Current Affairs

India’s looming water crisis

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    2nd Apr, 2022


  • With a population of 1.38 billion people, India is the second most populous country in the world.
  • Agriculture is the main consumer of water stock in India. In rural India, 80 to 90 per cent of drinking water needs are fulfilled by groundwater resources.
  • It is worrisome to note that groundwater levels in India declined by over 60 per cent between 2007 and 2017, and of the extracted water, almost 90 per cent is used in agriculture. 
  • More than 6% of this population lack access to safe water and about 15% of India’s population practices open defecation.
  • A lack of household water connections and toilets contributes largely to water-borne illnesses, stunting, and death.
  • In India and around the world, millions are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with the added challenge of living without access to safe water.
  • Now more than ever access to safe water is critical to the health of families in India.
  • These factors, combined with the current political push to end this crisis, has created unprecedented urgency to implement effective solutions to increase access to safe water and sanitation.

This brief aims to seriously analyse the serious issue of water scarcity across the globe and find solutions and call for action.

World Water Day

  • World Water Day is observed annually across the globe on March 22 with the purpose of highlighting the importance of water and raising awareness about the water crisis that the world faces.
  • According to the United Nations (UN) website, the main focus of the day is to “support the achievement of sustainable development goal (SDG) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.”

What is meant by ‘water security’?

  • The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.

How bad is India’s water crisis?

  • India has four per cent of the world’s water resources, but in 2011, it moved to be water-stressed.
  • India has 16 per cent of the world's population but only 4 per cent of the world's freshwater resources.
  • One-fifth of India is affected by drought each year.
  • According to the Central Groundwater Board report (2017), close to 40 percentof the 700 districts in India have reported ‘critical’ or ‘overexploited’ groundwater levels
  • The 2018 Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) noted that 6% of economic GDP will be lost by 2050, while water demand will exceed the available supply by 2030.
  • A 2019 NITI Aayog reportsaid that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history, and almost 600 million of its population is water-deprived. 

Water resources in India

  • India is a water rich country with 4% of world’s water resources. The rivers have been the heart and soul of the India’s growth as well as culture.
  • Among them, 12 rivers are classified as major-river which are catering about 253 mha of catchment area and 46 as medium-river with 24.6 mha of catchment area.
  • Many of the river systems with their tributaries are perennial and some of them are seasonal.
  • The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system is the largest river system in India with 43% of the catchment area of the all major river systems.
  • The other major river systems are Indus, Sabarmati, Mahi, Narmada, Tapi, Brahmani, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery.
  • Apart from that, there are several other medium rivers systems of which Subernarekha (with 1.9 mha catchment area) is the largest.
  • Other than rivers and canals, other inland water resources include numerous reservoirs, tanks and ponds, beels, oxbow lakes, derelict water and brackish water, which cover almost 7 mha of area.
  • They are unevenly distributed over the country with Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and West Bengal possessing more than 50% of these inland water resources.

Important Government Schemes to conserve water

  • Atal Bhujal Yojana: The scheme promises to address the problem of groundwater scarcity and management in over 9,000 gram panchayats across seven states in India—Rajasthan, Haryana, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, over a period of five years, using a variety of intervention strategies. 
  • Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA): 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 ground water conditions.
  • Jal Shakti Abhiyan: Catch the Rain (JSA: CTR): On the World Water Day, March 22nd 2021, the government launched the ‘Jal Shakti Abhiyan: Catch the Rain’ (JSA: CTR) with the theme ‘Catch the rain, Where it Falls When it Falls’. It covers rural and urban areas of all districts in India, during the pre-monsoon and monsoon period, up to 30th November 2021.

Reason behind water crisis

  • Considered as common element: In India, water resources are treated as commons. It is not treated as an economic resource that has monetary value and a price to pay for its consumption. 
  • Water contamination: Around 75 per cent of India’s water – both ground and surface water are contaminated.
    • These pollutants range from microbial contaminants to fluoride, arsenic, iron, salinity organic chemicals and carcinogenic heavy metals. Other contaminants include microplastics and even
  • Underutilisation of waste water: A potential source of water – wastewater, is highly underutilised.
  • Overpopulation: The rapid increase in human populationcombined by massive growth in industry sector have have transformed water ecosystems and resulted in loss of biodiversity.
  • Agricultural sector, a major consumer: Agricultureuses majority of available freshwater.
    • Unfortunately, a good percentage of this water gets wasted due to inefficient agriculture methods and leaky irrigation systems.
    • In addition to this, pesticides and fertilizers are washed away in rivers and lakes that further affect human and animal population.

Assessing the impacts of water scarcity

  • Threat to food security: The shortage in the availability of water poses a threat to the agricultural sector and food security. Food supply is also at risk as areas for wheat cultivation and rice cultivation face extreme water scarcity.
  • Fragility: Poor water and sanitation is a major contributing factor to stunting in children; water insecurity can act as a ‘risk multiplier’ compounding the challenge of fragility.
  • More burden on women: Although the problem impacts everyone, it is considerably more personal for women. Women's daily lives are becoming increasingly difficult as India continues to overuse its water resources.
  • Impact on education: There is a strong linkage between water scarcity, human rights and education. Access to potable water is directly related to school attendance and dropout rates.
  • Other impacts:
    • Worsening already existing rural-urban and gender-based inequalities.
    • Habitat Loss and Destruction to Ecosystems
    • Disappearance of Wetlands
    • Scarcity of water also adds to pressure on mental health

Where does lie the solution?

  • Minimising of wasteful water practices: The society should be ready to minimise wasteful water practices and to effectively manage the available water sources.
  • Understanding the problem: Seeing India’s looming water crisis through the locus of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ not only allows a better grasp of the causative factors but also enables a stronger grip on the strategies to be deployed to reverse the water crisis .
  • Knowing sources: Fundamental to the problem is a preliminary understanding of the sources from which the country draws water to meet its varying needs.
  • Improving the efficiency of water resources: We rehabilitate urban water distribution networks and treatment systems to reduce water leakage and contamination, promoting wastewater reuse for agriculture to protect groundwater.
  • Re-use strategies: Water re-use strategies can help alleviate water scarcity.
  • Desalination, treatment of saline waters: Desalination is the treatment of saline waters. The treatment process aims at obtaining fresh drinking water from the salty ocean waters or groundwater with high salt concentrations that make them unsuitable for human consumption.

Eco-region-specific traditional water conservation techniques

  • Ahar Pynes: Prevalent in South Bihar, Ahar Pynes are traditional floodwater harvesting systems that work as reservoirs to cut the flow of water and store it for irrigation and other purposes. These reservoirs are made with embankments on three sides that are situated at the end of diversion channels.
  • Apatani: Practised by the Apatani tribes of Ziro, in Arunachal Pradesh, the Apatani system is used to harvest both ground and surface water for irrigation. 
  • Baoli: A slightly more well-known traditional water harvesting method, Baolis were intricate structures built by the royal families and nobles to help the common people and improve civic welfare. 
  • Cheo-ozihis: Another water harvesting method employed in a sloppy area, Cheo-ozihis can be found in parts of Nagaland, especially the Angami village of Kigwema where the river Mezii flows. A long channel named Cheo-ozihi, made out of bamboo is constructed and connected to several sub-channels that navigate the water’s flow from the river into the terraces where the cultivation is done.
  • Eri: A traditional water management system in South India, the Eri tank system is predominantly practised in parts of Tamil Nadu.
  • Bamboo Drip irrigation system: Bamboo Drip irrigation system of water conservation is practiced in Meghalaya where usage and conservation of water is done usi9ng bamboo pipes. 
  • Zabo: In Nagaland, Zabo system of water conversation is practiced since centuries. Zabo which mea  ns impounding water is a unique combination of water conservation with animal care, forests and agriculture.

Wrapping Up

Looking at the current situation, there is a need for a paradigm shift. There is urgent requirement of a transition from this 'supply-and-supply-more water' provision to measures which lead towards improving water use efficiency, reducing leakages, recharging/restoring local waterbodies as well as applying for higher tariffs and ownership by various stakeholders.

A recovery-based closed loop system is the need of the hour. It is time to go back and start using our traditional practice of rainwater harvesting — catching water where it falls. Presently, India captures only eight per cent of its annual rainfall, among the lowest in the world.

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