Water Crisis in India

Water Crisis in India

As the summer knocks on the door, water becomes a precious commodity in India and almost becomes worth its weight in gold. The country that houses 18% of the world’s population, unfortunately, has to contend with just 4% of the world’s water resources. Indian urban centres are already facing a crunch of water scarcity. More than 60 crores of Indians are being affected by the water crisis, and many metros are on the brink of descending into day zero. The problem is so big that our lives and futures hang in the balance. Let us understand in this article how we ended up in such a precarious position just in a span of a few decades.

State of water in India

  • India receives about 4000 billion cubic metres (BCM) of all forms of precipitation in a year, and most of it (80−95%) is received during a short window of three to four months of the monsoon period. Even spatial distribution of water is also highly uneven & extreme. The arid and semi-arid regions of western India receive 300−500 mm of rainfall, whereas the humid regions of eastern India receive about 3000 mm of rainfall per annum. Out of this 4000 bcm, 1869 bcm remains after evaporation, and the actual availability is down to 1137 bcm, owing to several topographic, hydrological, and other constraints (As per TERI)
  • Annual utilizable surface and groundwater resources across the country are reckoned to be around 690 BCM and 431 BCM, respectively. Owing to the exponential increase in consumption, the per capita water availability in the country has dropped by about 20% in the last two decades alone and is likely to drop by another 20% by 2050. (TERI)
  • Most of the water demand in India is met from groundwater. 80% of the domestic water supply comes from groundwater. The agriculture sector consumes 89% of the groundwater for irrigation, while the domestic and industrial sectors consume the rest of 11%. At the state level, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Delhi record more than 100% of the exploitation of groundwater and are at the brink of water crisis.
  • Currently, the annual availability of water is 1123 bcm in India, and the demand hovers around 750 bcm. However, by 2050 the annual demand is set to rise to 1180 bcm, which will exceed the water supply.
  • 70% of India’s water is contaminated, 75% of households do not have drinking water on their premises, and 84% of rural households do not have access to piped water.
  • Not only that India’s water table is receding in most regions, but also they are found to be infested with toxic elements like fluoride, arsenic, mercury, and even uranium in our groundwater.
  • Water levels in India’s major reservoirs have declined by 21% of the average in the last decade.
  • According to NITI Aayog’s water quality index, India ranks dismally low at 120th position among 122 countries.

When do we call it a crisis?

A 2019 NITI Aayog report claimed that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its recorded history, with almost 60 crores of its population being water-deprived. Considering the demand from all the sectors, it is estimated that India needs 1700 cubic metres per capita annually. If India could maintain this level of per capita availability, then India will only experience occasional water stress. If the levels fall below 1700 Cubic metres, then India is deemed as “water stressed” and will face regular water shortage stresses. If the level falls below 1100 cu, then it enters the ‘Water scarce’ category. As per NITI Ayog’s report, India had entered “water stressed” category way back in 2011. As per ICAR, India’s per capita availability declined to 1,508 cubic meters in 2014 from 5,177 cubic meters in 1951. It is estimated to further decline to 1,465 cubic meters by 2025 and 1,235 cubic meters by 2050. 

Reasons behind the fall 

Natural Reasons

Geology: some of the underlying rocks in India, particularly in the peninsular region, are impervious and allow little percolation of rainwater into the underground water tables. As a result, water is pumped out at a rate faster than the refilling rate.

Monsoonal rainfall: India is disproportionately dependent on monsoons for nearly 70%-90% of its rainfall. But the problem with monsoons is that they are unequally distributed both temporally and spatially. They cause rainfall only during a short window of 3-4 months, leaving the rest of the year with little or no rainfall. Also, spatially it is unevenly distributed across India. While regions like western ghats, eastern India hog most of the monsoonal precipitation, the arid and semi-arid regions of western India and the central India remain untouched by the monsoons. Moreover, monsoons are quite erratic as they are dependent on slew of factors like El-Nino, la-Nina, Indian Ocean dipole, Maden-Julian oscillation, etc.

Anthropological Reasons 

Overpopulation: India sustains 17.7% of the world’s population, but on the other hand, it is blessed with only 4% of the world’s water resources. Consequently, India’s water resources are heavily stressed and exploited. The coming down of per capita water availability from more than 5000 cubic metres during the 1950s to below 1500 cubic metres in the present day mirrors the level of exploitation of water resources in India.

Faulty agricultural practices & policies

Faulty cropping patterns: Paddy constitutes 37% of India’s total cultivated land, and other crops like wheat and sugar cane constitute a significant percentage of total cultivation. But unfortunately, these crops are notorious for being water-guzzling. For e.g., it takes about 3,500 litres of water to grow one kilogram of paddy. Yet, India is highly obsessed with these water guzzling crops.

Inefficient irrigation: India’s irrigation system is unduly dependent on groundwater. Almost 60% of the irrigation water is directly drawn from water tables. What exacerbates the issue is the inefficiency of irrigation. Most of the farmers adopt flooding irrigation, which amounts to huge wastage of water. Canal irrigation is another predominant source of irrigation, which is again riddled with high evaporation losses.

Power subsidies: Government’s irrational power subsidies for agriculture have resulted in the limitless usage of electric motors to pump the water for agricultural usage.

MSP regime: Governments guaranteed procurement of rice & wheat, and FRP for sugar cane has resulted in mushrooming of cultivation of these crops, which are notorious for being water hungry. 

Green revolution: It mainly focussed on water intensive crops, as a result of which the north-western part of India, i.e., Punjab and Haryana, are almost exhausted of underground water resources.

Faulty urban-planning: Today, there is no channel for the rainwater and the flood water in urban areas to seep into water tables. Ponds are reclaimed, the surface of the cities are concretised, no soak-pits at the houses, natural gradient of the lands are manipulated. This leaves no room for the replenishment of water tables. As a result, our metros like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai are on the brink of running out of water.

High dependence on ground water: Ground water should be regarded as an emergency reserve, and hence most of the water demands should be met through surface water. This has been the practice in larger part of the world. Estimates reckon that 85% of the rural and 50% of the urban population in India is dependent on groundwater. 89% of the extracted groundwater goes to irrigation and the rest to domestic and industrial use (9% and 2%).

According to the Central Ground Water Board, the annual groundwater withdrawal of 70% of the annual replenishable level is considered to be safe & sustainable. But the available data indicate that the level of extraction has already reached 63% in 2017.

Deforestation: The rampant deforestation has drastically reduced the water retention capacity of the soil. Hence the seepage of water from the surface into the water table has reduced. Although there is a slight increase in the forest cover as a whole in India, there is a decrease in dense forest cover and depletion of forest cover in some parts of India.

Beef industry: India is the largest exporter of beef in the world. But the beef industry takes a huge toll on water resources. Based on the research published by The Guardian, 1kg of beef requires 15,000 litres of water. A single buffalo consumes about 4 kilos of green fodder, 7 kilos of dry fodder, and 0.36 kilo of concentrates per day. With a buffalo population of over 10 crores, this translates into a daily water requirement of 1 trillion litres for dry fodder, 200 million litres for green fodder, and 29 million litres for concentrates, respectively.

Water contamination: A huge swathe of water in India has been rendered unusable due to the contamination. Industrial wastes, landfills, overuse of fertilisers, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks, etc., have contaminated Indian limited water resources.

Administrational lacuna: In India, the lack of regulations for the extraction of groundwater has resulted in irrational and unsustainable exploitation of groundwater by private agencies. Also, the poor and lethargic implementation of waste disposal regulations have given a free hand to the industries to empty the industrial waste into the nearby waterbodies unabashedly.

How is Climate change worsening the crisis?

Climate change is not just an environmental issue anymore. Various studies have predicted that climate change is going to pose several challenges to India’s water resources. Here are some of the possible impacts of climate change on India’s water resources;

Erratic rainfall: Increasing temperatures may drastically disturb the hydrological cycle. Increasing temperature is found to have direct correlation with the change in rainfall patterns. According to the IPCC 4th report, dry season rainfall will decline by 6-16 percent, whereas wet season rainfall would increase by 10-31 percent. Such shifts in India’s rainfall pattern may adversely impact India’s water resources, particularly in areas which receives lesser precipitation on account of changing patterns.

Rise in sea level: Rise in sea level, triggered by climate-change induced melting of polar caps, would inundate coastal areas and results in the ingression of saline sea water into the coastal water tables, rendering them unfit for human, agricultural and industrial consumption. IPCC reports that India’s low-lying coastal areas like the Ganges delta region, the Godavari-Krishna deltaic region, Mahanadi delta are vulnerable to such risks.

Increased droughts: Reduced rainfall in many areas has increased the frequency of droughts in some parts of India. The erratic rainfall patterns combined with increased temperatures have been culminating in recurrent droughts. On average, every year, 80−100 districts received deficient rainfall and were declared drought affected in India (TERI).

Melting Himalayan glaciers: The climate change-induced rise in temperatures has been exponentially melting the Himalayan glaciers, thereby depleting the Himalayan fresh water reserves at unsustainable rates.

Increasing demand: The rising temperatures have increased water demands across the globe. This adds further stress to the already constrained resources.

Consequences are more serious than we know

Lowering of water table: Reducing underground water severely lowers the water tables. This would significantly increase the costs of extracting the water. The lowering water table also results in subsidence of the land above. Soil rests on the support provided by the underground water. Once the support is withdrawn, soil collapses or subsides. 

Agriculture: Water is the fuel for agriculture, and any shortage of water in an agrarian nation like ours would spell doom to its agricultural prospects and send ripple waves across its economy. The production would take a nose-dive, jeopardizing our food security. India’s staple crops like paddy and wheat need an abundance of water. Already, 74 % of the area under wheat cultivation and 63 % of the area under rice cultivation faces extreme levels of the water crisis.

Industry: Many industries may not be able to function at their full potential if adequate water isn’t supplied. Industries such as Food & Beverages, Textiles, tanneries, Paper & Paper products are likely to be worst affected as they are highly dependent on water supply.

Power: India’s power sector is already feeling the heat of the crisis. During the dry spells of rain, both hydro and thermal power production, touted to be the backbones of India’s energy security, are deprived of the resources that are essential for their operation. Thermal energy, which constitutes about 70% of India’s total electricity generation and 60% of the installed power capacity, is desperately dependent on freshwater for cooling purposes.

Sanitation & diseases: According to TERI, In India, 70% of the water is considered to be contaminated & unfit for consumption. Already India suffers from a huge burden of communicable diseases. Now the lack of sanitation due to the absence of adequate water further provides a breeding ground for communicable diseases. Water-borne diseases are rampant in India, and they have a significant economic drag which has been calculated to be about USD 600 million per year (TERI). Also, contaminated water results in the rise of non-communicable diseases.

Women: Water crisis disproportionately affects Indian womenfolk more than their male counterparts. Indian patriarchy has deeply entrenched a notion that an “ideal woman” is someone who manages the household chores, and arranging water for the family is a key role amongst the household chores. The depletion of water resources would thus stress out the womenfolk as now they have to walk the extra mile in search of water in the next available place.

Government’s action

Jal Shakti Abhiyan: It is an initiative with an active collaboration between various ministries under the overall supervision of the Department of Drinking water. Its main objectives are;

  • conservation of water
  • Harvesting of rainwater
  • Renovation of old water bodies
  • Reusage of water
  • Watershed development
  • Afforestation

Focus has been on 256 districts and 1592 blocks that are water stressed. With this scheme, the government has aimed to supply drinking water to all households in a sustainable manner. It is also aimed at inculcating the culture of water conservation among the public.

Jal Shakti Mantralaya: Central government has created an exclusive and dedicated ministry for water management by merging erstwhile ministries such as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Its primary focus will be on;

  • Supplying clean drinking water
  • Solving inter-state and international water disputes
  • Taking up Namame gange program 

Nal se jal: it was being executed by the Jal Shakti mantralaya with the aim of providing tapped water connection to every household of 6.04 lakh villages in India by 2024.

Jal Jeevan mission: Its salient provisions are;

  • Provide safe and adequate drinking water through household tap connections to all households in rural India by 2024.
  • Recharge and reuse through grey water management
  • water conservation
  • rainwater harvesting

The initiative is based on a community approach and includes extensive Information, Education and communication as key components of the mission.

Atal Bhujal yojana: It is a world bank funded central scheme aimed at promoting sustainable management of groundwater resources in India. It has been allocated a budget of about 6000 crores. The scheme focuses on community participation for sustainable groundwater management in identified water stressed areas in seven States of the country. The scheme is being implemented in 8353 water-stressed Gram Panchayats of Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Krishi sinchai yojana: one of its provisions includes increasing the efficiency of water usage in agriculture.

Encouraging farmers to adopt micro-irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers.

State government’s efforts

  • Rajasthan has launched ‘Mukhya Mantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan’, aimed at facilitating effective implementation of water conservation activities and water harvesting related activities in rural areas of the state.
  • Maharashtra has launched a project called ‘Jalyukt-Shivar’, with an ambitious aim of liberating 5000 villages from water scarcity every year.
  • The Telangana government has launched a project, “Mission Kakatiya”, which involves several kinds of water conservation programs. 

How to evade the crisis?

  • A reliable and real-time data about the water resources should be made available to the think-tank and decision makers at all levels. Alongside this, a rigorous monitoring mechanism should be established. Information and communication technology should be strengthened to collect accurate data and disseminate this information to appropriate agencies.
  • Improvement of water-use efficiency in industries, especially water-intensive industries like thermal power plants, tanneries, livestock, etc.
  • Reforming the water consumption practices through the adoption of water-saving practices in the agriculture sector can save 6−30% of water in Kharif season and 6−21% in Rabi season, reckons TERI. A few of such practices include, 
  • Reducing the usage of fertilizers, which in turn reduces the amount of irrigation water
  • Paying attention to the cropping pattern based on geography. India should diversify its crops from the present near monocropping of paddy and wheat to other water-efficient crops like millets and pulses, etc.
  • Replacing water-wasting irrigation practices like flood irrigation with micro irrigation
  • Doing away with or rationalising power subsidies to farms.
  • Adequate administrational infrastructure has to be established to monitor the extraction of groundwater by private agencies. Metres should be installed, and water extraction should be charged and regulated. Equity should be achieved in the consumption of water resources.
  • Transforming the available resources into more consumable by eradicating or minimising the contamination. Steps like the strict implementation of waste management rules, periodic cleaning of river valleys, preventing groundwater pollution, etc., would prevent water resources from being contaminated.
  • Most importantly, conservation of water should be made a ‘Jan Andolan, by involving all the stakeholders like the public, civil societies and government agencies. Panchayats should be empowered with the conservation authority at the local levels and the power to penalise the offenders.

Avoiding a day-zero scenario in Indian landscapes warrants urgent and honest effort, not only from government agencies but also from the private sector and the citizenry. Though the government of India is making positive strides toward addressing the crisis, it necessitates the cumulative effort of every single Indian to conserve each drop of water. 


  1. India’s water crisis: Is there a solution? | The Financial Express
  2. India’s per capita water availability to decline further: ICAR – The Hindu BusinessLine
  3. water-factsheet.pdf (teriin.org)
  4. Water Crisis in India: The World’s Largest Groundwater User | TERI (teriin.org)


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