Water Crises in India: Way Forward

Prof. Shailendra Singh
Director – IIM Ranch

Water is an essential prerequisite for life and livelihood. We are not having any scarcity of water; it is the fresh water fit for drinking, irrigation, industrial and other usage that we are concerned with. According to an estimate, of the total 1.38 bn cubic km water on the planet, 97 percent is salty and undrinkable, only 3 percent is freshwater. Further, only 1% of all the word’s water is potable while rest 2% is not accessible. Worldwide freshwater usage annually may be about 3600 cubic km broadly categorised into irrigation 70 %, industrial use 20%, and household usage as 10%. Of the household use, on average 66 % goes into the bathroom. According to a McKinsey estimate, by 2030 the available fresh water supply will be able to meet the requirements of 60 %population globally and less than half for developing countries where water supply is already under duress.

The water crisis is a global phenomenon and India is no exception. Our water scarcity can be assessed by the fact that we house around 17 % of the world population but possess only 4% of the world’s fresh-water resources. Further, whatever fresh-water is available in India, we are not able to access the same fully. According to an estimate of Water Mission NAPCC, our major water sources are annual precipitation including snowfall amounting to 4000 cubic kilometers (cbkm), run-off coming from neighbouring countries is 500 cbkm, and average annual natural flow in rivers and aquifers is 2301 cbkm. Out of these, only 1123 cbkm or billion cubic meters is utilizable water consisting of 690 cbkm as surface water and 433cbkm ground water. Why are we not able to utilize precipitation water fully? There may be several reasons. Primarily because maximum precipitation happens in monsoon season during June to October every year and it is unevenly distributed throughout the country creating a situation of flood and drought in various parts of the country. Further, the water-bodies and river basins are not able to retain rainwater coming suddenly in spells of brief periods and due to limited carrying capacity, soil erosion, breach of embankment, landslide, silting, pollution contamination, evaporation etc happens.

According to Jal-Shakti Ministry, Government of India, the total demand of water in 2010 was813BCM, which is expected to rise to 1093 BCM by 2025 and 1447 BCMby2050. With increasing population and urbanization and more demand from agriculture, the demand for fresh-water will exceed our capacity to replenish this supply annually, ie. 1123 BCM. The crisis is further highlighted by the estimates of Central Water Commission which states that per-capita annual availability of water in the country is continuously going south. It was 1816 cubic meters in 2001 and went down to 1545 cubic meters in 2011. It is likely to decrease further to 1421 by 2021 and 1174 by 2051. According to the Falkenmark Index, one of the most popular index of water scarcity, if the per capita water availability goes below 1700cbm per year, the situation is labelled as water stress. If it further deteriorates and goes under 1000cbmannually,the situation is called water scarcity. Thus, we are already living under what is called a water stress condition.

The preceding pointers provide a clear message to maintain water security, we need to develop strategies of efficient and effective use of available water resources and devise more creative plans to conserve, recycle and reuse water resources. To fulfill the need of water resources we need to ensure either increased supply of water or reduce the demand or do both. As accessible water sources are almost constant, conserving water and arresting misuse and overuse and putting a reasonable user charge may be the answer. Some of the initiatives for water resource management are listed here:

As per the National Water Policy, water is required for domestic, agricultural, hydropower, thermal power, navigation, recreation, etc. Among these, safe drinking water and sanitation should be considered most important followed by other household needs including needs of animals, food security, sustenance of agriculture, and minimum ecological needs. Available water after meeting these needs should be allocated in a way to support its conservation and efficient use.

What needs to be done for drinking water? According to an estimate India uses 56 BCM for household purposes which may increase to 73 BCM in 2025 and 102 by 2050. The major part of this comes from groundwater. It is suggested that 85% of India’s rural population and 50% of urban population depend on ground water for their personal needs. Providing safe drinking water to all is still a challenge. Our PM has recently set a target on 2024 to meet this goal. More investment and collective will for efficient use of resources may help. Roof-top water harvesting, recharging and maintenance of  lakes, tanks,wells and other water bodies and other means of preserving rainwater will also go a long way in meeting the demand of drinking water in dry areas.

Water conservation may serve as a critical source to produce additional water for future usage. In simple terms, water conservation implies improving the availability of quality water through enhancing the capacity of storage of water in surface reservoirs, lake, tanks, ponds, community supported water bodies, soil, groundwater etc. It highlights the need to modify the area and time availability of water to meet demands. This concept works on the principle,‘save today for better tomorrow’ and emphasises the need for sensible use of water.

Irrigation techniques. Old-style irrigation techniques create significant water wastage due to evaporation, drainage, percolation, leakage, and excessive groundwater use. Farmers may be educated on best practices, like drip and sprinkler irrigation. India is in a better position than Israel in terms of water resources, but they have better water conservation and management practices, and thus do not experience water shortage related issues. It is suggested that water-saving irrigation techniques can generate additional redeemable water which can meet a 50% increase in demand for water by 2025.

Aquifer recharge. We have forgotten our traditional water bodies that served as a medium for groundwater recharge. We need to revive our knowledge and go to our roots to revive our water bodies and ponds to conserve water. Governments and NGOs can take steps to recharge aquifers by inserting treated surface water into underground aquifers. This means restoring watersheds and wetlands initiatives aimed at creating and supporting green infrastructure and improvement of depleted ground water.

User Charges. People are using unlimited water without paying any user charges for various reasons. Such a proportion of water in India has been estimated at almost 32%. By implementing proper metering, the efficiency of typical Indian municipal water utility can improve significantly.

Water reuse. Water reuse may also help tackle water scarcity. For example, IIM Ranchi’s new campus project plans to reuse non-potable water (gray water) produced from recycled water for landscape irrigation and toilet flushing.

Desalination of seawater or brackish groundwater may be considered to augment water resources if the cost of energy is low. Such experiments have been done in Gujrat coastal areas where a reverse osmosis machine is operated through a solar plant. Otherwise the high cost of operationsand maintenance may make wide-scale use of desalination technology unfeasible.

Inter-Basin Transfer. Linking river projects will facilitate inter-basin transfer of water to recharge depleted ground water. Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada river is aimed at recharging the depleted aquifer of north Gujrat and Kutch. The same is the rationale for the interlinking of Himalayan rivers with southern peninsular rivers to mitigate the ground water depletion of western and southern India. However, such projects may be fraught with controversy and criticism regarding the costs of various kinds.

Virtual Water. Virtual water refers to the water footprint embedded in a product. It means the amount of water consumed during its process of production. Interestingly, the concept emerged in the 1990s and received a good amountof attention from people concerned with water management and with water related to food production. By implication water-intensive crops   like, wheat, sugarcane, and paddycontain greater virtual water. According to one estimate, these three crops account for 50 % of irrigation water demand. When we export rice or sugar, we in a way export virtual water. As per NABARD assessment if we export 10 million tons of rice, we export 40 billion cubic meters of water. Thus, by this logic, we should produce less water-intensive crops in traditionally dry areas to reduce water demand.

Climate Change. Since the climate is changing rapidly creating high risk to crop production. In order to deal with the problem, we should use climate-resistant agriculture including indigenous varieties.

Mitigating Water Pollution. Water pollution is a big problem and needs to be arrested on priority. Source of contamination are pesticides, chemicals, excessive use of insecticides. Untreated sewage, industrial effluents are also responsible for contaminating the water. Legal framework and awareness may help solve the problem.

Trained water resource management professionals, good governance practices in the water sector and participatory management by stakeholders, the concept of community-based water resource management will go a long way in helping mitigate water crisis. Problems are many and so are the solutions. We need to work collectively to find the workable solutions keeping the National Water Policy framework in mind which is quite comprehensive and provides reasonable direction on way forward.



Chakraborti, R., Kaur, J., and Kaur, H. (2019) Water shortage challenge and a way forward. American Water Works Association.111:5, 42-49.

Cosgrove, W. J., and D. P. Loucks (2015), Water management: Current and future challenges and research directions, Water Resour. Res., 51, 4823–4839, doi:10.1002/ 2014WR016869

Dasgupta, A. (2001) Challenges and opportunities for water resources management in Southeast Asia. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 46:6, 923-935, DOI: 10.1080/02626660109492886

Envistats India (2018). Envi Stats India-2018: Supplement on Environmental Account MoSPI, Government of India.

Gulati, A. & Banerjee, P. (2016)Emerging water crisis in India-Key issues and a way forward, vol 94 no383, 681-704.

Guppy, L., Anderson, K. (2017). Water Crisis Report. United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Hamilton, Canada.

Gupta, S.K. & Deshpande, R.D. (2004). Water for India in 2050: First water assessment of available options. Current Science, 86(9), 1216-1224.

Here (Dec2015-Jan2016). Liquid engineering: How technology can help combat water scarcity,  pp 6-9. www.alphalaval.com

NABARD, (2018).Water Productivity Mapping of Major Indian Crops, NABARD, India.

National Water policy 2012. Jalshaki Mantralaya, Government of India.

Saleth, R. M. (2011) Water scarcity and climatic change in India: the need for water demand and supply management. Hydrol. Sci. J. 56(4), 671–686.

Singh,J. & Kaur, J. (2019). India water crisis: Challenges, solutions and barriers. Working paper. New Delhi: Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here