Water Scarcity and Crisis in India

Water is the most precious natural resource since it is essential for human survival and life on the Earth. But availability of fresh water for human consumption is increasingly under stress due to a number of factors. This crisis of water scarcity is most prominent in India and other developing countries. This article focuses on the water scarcity and emerging crisis in India. 

What is Water Scarcity in the Indian Context?

Water scarcity is the lack of fresh water resources to meet the demands of water use in a region. Availability of water per capita has been reducing progressively in India.

Per capita availability of water in India 

1951 - 5177 cubic meters

2001 - 1816 cubic meters

2011 - 1545 cubic meters

2030 - 1300 cubic meters (estimate)

The NITI Aayog for the first time released a Report on the current water availability across different states in the country titled Composite Water Management Index (CWMI).  

In this report, the NITI Aayog has highlighted the fact that 600 million people, or nearly 50% of the current population, face high-to-extreme water stress. 

Other important points are:

  1. 75% of households do not have drinking water on premise
  2. 70% of our water is contaminated
  3. India is currently ranked 120th among 122 countries in the water quality index

How is India Placed Globally in the Context of Water Availability

As can be seen from the above image most of the states in India face scarcity of fresh water for 2 to more than 5 months on average every year. India falls in severely water stressed regions of the World.

How Much Water do We Need?

The absolute minimum water requirement for domestic use is 50 litres per person per day, though 100-200 litres is often recommended. Taking into the accounts the needs of agriculture, industry and energy sectors, the recommended minimum annual per capita requirement is about 1700 cubic meters.

How is Water Scarcity Measured

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 value, the country will begin to experience periodic or regular water stress. 

If the water availability falls below 1000 cu. meters, the country will suffer from chronic water scarcity. Lack of water will then begin to adversely affect human health and well-being as well as economic development.

If the annual per capita supply falls below 500 cu. meters, the country will reach the stage of absolute scarcity.

Water Resources in India

Average annual precipitation

4000 BCM (Billion Cubic Meters)

Avg. monsoon precipitation (Jun-Sept)

3000 BCM 

Natural Runoff

1986.5 BCM

Estimated utilizable surface water resources

690 BCM

Total utilizable ground water resources

433 BCM

Total annual utilizable water resources

1123 BCM

Per capita water availability

1720.29 cubic meters

Water Requirement and Projected Demand


Water Demand in 2010 (BCM)

Water Demand in 2025 (BCM)

Water Demand in 2050 (BCM)

























As can be seen from the above two tables demand for fresh water will soon out strip availability of water in India. Presently, the annual availability of water is 1123 Billion Cu. Meters (BCM) in India. However, by 2050 the annual demand for water will be 1180 BCM which will be in excess of the water availability. These figures are based on the study commissioned by the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development which are, at best, conservative estimates of demand.

If the figures of Standing Sub-Committee of Ministry of Water Resources are looked at then the projected water demand in 2025 will be 1093 BCM and in 2050 it will reach 1447 BCM.

Reasons for Increasing Water Scarcity

There are different reasons for the increase in water scarcity. The main causes are:

  1. Increasing demand: Population growth, industrialization, rapid urbanisation, increasing needs of irrigation, increase in domestic use have pushed up demand for water. As urbanization increases in India at a rapid pace, water demand will rise rapidly since city dwellers consume more water than rural citizens.
  2. Overexploitation of groundwater and surface water: Nearly 50% of the World population depends on groundwater for its drinking needs. In developing countries like India, groundwater fulfills nearly 80% of irrigation requirement. This has resulted in fast depletion of groundwater sources. Free power and inefficient use of water by farmers has added to the problem of groundwater depletion. Groundwater increasingly is pumped from lower and lower levels, and much faster than rainfall is able to replenish it.
  3. Water Pollution: Release of industrial and domestic waste, including urban sewage, into rivers, lakes and estuaries has resulted in pollution of fresh water sources at an alarming rate in India. Eutrophication of surface water and coastal zones is expected to increase everywhere.
  4. Uneven distribution of water and Rainfall pattern: Some regions have excess amounts of water for their requirement 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.

Urbanisation and Water Scarcity

Presently around 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 crisis in the country.

Water required for cities is largely drawn from neighbouring villages and far-off rivers and lakes. Due to buildings, tar and cement roads, even if a city like Mumbai gets good rains the rain water is not retained in the area since the water is not allowed to percolate underground.

Large cities also release large quantities of urban sewage and pollute the fresh water sources and ocean waters. Only about 20% of the urban waste water is currently treated globally. In India, the figure is even lower.

Impact of Water Scarcity

  1. Not enough water for irrigation: In India, nearly 70% of the population is still dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. Since the adoption of Green Revolution in the 1960's, about 50% of the food production comes from irrigated land. However inefficient cultivation practices have resulted in flooding of fertile land which in turn has caused salinization, reservoir siltation etc. This is causing ground water reserves of major agricultural states to be depleted at an alarming rate. 
  2. Recurrent droughts: In 2015-16, 266 districts in 11 states were declared drought affected. As mean annual rainfall decreases across the country owing to global warming and climate change and on the other hand ground water reserves are depleting at an alarming rate due to over exploitation recurrent droughts are being witnessed in various parts of the country. Maharashtra has witnessed two large farmer and tribal rallies recently on the issue of droughts and compensation for crop failure. 
  3. Conflicts over water: Globally, more than 200 water bodies are shared by two or more countries. Conflicts are rife over the water available in many rivers and river basins. In India, there are conflicts between Karanataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing of Cauvery waters, between Gujarat and Madhya over sharing of Narmada waters, between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over sharing of Krishna waters and so on.

Different Solutions to Tackle Water Scarcity

  1. Rainwater harvesting: India receives enough water annually through the south-west monsoon. However, most regions of the country are still water deficient due to inefficient water management practices. Rainwater harvesting should be encouraged on a large scale, particularly, in cities where surface run off of rain water is very high. Roof top rain water can also be used to recharge ground water by digging percolation pits around the house and filling it with gravel. 
  2.  Discouraging wasteful activities: Indian cities will need to learn lessons from Cape Town in South Africa which when faced with the prospect of running out of water in 2018 announced "Day Zero"- when water taps in the city were turned off and people had to use communal water taps to conserve water. Limits on water use per person were set. State governments in India will need to take bold decisions and create awareness for the minimal use of water since water is a state subject in India.  

Can Interlinking of Rivers Tackle the Water Crisis?

Interlinking of rivers is a topic that has been discussed and debated for many years as a possible permanent solution to the water woes in the country. The three major advantages cited 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.

However, the budget required for this project is estimated at 25% of our GDP! The water which is made available through such a costly project will also be priced quite high to recover the costs. Will the consumers, mainly the farmers, be willing to pay a high price for water?

Also, it is not even clear that the rivers like the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, the Mahanadi, and the Godavari are water-surplus since the sources of such rivers are drying up and the rivers themselves are choked with silt.

There will be large scale habitat loss, environmental destruction and population displacement in building over 200 reservoirs and a network of crisscrossing canals. 

Therefore interlinking of rivers is not a practical solution to the water scarcity crisis that India is facing in the short and long term.

Summarising the Water Scarcity Issue in India 

  1. India is not a water deficit country, but due to severe neglect and lack of monitoring of water resources development projects, several regions in the country experience water stress from time to time.
  2. In spite of good annual rainfall, India faces a critical water shortage due to mismanagement, pollution, and ground water depletion.
  3. A major challenge for India is its rising water demand coupled with economic  development.
  4. India’s increasing population and economic growth has put tremendous pressure on India’s water resources. Water demand is steadily increasing and will continue to do so.
  5. Balancing water demand with available supply will be crucial for future economic growth and development.
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