Burning Issues

[Burning Issue] Growing water crisis in India



  • The UNESCO United Nations World Water Development Report of 2022 has encapsulated global concern over the sharp rise in freshwater withdrawal from streams, lakes, aquifers and human-made reservoirs, impending water stress and also water scarcity being experienced in different parts of the world.
  • A NITI Aayog report, ‘Composite Water Management Index (2018) has sounded a note of caution about the worst water crisis in the country, with more than 600 million people facing acute water shortages.
  • In this context, this edition of the Burning issue will elaborate on the issue of the growing Water crisis in India (in form of water stress and scarcity), its causes, implications and possible solutions.

What Do “Water Scarcity” and “Water Stress” actually Mean?

  • Water Scarcity: Water scarcity” refers to the volumetric abundance, or lack thereof, of freshwater resources. “Scarcity” is human-driven; it is a function of the volume of human water consumption relative to the volume of water resources in a given area.
  • Water Stress: “Water stress” refers to the ability, or lack thereof, to meet human and ecological demand for fresh water. Compared to scarcity, “water stress” is a more inclusive and broader concept. It considers several physical aspects related to water resources, including water availability, water quality, and the accessibility of water, which is often a function of the sufficiency of infrastructure and the affordability of water, among other things.

Current situation of the water crisis in India

  • The Global Drought Risk and Water Stress map (2019): it shows that major parts of India, particularly west, central and parts of peninsular India are highly water-stressed and experience water scarcity.
  • India has only 4% of the planet’s fresh-water for 16% of its population.
    The annual per capita availability of water continues to decline sharply from about 5,177 cubic meters in 1951 to about 1,720 cubic meters in 2019.
  • Composite Water Management Index (2018): Released by NITI Aayog indicates that more than 600 million people are facing acute water stress.
  • India is the world’s largest extractor of groundwater: Accounting for 25 percent of the total. 70 percent of our water sources are contaminated and our major rivers are dying because of pollution.
  • Global Drought Risk and Water Stress map (2019) shows that major parts of India, particularly west, central and parts of peninsular India are highly water-stressed and experience water scarcity.
  • According to a recent official estimate, 22 of the country’s 32 major cities are plagued with acute water shortages. NABARD study shows that around 60 percent of the country’s gross cropped area is facing a water crisis. The most serious water crisis is being faced by Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, MP, UP and Andhra Pradesh.
  • The new Water Report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sounded a note of caution about this silent crisis of a global dimension, with millions of people being deprived of water to live and sustain their livelihood.

Causes of the water crisis in India

  • Lack of pricing of water: There has been an effort to develop sustainable water supplies in India in recent years with water conservation legislation existing in 80 percent of the country. However, poor data management and an abject failure to properly price water have prevented the country from making any significant progress.
  • Populist policy: “Policies like several states giving free electricity to farmers or giving financial support for groundwater extraction – borewells and tubewells – results in uncontrolled exploitation and wastage of resources. Also, the subsidized pricing of water in various states has resulted in non-revenue water and a sharp decline in groundwater levels in all states.
  • Failure of mass adoption of drip irrigation: Drip irrigation, a method that means farmers use drastically less fertilizer and diesel, has failed to become popular and its implementation is expensive for most people with state governments providing limited support.
  • Erratic monsoon and climate change: Climate change is a real global challenge today that is altering the water cycle in the worst way possible. Increased temperature, droughts, river drying and insufficient monsoon to replenish the groundwater has become one of the greatest cause of water scarcity in India.
  • Poor planning and Leakage: This is one of the greatest reasons for the water crisis in Indian cities as some reports state that around 20–25% of water is wasted due to the leakage in the pipelines. India wastes considerably a lot of water as leakage in pumping and distribution.
  • Improper wastewater treatment: In India, there is no policy support for recycling and reuse of industrial wastewater contrary to other countries that have proper guidelines on wastewater management. Israel uses about 86% of its treated wastewater in agriculture. 70% of urban sewage in India is untreated and is disposed of directly to the water bodies which creates quite a lot of health and environmental concerns.

Implications of Water Crisis

  • Shifting to inter-city water supplies– Almost all cities in India are experiencing water stress major due to the drying up of groundwater water or local water resources. Thus, now City water supply is now a subject of inter-basin and inter-State transfers of water. For example, Ahmedabad’s 80% water supply used to be met from groundwater sources till the mid-1980s. But now the city depends on the Narmada canal for the bulk of its water supply. 
  • Inter-state water disputes are growing- Rising inter-state river water disputes between states to secure their water supplies and economic growth. This is further causing federal disputes and inter-state political rivalries.
  • Faster depletion of water resources- The increased pace of water resource usage to meet the growing water demand has led to faster depletion of water, crossing the sustainable replenishment rate of the resources and ultimately leading to their drying up.
  • Creation of urban heat islands- water has a cooling effect on the environment, but due to the drying up of surface water resources, this cooling effect of water has reduced leading to the rise in the environmental temperatures and thus creating urban heat islands.
  • “Commodification of water”- has started as evident from the growing number of water bottling plants popping up in cities, creating artificial scarcity of water and selling water at higher rates thus impacting people’s pockets negatively as well as creating a Rich-Poor divide/ inequality in water affordability and accessibility.

Some suggestions to solve the water crisis in India

  • Sustainable water management: Improving water infrastructure must be a priority, as water conservation and efficiency are key components of sustainable water management.
  • Restoring and reviving traditional water harvesting structures such as wetlands, lakes, Johads (earthen check dams), etc.
  • Reclaimed water: Rainwater harvesting and recycled wastewater also allow to reduce scarcity and ease pressures on groundwater and other natural water bodies. 
  • Pollution control & better sewage treatment: Without proper sanitation, the water becomes full of diseases and unsafe to drink. That is why addressing pollution and measuring and monitoring water quality is essential. 
  • Awareness & Education: Education is critical to solving the water crisis. In fact, to cope with future water scarcity, it is necessary to radically reform all forms of consumption
  • Adopting an integrated approach: A system perspective and catchment scale-based approach are necessary to link the reallocation of water with wider discussions on development, infrastructure investment, fostering a rural-urban partnership, and adopting an integrated approach in water management.

Some water management Models

  • Learning from better performing states: In what could serve as an encouragement to step up the pursuit of policies to better conserve water, several water-scarce states are the best at managing the resource. Some of the best performers in the national composite water index – Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana – are states that have suffered from severe droughts in recent years.
  • Reviving dead rivers: Rajendra Singh, popularly known as ‘Waterman of India’ has applied the method of constructing check dams and reservoirs to revive several hundreds of dead rivers in India. His network- ‘Rashtriya Jal Biradari’ is working for the restoration of all mighty and small rivers of the country.
  • Applying the ‘One Water’ Approach– ‘One Water’ is the recognition that all water has value, regardless of its source. It includes managing that source in an integrated, inclusive and sustainable manner by including the community, business leaders, industries, farmers, conservationists, policymakers, academics and others for ecological and economic benefits.
  • Mihir Shah, Head of the New Water Policy formulation committee, has suggested shifting the focus of water management in India from ‘supply management’ to ‘demand management’ i.e managing the growing demand for water in India rather than focusing on supplying more and more water.

Steps taken by the government for Water Management

  • The government of India launched Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA) in 2019, a time-bound campaign with a mission mode approach intended to improve water availability including groundwater conditions in the water-stressed blocks of 256 districts in India.
  • National Water Policy (2012) has been formulated by the Department of Water Resources, RD & GR, inter-alia advocates rainwater harvesting and conservation of water and highlights the need for augmenting the availability of water through direct use of rainfall.
  • Master Plan for Artificial Recharge to Groundwater- 2020 has been prepared by Central Ground Water Authority in consultation with States/UTs which is a macro level plan indicating various structures for the different terrain conditions of the country.
  • Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABHY), a Rs.6000 crore scheme with World Bank funding, for sustainable management of groundwater with community participation is being taken up in the identified over-exploited and water-stressed areas.
  • National Water Mission had started a campaign “Sahi Fasal” to nudge farmers to favor crops that consume less water and to use water more efficiently in agriculture, as a part of demand side management.
  • Fifteenth Finance Commission (FFC) in its report for 2021-26, has earmarked 60 per cent for national priorities like drinking water supply and rainwater harvesting and sanitation, out of the total grants earmarked for Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI). For fifty Million-Plus cities, two-thirds of the allocation of funds under the Challenge Fund of Rs. 38,196 crores is meant for meeting service level benchmarks on drinking water supply, rainwater harvesting, water recycling, solid waste management and sanitation.

Way forward

  • Improving traditional irrigation methods- to shift to Drip irrigation which is already in practice in India needs to be practiced efficiently across the country which will reduce the water usage in agriculture.
  • Wastewater recycling to save our water bodies: As we know, most of our water bodies are polluted because of wastewater released by textile and industries which in turn got mixed up and resulted in polluting the water bodies. Like Israel, India should also take necessary steps to recycle wastewater and reuse it for agriculture and industrial activities.
  • Extracting water from air and fog is a futuristic technology: the Indian government should invest in these technologies which can be implemented in suitable areas. For eg: extracting water from fog can be done in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Assam etc.
  • To prevent leakage, a Proper team with skilled workers should be assigned the job of maintaining and repair of the pipelines. Smart metering and leakage detection systems should be designed to check the water wastage in the transmission.


Looking at the current situation, there is a need for a paradigm shift. We urgently require a transition from this ‘supply-and-supply-more water’ provision to measures that lead towards improving water use efficiency, reducing leakages, recharging/restoring local waterbodies as well as applying for higher tariffs and ownership by various stakeholders.

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