Published : Jul 10, 2019 09:52 am | By: M D Sridharan

India faces “worst water crisis” in history. Failed monsoons, dry river beds, parched fields, depleted groundwater, urban water scarcity, pollution and contamination all threaten to produce a catastrophic effect and affect the people.

Water is essential for life not only for human beings but also for all the living creatures in this universe. It plays a critical role in human life as well as social development. History shows us that all ancient civilizations started around water ways. It is on the banks of major rivers that human habitat started to develop and flourished over the years.  Besides, water is required for a range of activities, such as food and energy production, industrial activities, sanitation and health and economic development.

Recently, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) released an alarming report on the status of drinking water in India. According to the report India is likely to face the worst water crisis in its history and by 2020, many major cities in India will run out of groundwater. As many as 21 Indian cities including the metros Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020 , affecting 100 million people. It is estimated that nearly 40% of Indians will have no access to drinking water by 2030. Statistics reveal that with nearly 600 million Indians are facing high-to-extreme water crisis and about nearly 200,000 people are dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water.

In a just over a decade, water woes could cause a 6% loss in GDP. The report underlines the need for “urgent and improved” management of water resources. Worst, the situation is likely to deteriorate further as the demand for water will exceed the supply by 2050. While Indian cities are grappling for safe drinking water the NITI Aayog has called for “immediate action” as growing scarcity will also affect India’s food security.

No life is immune to the war shortage. Water is without doubt indispensable for life. Water crisis has become a pan India problem now. The pressure on water supply to major cities is only increasing day by day. It is not only the slum dwellers who are at large in the Indian cities. Large urban colonies and gated commutes have also borne the brunt of water shortage. With tremendous inflow of population, most of the Indian cities are bursting at the seam and water has virtually become a daily struggle across Indian cities.

Surely, India can’t afford to ignore its water crisis which is threatening to become a catastrophe. As an agrarian country, there always exists a great need for water for cultivation in India. More than 60 percent of agricultural lands in the country are not irrigated due to lack of adequate water and the farmers are starring at the parched fields. Indeed, the failure of rains has produced a devastating effect on the farmers across the country. The severe water crisis has resulted in drought in many places and the dried up wells and water ways present a pathetic condition and force farmers and rural families to move to cities. 

Further, in some places where  little amount of water is  flowing down in the river beds have been turned in to dirty aquifers and still people are forced to use  such water for their daily needs . The unprecedented water scarcity across India, is destabilizing the world’s second most populous country and seventh-largest economy.  As the existing  water reserves are further getting  dirtier and also shrinking faster, it is likely to pose a huge  challenges to the governments both the central as well as the state to safeguard public health.

With a 1.3 billion population, India is the second largest population in the world. While the country has made rapid progresses in various segments, economically and technologically, the country has failed to meet the quality drinking water needs of its billion people. Even, while the government has taken significant steps to alleviate poverty substantially across its vast length and breadth, it has miserably failed in the providing its large population the much needed water, which is the essence of life.  

Many of India’s main water sources that act as the lifeline for millions are fast drying up and have seriously depleted the reserves of clean water. As a result in the past couple of decades the availability of quality of drinking water has become a precious commodity.  The rapid population growth and urbanization, has increased the demand for food.  But the supply of clean fresh water to produce food is diminishing. Rivers and lakes are profoundly polluted and groundwater reserves are shrinking fast from over pumping.  At some places the extended droughts, further add up to owe as fresh water scarcity is starring at the face.

Out of the 1.3 billion people living in the country, majority of the people live and farm in agricultural heartlands. While, normally the rainfall accounts for 68 percent recharge to groundwater, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures taken together is 32 percent. But, when the monsoon repeatedly fails, it leads to a catastrophic situation.  Besides, the most of existing water sources have become contaminated with infuse of both bio and chemical pollutants.  One billion Indians already live without adequate access to water and it is estimated that over 21% of the country's diseases are water-related.

With large demand for water consumption for agricultural needs, it depletes the overall water table. Decades of exploitation of ground water has lead to the alarming situation now.

Further rapid urbanisation and ever increasing Industrial needs have added to the demand and has driven a water crisis across the country. Today, even many rural communities in India are facing acute water shortage and also have little choice but forced to drill wells to access groundwater sources. There is no easy answer for India which must tap into water sources for food and human sustenance, but India's overall water availability is running dry.

Ironically, India is home to nearly a sixth of the world’s population, but has only 2.4 percent of the world surface and gets only four percent of the Earth’s fresh water. More than half of the country faces high water scarcity. Worst, many Indian cities are not prepared for tackling water shortage.

On the other hand, it is a fact that over the years the government and public health and safety authorities have not shown adequate care and action in tackling the impending public health crisis. Just 30 percent of wastewater undergoes any sort of treatment before being discharged in a wretched stream of industrial effluent that contains heavy metals and toxic chemicals. There is no regulatory framework in the country for testing primary products, such as vegetable and fruits, for toxic contaminants. The widespread use of untreated wastewater – particularly in urban and semi-urban areas – to grow a considerable portion of India’s food supply, might even cause health hazards of epidemic propositions.

Environmental Implications

In fact, the entire world   is facing the danger of acute water scarcity. It is no more a distant threat as the climate changes and global warming phenomenon have heightened the water scarcity and threatening the nations across the world. In fact already there are widespread rumours that the third world war will be fought over the rights to use Water resources across the nations. Even, if it does not escalate in to world war, scientists and experts have warned about that the criticality of the water situation across the world will give rise to water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. To that end, global water scarcity is expected to become a leading cause of national political conflict in the future, and the prognosis for India is no different.

While climate change across the globe does have a strong link with the occurrence of extreme weather events, the extreme intensity of water crisis across India this year are mainly due to the dearth of monsoon rains nationwide.


According to a  new research report on major river basins at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington,  the snowmelt accounts for nearly three-quarters of the water in two of India’s key basins — the Brahmaputra and Indus — and nearly half of the water in the Ganga, the country’s largest river basin.  In the coming years, global warming portends higher temperatures and less snow, resulting in dramatic supply reductions in key Indian water lifelines. While surface temperatures around the world have escalated by 0.6 degrees Celsius, India's average surface temperature has risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius from 1880 to 2018, according to a  report by EI Dorado Weather.

As a result many cities recorded all-time high temperatures in 2019, with temperatures rising about 45 degrees Celcius in most cities, and even touching 50degrees Celcius in some of the worst-affected states. Currently, many Indian states, including Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, face water shortages, exacerbated by changing rainfall patterns. The major factor for the exceedingly high temperature across India is due to the dearth of pre-monsoon rains nationwide. India relies on monsoons for the vast majority of its rainfall and the continuous failure of monsoon results in drought.  Further,   as the hot, dry winds move into the mainland and the low rainfall also reduces the moisture in soil, it increases the surface temperature resulting in producing heat waves in some parts.

The implications are manifold as India’s continuing water woes are likely to compound numerous issues. Extreme water crisis drastically affects cultivation which will lead to food shortages. Further the water shortages will cause tremendous anguish to the farmers as the crop yields will miserably fall short and the depleting incomes may lead to a crisis of suicide among farmers. It may also lead to mass displacement of people due to entire regions becoming uninhabitable will affect the economy as a whole.

As water shortages are looming large across India, the country faces a dangerous and fatal crisis. Groundwater supplies are already in decline. Rivers are too polluted to sustain human life. And the human cost is staggering in its scope and severity.

Though, currently India suffers under the weight of environmental troubles, the fact remains that preparedness is sorely lacking. India's water crisis is often attributed to lack of government planning, increased corporate privatization, industrial and human waste and government corruption. India lacks an effective and long term water management as well as replenishment systems. With rising demand for and consumption of water, and longstanding mismanagement of precious existing resources, fuelled by state failures to embrace water-saving technologies, it is likely to explode sooner. The implications for economic growth and public health are stark. Further the rapid growth in India’s urban areas and over-privatization has stretched several government measures and has not produced the desired results.   

Over the years India has undervalued most precious resources - water. The country’s chronic mismanagement of water is staring at it now. With India relying on the monsoon to replenish the water sources, every time the monsoon fails it leaves the country vulnerable. With global warming skewing weather patterns, leave alone the farmers, it always baffles the even scientists who are confounded by the unpredictable nature.

With the country’s outdated water management infrastructure is too rickety to cope with the burgeoning population, it is time that the environmental concerns must be taken serious and the government gets its acts on a war footing scale. Despite the repeated alarming signals, both the state and central governments fail to  bring in adequate steps and solutions to use water sensibly. Beyond doubt, we have procrastinated on real reforms of water management and never looked at the issue with a far-sighted vision.

Need An Integrated Approach and Solutions

As the country is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat, NITI Aayog developed the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) to enable effective water management in India. CWMI is a step in the right direction, but   NITI Ayog could have taken it a step ahead by comparing state water management practices against leading countries, according to experts. Attention could have been paid to the states’ performance in implementing existing laws against groundwater exploitation. Accordingly the States need to start managing their groundwater and the water for agriculture needs.

The Union Ministry of Water Resources has estimated the country’s current water requirements to be around 1100 billion cubic metres per year, which is estimated to be around 1200 billion cubic metres for the year 2025 and 1447 billion cubic metres for 2050. The average Indian had access to 5,200 cubic metres of water a year in 1951, when the population was 350 million. By 2010, that had dropped to 1,600 cubic metres, a level regarded as “water-stressed” by international organizations. Today it is at about 1,400 cubic metres and analysts say it is likely to fall below the 1,000 cubic metre “water scarcity” limit in the next two to three decades.

The per capita water availability in 1951 was 5177 cubic metres. By 2011, this had fallen to 1545 cubic metres. Further, according to the National Institute of Hydrology, most of this water is not suitable for human use. It estimates that the per capita availability of usable water was a mere 938 cubic metres. This is expected to decline further, reaching 814 cubic metres by 2025.

Groundwater in India depleted at 10-25 mm per year between 2002 and 2016. Average rainfall declined, from 1,050 mm in the kharif — summer cropping–season of 1970 to less than 1,000 mm in kharif  2015. Similarly, in the winter cropping, or rabi season, average rainfall declined, from Rs 150 mm in 1970 to about 100 mm in 2015. Ironically, the Dry days — days without rainfall — during the monsoons have increased, from ~40% to 45% in 2015.

India ranks in the top 38 percent of countries most vulnerable to climate change in the world and the least ready to adapt, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. Rural communities dependent on farming to make a living will struggle to grow food and feed livestock amid soaring temperatures, and women—typically responsible for collecting water—may have to walk even greater distances during prolonged dry seasons. The proliferation of power plants has further compounded the problem. Government policies that make water and land cheaper in particular area need reassessment.

Though some states like Tamil Nadu lack the perennial rivers, the fact remains that by and large India is not a water-scarce country. Apart from the major rivers, the country receives an average annual rainfall of 1170 millimetres and has a renewable water reserve of 1,608 billion cubic meters a year.

But the lack of sustainable water management system in place compound the problem as the country is losing an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the water produced. The ground reality of the situation simply reflect inefficient management, Even at a time of facing the worst water crisis, still some states in the country receive a more than adequate amount of rainfall that  leads to  flooding while some states face acute drought.

Most of India’s traditional water management has been at the community level; relying upon diverse, imaginative and effective methods for harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff and stream flow. These were abandoned when we introduced reforms which we attributed to so-called superior knowledge compared to traditional wisdom. These techniques now remain little more than a fad.

However, they continue to remain viable and cost-effective alternatives for replenishing depleted groundwater aquifers. With government support, they could be revived, upgraded and productively combined with modern techniques. India is currently using only 35 percent of the rainwater it receives. Effective implementation of rainwater harvesting can harness the rainfall water that goes waste.

The climatic stresses are mounting fast and India needs to start talking about the elephant in the room. For any planned interventions to be successful, hardcoded timelines are needed. The country’s impressive economic growth must translate to faster progress in this critical area. It will have to change course and shift away from the business-as-usual approach before water runs out.

According to a UN report, in India around 1.3 billion people live in areas where they lack basic access to water and another 1.6 billion people face severe water shortage. With the rising population and rapid urbanization the problem is compounded.  

In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. With each passing year the water deficit increasing, it is estimated that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.  A comprehensive solution must be worked out soon to address the water problem in urban India with specific challenges around water management and distribution as about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution system due to various reasons according to the National Sample Survey.

Rising demand on water consumption means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. India’s major cities need thousands of Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use.  Distributing the water means providing proper connections to the residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the officials as well as the people tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Rampant ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level. Besides distribution challenges, loss due to theft, pilferage and leaky pipes result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water which impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure.

Water pollution and contamination adds to the woes of water distribution. It is estimated that almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhoea, primarily due to contaminated water, in India.  Also, the untreated industrial waste that is being let out illegally in to the water ways pose severe health hazard. A significant percentage of the population faces the risk of using contaminated drinking water source and   become susceptible to a range of diseases.

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions, taking into account different aspects of water management and distribution. These solutions include:   

Recycling:  The Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes.  According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water which can be purified and utilized for industrial needs. To recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Rain Water Harvesting:  Rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.  

With the demand for water is growing in most cities, Rain water harvesting is a perfect method to replenish ground water. The state governments must bring in legislation to install rain water harvesting methods in all buildings on a war footing.

Community Initiatives: Involving citizens through social business models for decentralized water supply, treatment or storage installations and the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management.

Involving the people, especially in rural areas, in various initiatives such as community water storage and decentralized treatment facilities, maintaining water ways. Such measure will create awareness about water pollution and contamination in the minds of the rural people. Besides, it will make them realise the importance of using water sensibly can help support the village water distribution more systematically. 

Testing and Purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, installing government sponsored RO plants can help people have access to clean drinking water. The adoption of affordable and reliable water filter systems can not only provide access to safe drinking water for the people, but also act a preventive step for the government to protect the people from the possible epidemic that borne out of water related diseases time and again.

Collaborative Approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help both the people and the government as well. The governments both central and state, can rope in private partnership and with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. At the grass-root level the private organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

India needs solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders. We have to take farmers and agronomists on board so that farmers can work out an approach to manage and utilise water in an equitable and sustainable manner.  These solutions, if implemented and  also under watchful eyes ensure a close engagement with the stake holders, can developing a potential and practical water management and water treatment solutions and will also ensure sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water management and treatment process.  




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