Water Issues in India : Frequently Asked Questions
answers compiled by Mallika Garg
World oceans cover about three fourth of earth’s surface. According to the UN estimates, the total amount of water on earth is about 1400 million cubic kilometres, which is enough to cover the earth with a layer of 3000 metres deep. However, the fresh water constitutes a very small proportion of this enormous quantity. About 2.7 per cent of the total water available on the earth is fresh water, of which about 75.2 per cent lies frozen in Polar Regions and another 22.6 per cent is present as ground water. The rest is available in lakes, rivers, atmosphere, moisture, soil and vegetation. What is effectively available for consumption and other uses is a small proportion of the quantity available in rivers, lakes and ground water. The crisis about water resources development and management thus arises, because most of the water is not available for use and secondly, it is characterized by its highly uneven spatial distribution.
As per the latest assessment (1993), out of the total precipitation, including snowfall, of around 4000 billion cubic metres in India, the availability from surface water and replenishable ground water is put at 1869 billion cubic metres. However, due to topographical and other constraints, only about 60% of this, i.e. 690 billion cubic metres from surface water and 432 billion cubic metres from ground water can be put to beneficial use. Availability of water is highly uneven in both space and time. Precipitation is confined to only about three or four months in a year and varies from 100 mm in the western parts of Rajasthan to over 9000 mm in the north eastern state of Meghalaya. Also, Rajasthan, with 8% of the country’s population has only 1% of the country’s water resources, while Bihar with 10% of population has just 5% of the water resources. Thus, while India is considered rich in terms of annual rainfall and total water resources, its uneven geographical distribution causes severe regional and temporal shortages.
India has witnessed phenomenal development of water resources and self sufficiency in food grains, rapid expansion in the urban, energy and industrial sectors, and drinking water infrastructure. However, this has been achieved at the cost of ground water depletion, water logging, water quality degradation and pollution and increasing salinity levels affecting large areas. Sectoral demands for water are growing rapidly in line with urbanisation, population increases, rising incomes and industrial growth. As a result, per capita water availability has been falling. Meanwhile, India’s supply of water is rapidly dwindling due primarily to mismanagement of water resources, although over-pumping and pollution are also significant contributors. As demand for potable water starts to outstrip supply by increasing amounts in coming years, India will face a slew of subsequent problems, such as food shortages, intrastate, and international conflict.
Surface water and groundwater are the major sources of India’s water supply. Other sources, such as desalination, are negligible because they are not considered cost effective. The assessed gross available and utilisable water resources of the country stand at 2,384 billion cubic meters (bcm) and 1086 bcm, respectively. With an estimated population of just over one billion, the available and utilisable water resources per capita per year are 2,384m3 and 1,086 m3 respectively, against an estimated availability of 6008 m3 in 1947.
- Surface water
Surface water produced internally in India stood at 1,222 cubic kilometres, during 1977 & 2001, while that in Asia as a whole, stood at 10,985 cubic kilometres. Indian rivers have been classified into fourteen major, forty-four medium, and fifty-five minor & desert river basins. The major river basins cover 83% of the total drainage basin and contribute to 85% of the total surface flow, whereas medium and minor river basins share 8% and 7% respectively of the total surface flow.
India receives an average of 4,000 billion cubic meters (bcm) of rainfall every year. However, only 48% of rainfall ends up in India’s rivers and due to lack of storage and crumbling infrastructure, only 18% can be utilized. Whereas, arid rich countries (such as the United States and Australia) have built over 5000 cubic meters of water storage per capita, and middle-income countries like South Africa, Mexico, Morocco and China can store about 1000 cubic meters per capita, India’s dams can store only 200 cubic meters per person. India can store only about 30 days of rainfall, compared to 900 days in major river basins in arid areas of developed countries.
National level statistics for water availability mask huge disparities from basin-to-basin and region to region. Spatially, the utilisable resource availability in the country varies from 18,417 cubic meters in the Brahmaputra valley, to as low as 180 cubic meters in the Sabarmati Basin.
- Ground Water
Groundwater is the major source of drinking water in both urban and rural India. It is also an important source of water for the agricultural and the industrial sectors. India possesses about 432 bcm of replenishable groundwater, replenished yearly from rain and river drainage, but only 395 bcm of these are utilizable. Of that 395 bcm, 82% goes to irrigation and agricultural purposes, while only 18% is divided between domestic and industrial sectors. Total static groundwater available is approximately 10,812 bcm.Groundwater is increasingly being pumped from lower and lower levels and much faster than rainfall is able to replenish it. The average groundwater recharge rate of India’s river basins is 260 m3/day. The Delhi Jal Board, which is responsible for supplying potable water, estimates that water tables are dipping by an average of .4 meters a year.
Water is central to economic growth and poverty reduction in South Asia(SAR). Provision of clean drinking water is crucial for maintaining basic health and curtailing disease. 85 percent of people have access to water supply, and 37 percent have access to sanitation services. Most of the households lacking access live in rural or semi-urban areas. Irrigation is a major pillar of agricultural growth and rural development. About 39 percent of cropland is irrigated, and irrigated agriculture accounts for 60-80% of food production in the region.
South Asia’s renewable freshwater resources are about 1,200 cubic meters per capita. Withdrawals of freshwater are high, and many aquifers are overexploited as subsidized electricity tariffs make pumping cheap. The region’s rainfall varies from year to year, causing droughts and floods that result in deaths and social and economic shocks. SAR also faces water-related environmental problems—shrinking glaciers, soil erosion, pollution, and groundwater degradation—and trans-boundary issues that put pressure on the availability of water. In many parts of the region, the institutions need to be made more efficient and that needs to take precedence over additional public investment. These reforms need to address policies, institutional structures and functioning, resource regulation, groundwater extraction, and river basin planning. Water resources management across political boundaries requires cooperation between countries.
There’s growing incidence and severity of water conflicts between states. The state has generally responded by proposing new supply schemes (like a new dam, a desalination plant or a rainwater harvesting scheme) which will sole the supply problem. However, areas where water is already scarce, it is a zero sum game. These schemes increasingly solve one state’s problem at the expense another. Inter state tribunal awards haven’t helped much. They have taken years to complete, and have stimulated states to focus their attention on getting more water next time, rather than on effective use of what they have.
In 2006 between the domestic, agricultural, and industrial sectors, India used approximately 829 billion cubic meters of water every year. By 2050 demand is expected to double and consequently exceed the 1.4 trillion cubic meters of supply.
- Domestic Demand
The demand for drinking water is divided between the urban and rural population, and comprises about 4-6% of total water demand. Due to the amenities of typical urban life, such as flush toilets and washing machines, people living in cities tend to lead more water intensive lives. The urban population has doubled over the past 30 years, now representing 30% ofIndia’s total population and is expected to reach 50% of the total population by 2025. Population growth is going to accelerate the water crisis in India, especially as more and more people move into the cities and become part of the middle class. Because the rivers are too polluted to drink and the government is unable to consistently deliver freshwater to the cities, many urban dwellers are turning to groundwater, which is greatly contributing to the depletion of underground aquifers. Rural citizens face a similar crisis. Currently 30% of the rural population lack access to drinking water.
- Agricultural Demand
India’s agricultural sector currently uses about 90% of total water resources. Irrigated agriculture has been fundamental to economic development, but unfortunately caused groundwater depletion. Due to water pollution in rivers, India draws 80% of its irrigation water from groundwater. As water scarcity becomes a bigger and bigger problem, rural and farming areas will most likely be hit the hardest, threatening the food security of the country.
- Industrial Demand
According to the Ministry of Water Resources, industrial water use in India stands at about 50 billion cubic meters or nearly 6 per cent of total freshwater abstraction.