Spatial and temporal variation in precipitation: India does not have a problem of water scarcity; it suffers more from variation in the scale of time and location of precipitation.
    • The opportunity lies in managing and supplementing water resources through natural and artificial recharge. 

Consequences of the water crisis

  • Conflict and migration: Water, as we know, has been the bone of contention between India and Pakistan regarding Indus water distribution, between different state governments in India, and similarly, among other nations around the world.
  • WRI's 12 of the 17 countries facing “extremely high” stress lie in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where water scarcity can exacerbate conflict and migration.
  • Example from India include; Krishna Water Dispute between Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh
  • Consequence of intensive groundwater exploitation: If continuous extraction of groundwater exceeds the total replenishable rate, it leads to land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and becomes technically and financially non-feasible for stable water supply.
    • Over-utilisation of groundwater has a cascading effect on water quality, creating a higher concentration of arsenic, fluoride, iron and nitrate in groundwater reservoir.
  • Decreased retention capacity: Due to decreased retention capacity, the natural capacity of groundwater recharge has reduced. Decreased natural groundwater recharge capacity, coupled with overexploitation of groundwater, has led to a decrease in base flow (part of groundwater that flows into the river) to rivers in the non-monsoon period.
    • A decreased base flow causes many rivers to either run with the decreased flow or run dry.
  • Flash floods: Flash flooding occurs when it rains rapidly on saturated soil or dry soil that has poor absorption ability. Examples of a flash flood in India include those in Uttarakhand (2013), Srinagar (2014), and the regular flood situation in Mumbai.
    • Many Indian cities like Chennai, Shimla, Bengaluru etc. face severe water scarcity.
    • The situation will become worse when the population growth rate of these cities is taken into account.
  • Decreased food supply: Water and food production are directly related. Decreased availability of water or even flash floods, adversely affects agricultural production. This can reduce agricultural production/availability per capita, resulting in a food price increase, and overall inflation.
    • Farmer suicides: This has an adverse consequence on farmers, who suffer income loss and undergo other socio-economic consequences.
  • Can hamper economic growth: Low availability of water can be dangerous for the holistic growth of India’s economy.
    • A study in Latin America revealed that investing USD 1 billion in expanding water supply and sanitation network can directly result in 1 lakh jobs.

Solutions to the water crisis

  • Buffer out spatial and temporal variation in precipitation: Rainwater harvesting, coupled with an increased green cover, is the ideal solution for the current water crisis in India because it can buffer out the spatial and temporal variation in precipitation.
  • Utilisation and preservation of green cover.
  • River/excess water sharing across time and space.
  • Rainwater harvesting: Rainwater harvesting not only helps in replenishing groundwater for future use but also provides water for local use without transfer costs—this has social and environmental benefits.
    • Natural filtration by the geology of Earth leads to a better quality of water.
    • Initiatives like rainwater harvesting, restoration and rejuvenation of traditional water bodies, and community watershed development are all essential and near-term solutions.
    • Traditional temple tanks, village ponds and lakes need to rejuvenate.
  • Artificial recharge of groundwater: Artificial recharge is the process by which groundwater reservoir is augmented through increased infiltration using artificial structures.
    • Indirect methods, contact area and residence time of surface water over the soil are increased to augment groundwater, which can be achieved by either surface or subsurface techniques.
    • Surface techniques include recharge basins, percolation tanks, contour bunding, etc.
    • Subsurface techniques include injection wells, gravity head recharge well, recharge pits, recharge shafts.
    • In the indirect method, rather than the direct supply of water into aquifers, indirect methods like induced recharge, bore blasting, hydro-fracturing is used.
  • Reviving traditional water conservation/harvesting methods: Constructing farm ponds, check dams, gully plugging, dug wells, borewells and artificial glaciers in Ladakh; Tamaswada Pattern nallah treatment in Maharashtra; soak pits in Punjab; and watershed development and management in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
  • Better agricultural practices: Agricultural universities should take a lead in advising farmers on suitable cropping patterns, taking into account soil and other climatic conditions of a region, to save water.
    • Promote the use of drip irrigation and sprinklers.
    • Checking farm subsidies: The practice of providing free or subsidised water and power to farmers must be stopped. Small and marginal farmers can be compensated for their loss by increasing the MSP for their produce.
  • Pricing of water as a scarce commodity: Government must encourage saving in consumption as well as rainwater harvesting through twin measures of pricing water on its economic cost and suitably rewarding bulk users (industry, farmers) through discounted tariff upon achieving measurable groundwater recharge.
  • Legal measures: Panchayats and municipalities must be tasked with ensuring the integrity of boundaries of water bodies, and penalised if encroachment and misuse happen under their watch.
    • Impose suitable penalties for wasting and polluting water, and also limit per capita use of water and impose fines for exceeding the limit.
  • Adopting strict procedures for compliance and monitoring: In urban areas, there is water theft and also loss of clean water due to slackness on part of water management bodies.
    • Inferior water service infrastructure and its poor maintenance must be checked.
  • New technology-based solutions: Recycle sewage and other household wastewater by setting up water-treatment plants, using innovative technologies. Reuse the extracted water for irrigation.
    • Innovative financing techniques like, development bonds and outcome-based financing should be considered.
  • Data availability: India can manage its water risk with the help of reliable and robust data pertaining to rainfall, surface, and groundwater, in order to develop strategies that strengthen resilience.
    • The government also needs to provide holistic data to ensure that baselines and metrics around use, consumption and management of water can be established.
  • Government policy support: Budget 2020 presented a 16-point action plan for the agricultural sector, which laid down comprehensive measures to address water shortage in 100 water-stressed districts in India.
    • Increase in the budget of Jal Shakti Abhiyan paves the way for a large-scale campaign focusing on conservation, rejuvenation and optimum utilisation of water.
    • Earmarking of funds from Union Budget 2021 (approximately Rs 11,500 crore) solely to Jal Jeevan Mission will help create a focus on water initiatives that are proposed.
    • Using programmes like MGNREGA for completing water storage projects in states.
    • As the water falls under the state list of the Constitution, the participation of states is crucial to deal with the water crisis.
  • Involving corporate India: Government efforts alone may not bring down water-waste fast enough to avoid the looming crisis, hence, PPP route should be explored and corporate sector should be involved to play their part in resolving water crises.
    • In-house consumption of corporates with large industrial footprints needs to be controlled.
    • Corporates should direct CSR spends to projects that ensure water availability to communities through initiatives like water ATMs.
  • Community ownership of resources: Sustainability will be ensured if consumer communities feel the urgency of conservation and management of a resource that is a collective need.
    • Involving multiple village communities: Large-scale watershed development initiatives that bring together multiple village communities.
    • Building and investing in check dams, contour trenches, stormwater run-offs, drainage, water distribution and rights, rationing philosophies, governance around pricing should all be supported and communities should be trained to take on these responsibilities.
  • Public awareness programmes: There is a need to generate awareness among common masses regarding the condition of water scarcity in the country.
    • Huge sensitisation drives must be conducted by organising programmes/public meetings on efficient use of water.


If there is a challenge in this century for our country, it is water. To solve the problem of water scarcity in India, there is a need for an integrated approach that involves the effort of every stakeholder. It is time for collective action with a sense of utmost urgency. With vigilance and effort, becoming water-positive is doable.


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