India’s Water Crisis – How to Solve it?

Water is the most valuable natural resource as it is essential for human survival and life on earth. However, the availability of fresh water for human consumption is highly under stress because of a variety of factors. This crisis of water scarcity is most visible in India as well as other developing countries.

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What is water scarcity?

  • Water scarcity is the lack of fresh water resources to satisfy water demand.
  • It is manifested by partial or no satisfaction of expressed demand, economic competition for water quantity or quality, disputes between users, irreversible groundwater depletion, and negative effects on the environment.
  • It affects every continent and was categorised in 2019 by the World Economic Forum as one of the largest global risks with respect to its potential impact over the next decade.
  • One-third of the global population (2 billion people) live under situations of severe water scarcity at least one month of the year.
  • Half a billion people in the world affected by severe water scarcity all year round.
  • Half of the world’s largest cities have been facing water scarcity.

How is the water scarcity measured?

  • The absolute minimum water requirement for domestic usage is 50 litres per person per day, though 100-200 litres is often recommended.
  • Considering the needs of agriculture, industry and energy sectors, the recommended minimum annual per capita requirement is about 1700 cubic meters.
  • If a country like India has only about 1700 cu. meters water per person per year, it will experience only occasional or local water distress.
  • If the availability falls below this threshold level, the country will start to experience periodic or regular water stress.
  • If the water availability declines below 1000 cu. meters, the country will suffer from chronic water scarcity. Lack of water will then start to severely affect human health and well-being as well as economic development.
  • If the annual per capita supply declines below 500 cu. meters, the country will reach the stage of absolute scarcity.

What is the status of water availability in India?

  • India receives 4000 bcm (billion cubic metres) rainfall each year. Out of this, 1869 bcm remains after evaporation = The actual availability is only 1137 bcm.
  • Even in that 1137 bcm of water, there is a lot of temporal as well as regional variations in the availability.
  • For instance, on the one side, there are water surplus states such as Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and on the other side, there are water scarce states such as Maharashtra (Vidarbha, Beed), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat.
  • Moreover, some states that are known to be water abundant such as Punjab, Haryana have their own issues.

What is the magnitude of the water crisis in India?

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  • Currently, the annual availability of water is 1123 bcm in India and the demand is around 750 bcm. However, by 2050 the annual demand for water will be 1180 bcm which will exceed the water availability = wide ramifications for the country.
  • Nearly half of the country (around 600 million people) face severe water scarcity with around 2 lakh people dying every year due to inadequate access to potable water.
    • 70% of India’s water is contaminated.
    • 75% of households do not have drinking water on its premises.
    • 84% of rural households do not have access to piped water.
  • 54% of the country’s groundwater is declining rapidly than it is being replenished.
  • India’s water table is declining in most regions. Also, there is a presence of toxic elements like fluoride, arsenic, mercury, even uranium in our groundwater.
  • Water levels in India’s major reservoirs have fallen to 21% of the average of the last decade.
  • Hundreds of small and seasonal rivers are perishing permanently.
  • Almost all the major perennial rivers remain stagnant.
  • Cauvery and its tributaries haven’t met the ocean for decades; the upstream dams choke its flows downstream, affecting people in Tamil Nadu.
  • Krishna river runs dry in her delta region for most of the year.
  • According to NITI Aayog’s water quality index, India ranks 120th among 122 countries.

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What is the recent water crisis in India?

  • Maharashtra is facing a water crisis of unprecedented proportions. After years of drought, the river currents have ebbed, water in dams and reservoirs have depleted and over-exploitation of groundwater has raised concerns regarding the long-term availability of water.
  • Meanwhile, media reports claim IT firms in Chennai are asking employees to work from home. The reason is that they don’t have enough water to sustain their operations. It hasn’t rained for almost 200 days in the city and it may not get adequate rain to get over the water crisis for the next 3 months.
  • In North India, the people of arid Thar Desert of Rajasthan are spending Rs. 2500 for getting 2500 litres of water which they share with their cattle.
  • With Punjab facing the threat of desertification and the state struggling to break away from the wheat-paddy cycle, farmers in the state have been adopting a decade-old scheme to utilise underground pipeline system for irrigation.
  • In light of this crisis, Central government on its part has created a Jal Shakti Ministry under a full-fledged cabinet minister to resolve the water crisis but a lot more needs to be done.

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What are the reasons for this crisis?

Monsoon Dependence: There is a huge dependence on monsoon rains to replenish most of India’s important water sources such as underground aquifers, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. But monsoon is vulnerable to factors such as climate change, El-Nino, etc.

Uneven distribution of water and Rainfall pattern: Certain regions have surplus amounts of water for their need while others face perennial droughts for most of the year. For instance, Drought is a recurrent phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh where no district is entirely free of droughts. Rajasthan is one of the most drought-prone areas of India.

Increasing demand: Population growth, industrialization, rapid urbanisation, rising needs of irrigation and increase in domestic water usage have accelerated the demand for water. Since urbanization increases in India at a rapid pace = water demand will increase rapidly as city dwellers consume more water than rural people.

Urbanisation & Water scarcity:

  • Currently, about 285 million or 33% of India’s total population resides in urban areas. By 2050 this figure will reach 50%.
  • Rapid urbanisation is adding to the water scarcity issue in the country.
  • Presence of buildings, tar, and cement roads = even if a city like Mumbai gets good rains, the rainwater is not retained in the area as the water is not allowed to percolate underground.
  • Therefore, water required for cities is largely drawn from neighbouring villages and far-off rivers and lakes = threatening the availability in those areas.
  • Large cities also generate large quantities of urban sewage which pollutes the freshwater sources and ocean waters. However, only about 20% of urban wastewater is currently treated globally. In India, the figure is even lower.

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Overexploitation :

  • In developing countries like India, groundwater fulfills nearly 80% of irrigation requirement = resulted in a fast depletion of groundwater sources.
  • Free power and inefficient utilisation of water by farmers has added to the issue of groundwater depletion.
  • The groundwater and sand extraction from most river beds and basins has turned unsustainable.
  • Tanks and ponds are encroached upon.
  • Dug-wells and borewells are carelessly built to slide deeper and deeper to suck water from greater depths.

Shift to cash-crops: Water is being diverted from food crops to cash crops that consume an enormous quantity of water.

Inefficient cultivation practices:

  • In India, around 70% of the population is still dependent on agriculture for its livelihood.
  • Since the adoption of Green Revolution in the 1960s, nearly 50% of the food production comes from irrigated land.
  • But inefficient cultivation practices have led to the flooding of fertile land which in turn has caused salinization, siltation of reservoirs, etc = causing groundwater reserves of major agricultural states to be depleted at an alarming rate.

Water Pollution:

  • Release of industrial and domestic waste, including urban sewage, into rivers, lakes, and estuaries has polluted freshwater sources at an alarming rate in India = those fresh water sources are not fit for drinking or other activities.
  • Eutrophication of surface water and coastal zones is expected to increase almost everywhere leads to nitrogen pollution.

What are the impacts of the water crisis?

Economic growth: A Niti Aayog report predicted that water demand will be twice the present supply by 2030 and India could lose up to 6% of its GDP during that time.

Power supply: Water shortages are hurting India’s capacity to generate electricity because 40% of thermal power plants are located in areas where water scarcity is high.

Agricultural crisis: Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on monsoon (not dependable) + Ineffective agricultural practices in irrigated areas = Water stress in agriculture = Poor Cultivation = Farmer suicides.

Drinking water scarcity: Not only farmers are affected by the water crisis, urban dwellers in cities and towns across India are also facing a never seen before drinking water scarcity.

Conflicts over water: In India, there are conflicts between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing of Cauvery waters, between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh over sharing of Narmada waters, between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over sharing of Krishna waters, etc.

What are the measures taken by the government?

Across the country, states are taking the lead:

  • In Rajasthan, there is a scheme named ‘Mukhya Mantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan’. One of its objectives is to facilitate effective implementation of water conservation and water harvesting related activities in rural areas.
  • Maharashtra has launched a project called ‘Jalyukt-Shivar’, which seeks to make 5000 villages free of water scarcity every year.
  • The Telangana government has launched a mission called Mission Kakatiya, the objective of which is to increase the agriculture-based income for small and marginal farmers, by
    • accelerating the development of minor irrigation infrastructure,
    • strengthening community-based irrigation management and
    • adopting a comprehensive programme for restoration of tanks.

Jal Shakti Mantralaya

  • The government has created a new Ministry named ‘Jal Shakti’after merging Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
  • ‘Jal Shakti’ ministry will deal with the issues as follows:
    • Providing clean drinking water,
    • International and inter-states water disputes,
    • Namami Gange project aimed at cleaning Ganga and its tributaries, and sub-tributaries.
  • The ministry will launch the government’s ambitious plan (‘Nal se Jal’ scheme under jal jivan plan) to provide piped drinking water supply to every household in India by 2024.
  • Furthermore, National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) has been shifted from the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change to Jal shakti Ministry.
    • This Move seeks to consolidate the administration and bringing water-related issues such as conservation, development, management, and abatement of pollution under a single ministry.
    • National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) is responsible for implementing the centrally sponsored national river conservation plan for all rivers across the country except river Ganga and its tributaries (as issues regarding Ganga and its tributaries are taken up by National Mission for Clean Ganga).

Can a new water ministry tackle the worst water crisis in Indian history?

  • Experts are of the opinion that an exclusive ministry can only bring about a cosmetic but not a real change.
  • Water is a state subject = Unless states make specific requests the centre cannot intervene.

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What are the solutions to the water crisis in India?

Good water management practices:

  • India receives adequate annual rainfall through the south-west monsoon. However, most regions of the country are still water deficient mainly because of inefficient water management practices.
  • Rainwater harvesting should be encouraged on a large scale, especially, in cities where the surface runoff of rainwater is very high.
  • Roof-top rainwater harvesting can also be utilised to recharge groundwater by digging percolation pits around the house and filling it with gravel.
  • Indian cities need to learn from Cape Town of South Africa which when faced with the water crisis in 2018 had announced “Day Zero“. During that day, water-taps in the city turned off = people had to use communal water-taps to conserve water. Restrictions on water use per person were also fixed.
  • Since water is a state subject in India state governments should take active measures and create awareness for the minimal use of water.

Interlinking of rivers:

  • Interlinking of rivers is a topic that has been discussed and debated for several years as a possible permanent solution to the water crisis in the country.
  • The 3 primary advantages mentioned in favour of the scheme are (1) droughts will never occur (2) there will be no more floods in the major rivers and (3) an additional 30,000 MW of hydropower will be generated.

Coordination in aquifer usage: There is an urgent need for coordination among users for aquifers. There should be laws and contracts for sharing of aquifers. Groundwater aquifer mapping has started only recently in India which is a welcome step.

River basin authority: There should be a River Basin Authority for sharing information among states since most of the rivers in India pass through different states.

Coordinated efforts among states for management of groundwater at a localized level.

Community-level management: At the village level, there can be decentralized management of water at the community level.

Charging money for efficient use of water (like electricity). For example- Water ATMs at Marathwada provide water @25 paisa per litre a day.

Good Cultivation practices:

  • Changing the cropping pattern, crop diversification and encouraging water use efficiency in agriculture by moving towards food crops from cash crops.
  • Innovative farming practices like precision farming, zero budget natural farming, etc. could be employed for efficient water utilisation.

Incentive-based water conservation in rural parts of the water-stressed regions is another solution.

  • For example, if a particular level of groundwater level is maintained, higher MSP can be provided to the farmers of that region.
  • MSP can also be provided based on crop’s water usage = Crops that consume a high amount of water will get less MSP.
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Way forward

India is not a water deficit country, but due to severe neglect and lack of monitoring of water resource development projects, many regions in the country face water stress from time to time. Therefore balancing water demand with available supply is the need of the hour for future economic growth and development as well as for the sustenance of human life.

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Santhosh Kumar

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