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In India water acts as the backbone of life and livelihood


Water is a precursor to life – all the world’s great civilizations originated around sources of water. Simultaneously, water guides the sustenance as well as the growth of a civilization, leading to its sustainability.

In India water acts as the backbone of live and livelihood and has a multitude of linkages with the prosperity of the country: more than 70 percent of the Indian population is engaged in agriculture, and another 10-15 percent in water-based industries such as textile, leather, and food processing. Indeed, the path from a developing to a developed nation may run through water security, and water scarcity – if not properly addressed – may prove to be an impediment in the overall development and growth of the country.

Increasing population, urbanization and consumerism is leading to a precariously dangerous situation where demands are outgrowing the availability of, and deteriorating the quality of, available water. From 1951 to 2007 the per capita water availability in India has decreased by 68 percent.

Indian woman carrying water to the village: Rajasthani women often walk long distances through the desert to bring back jugs of water that they carry on their heads.

Vulnerability to climate change

Climate change has multidimensional stress impacts on water availability scenarios. It affects rainfall patterns, the melting response of glaciers, evapotranspiration, as well as soil moisture availability, while simultaneously increasing the sectoral water demands and affecting water quality as well. Climate change also has a role in the increasing frequency of natural calamities like floods and droughts. For countries like India that have always faced hydrologic variability, climate change will make water security even more difficult and costly to achieve.

Glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range feed into mighty perennial rivers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, which in turn support more than 60 percent of the country's population. Under current climate change scenarios, glaciers are melting at a faster rate than earlier and the health of the majority of the 9,545 glaciers in the Indian Himalaya is threatened. More than 90 percent of these glaciers are smaller than 5 km2 in area, making them highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

According to the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) 2010 report, water yield in the Himalayan region and most parts of the north-eastern region of India is likely to increase by 2030 mainly due to increase in precipitation and melting of glaciers, while it will decrease in Western Ghats and Coastal India by 10-50 percent. Also, it has been estimated that 40 million hectares are flood-prone and 51 million hectares are drought-prone which constitute 12 and 16 percent, respectively, of Indiaís total geographical area.

Climate change is also projected to affect the national per capita water availability, which may decrease by another 40 percent (from 1,654 m3 in 2007 to 1,000 m3) by 2025 mainly on account of decreased winter precipitation, and a reduction of groundwater recharge due to heavy summer precipitation and lower soil infiltration rates.

panel india

India climatic disasters risk map 

India climatic disasters risk map


The drought prone regions of India are shown in pink. They encompass Southern Tamil Nadu, the Rayalseema region of Andhra Pradesh, Northern and Eastern Karnataka, Central Maharashtra, the Saurashtra and Kutch regions of Gujarat, parts of Eastern and Southern Rajasthan, the Bundhelkhand region, Western Orrisa and parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand.

Flood-prone areas, shown in blue, extend to most of the Ganga-Yamuna basin across Uttar Pradesh, Northern Bihar, the delta regions of West Bengal, as well as the Brahmaputra valley in Assam. Parts of the Narmada and Tapi basins in South Gujarat and the upper reaches of the Krishna and Godavari basin in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are also flood prone.

Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes - one for peace and one for science.

John F. Kennedy

Facets of water security

In India, the availability from surface water and replenishable groundwater is estimated at1869 km3. However, only about 60 percent of these resources can be put to beneficial use. The overall contribution of rainfall to India's annual replenishable groundwater reserves (RGWR) is 67 percent – almost three quarters of which is contributed by the monsoons. About 92 percent of annual groundwater is extracted for irrigation, with overall utilization of groundwater resources being only 58 percent. A key challenge is that India suffers not only from variability in time but also from spatial variability. In 2000 the average per capita water availability in the Brahmaputra and Barak basin – the most water-rich basin – was about 14,057 m3 per year, compared with only 308 m3 per year in the water-poor Sabarmati basin.

Water Security

The quality of water resources in the country is deteriorating, with most chemical pollution stemming from industry and excess fertilisers coming from agriculture. Many states report drinking water contamination with arsenic, fluoride and nitrate, and in 2009. 20 states were affected by severe fluorosis. Leaching of solid (human and animal excreta) and liquid wastes, and bacteriological contamination – especially faecal-coliform – is one of the most widespread groundwater pollution problem in India, while high levels of persistent organic pollution (POP) like DDT, aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor have been reported from Jharkhand, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi – levels, that are in excess of prescribed standards. Water pollution impacts on health make up 59 percent of the total cost of environmental damage in India.

The existing water law framework, governed by eleven departments of the Government of India, is characterized by the coexistence of a number of different principles, rules and acts adopted over many decades. Moreover, National Water Policies implemented to address water related issues, and provide directions to governance framework, fall short of their desired goals due to a lack of coordination among various agencies.

India continues to struggle with growing financial difficulties to complete its water sector infrastructure, and its operation and maintenance costs.On the other hand, inadequate institutional reforms and effective implementation has affected its performance level.

Lack of private sector players in water supply and distribution, lack of effective tariffs and costing mechanisms, as well as cross-cutting subsidy regimes and regulations to control wasteful water usage, make the water governance scenarios more vulnerable.

Water supply in the country is suffering from inadequate levels of service, an increasing demand-supply gap and deteriorating financial and technical performance. Transmission and distribution networks are old and poorly maintained, and generally of poor quality. Consequently physical losses are typically high, ranging from 25 to over 50 percent. Water storage capacity developed in India only covers 35 percent of the total surface water availability to date.

Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh: 33 year old Balakammaiah in Dharmapuram village in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. He is a marginal farmer, whose crops failed due to the worst drought the region has experienced in 20 years and his second crop jowar (sorghum) has also failed, because of insufficient rains.

This is the worst year I have known, I am afraid of the future. I am working night and day, sometimes 24 hours a day carrying heavy loads to pay back the money lenders.

BalakammaiahFarmer, Dharmapuram village

Water quality and health

Alwar District, Rajasthan: A boy takes a shower in the water from a well in the village of Dapkan. Using rainwater harvesting techniques the well is continuously replenished and water can be used with more freedom than once was the case.

Water quality and health

The 1977 UN Water Conference declared that all people have the right to access drinking water in quantities and quality equal to their basic needs, irrespective of social and economic conditions. However, poor water quality still continues to pose a major threat to human health. With the growing stress on the need to have better facilities to access drinking water, 30 percent of urban and 90 percent of rural households in India still depend completely on untreated surface or groundwater. It is estimated that about 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are water related. The World Bank has estimated that the total cost of environmental damage in India amounts to US$ 9.7 billion annually, or 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product. Of this, 59 percent results from the health impacts of water pollution.

Diarrhoea continues to be an important contributor to childhood deaths in India, mainly due to unhygienic conditions and consumption of polluted water. The National Family Health Survey shows that about 9 percent of children under five suffered from diarrhoea in the two weeks preceding the survey. The Sample Registration Survey (SRS) report suggests that diarrhoea is among the top 10 causes of death among infants and children 0-4 years of age. About 10 percent of infants and 14 percent of children aged 0-4 years die due to diarrhoea in India.

Around 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases annually, 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea, and 73 million working days are lost due to waterborne disease each year. The resulting economic burden is estimated at about US $600 million a year. Some of the most prevalent water-borne diseases in India are bacterial infections like typhoid, cholera, paratyphoid fever, bacillary dysentery, viral infections like hepatitis (jaundice), poliomyelitis, and protozoal infections such as amoebic dysentery.

Climate change is likely to aggravate these health problems. Besides its direct impacts through heat stress and increased ground-level ozone in urban areas, changes in rainfall patterns would affect the distribution of infectious disease vectors such as malaria and dengue, while heavier precipitation events increase the risk of water- and food-borne diseases. Heightened drought risk could lead to more frequent crop failures, increasing the risk of malnutrition especially for poor children, and to heightened emotional stress and community tensions in drought-affected areas.

The Kolahoi glacier

The Kolahoi glacier, which feeds the Jhelum river, an important river in Jammu & Kashmir, is melting very fast. At a receding rate of >0.08 square kilometers a year, the change is threatening the water supply downstream.

The Kolahoi glacier


Debris on Kolahoi is leading to 2-3 metre loss in thickness in its lower zones.


Addressing water security



Recharge is an important way of augmenting available water, for instance by reinstating dysfunctional water supplies, storing water for future use, restoring water quality, decreasing the supply-demand gap, increasing community drought resilience, and developing sustainable water management systems. 


Traditional water bodies, built during ancient times, were devised to conserve water and were fed by rainwater through natural filtration and flow processes. They served to store water, collect rainwater, and recharge the groundwater, while acting also as a space for festivals. Technological advances and a lacking sense of ownership has led to the destruction of these water bodies, but if rejuvenated they may improve water security.

Reuse/ Recycle:

Water recycling and the reuse of treated water for non-drinking purposes allow communities to become less dependent on scarce fresh water resources. Water reuse may also reduce the nutrient loads from wastewater discharges into waterways, thereby reducing and preventing pollution. This 'new' water source may also be used to replenish overdrawn water sources and rejuvenate or re-establish those previously destroyed.


Every drop of water is precious and reducing water loss is fundamental to water security. Reduction of losses is also a means of resource conservation. This requires optimized water utilization, thereby increasing water use efficiency. The four basic dimensions of water loss reduction – runoff, agricultural, industrial, and household losses – need to be addressed holistically. This will lead to enhanced consumer satisfaction, and a slower rate of capital-intensive additions to water supply capacity.

Adressing water security


One of the basic economic principles reflects upon the importance of pricing limited indispensable resources. Water fits well into this category, and water pricing is increasingly seen as an acceptable instrument of public policy. Water-use charges, tariff rates, incentives, pollution charges, tradable permits for water withdrawals or release of specific pollutants, and fines are all market-based approaches that can contribute to making water more accessible, healthier and more sustainable over the long term.


A number of policies, bills, models, and acts exist to govern water resources. But this piecemeal approach has not yet been successful in water management. Dovetailing existing regulations to current needs and challenges is essential, and a paradigm shift from supplier control to user management is needed in policy instruments. Situational realignment of governance structures and tools can bring coherence in regulation and help attain water security. 

Water is the basis of life and the blue arteries of the earth! Everything in the non-marine environment depends on freshwater to survive.

Sandra Postel, Founder, Global Water Policy Project

New Dehli: sprawling urbanization

Mumbai at dusk

Rajasthan, India

Women dig and carry sand near the village of Paladi Bhopatan to form rainwater collection channels. Rajasthan has been suffering from a drought for the last eight years.

Bishnois tribal woman collecting grain

The mismatch between the increase in food grain production and grain storage facility is leading to wastage and rotting of grains, which could have fed millions of hungary people in the country.

Food security

Panel India

Food, water and energy security are closely linked and influence each other to a great extent

This nexus also affects all aspects of human lives and livelihoods. Climate change exacerbates the challenges faced by each sector individually - such as agricultural production and water availability - and impacts the interlinked security nexus at the same time. These considerations all need to be dovetailed and integrated into a common governance framework to achieve livelihood security

Food security is influenced by availability of, and access to, food. The performance of the domestic agricultural sector has a major influence on domestic food availability. The role of this sector is also critical as it accounts for about 58 percent of employment in the country, and is a supplier of food, fodder, and raw materials for a vast segment of industry. India produced 241 metric tons of food grains in 2010-2011, almost half the grain production in countries like China and USA, equivalent to 0.55 kg of food per capita per day. However, food grain production is highly variable due to its significant reliance on monsoon patterns, with only 45 percent of the net sown area under irrigation.

It is projected that by 2020 total food grain demand in the country will be 281 million tons – compared with a production of 261 million tons, this leaves a significant gap in supply. The Government of India in fact recognizes that the food safety net for each and every of the over one billion citizens – a number that is growing – requires enhanced agricultural production and productivity in the form of a Second Green Revolution. This is also a necessary condition for inclusive growth and for ensuring that the benefits of growth reach a larger number of people. Since 2004 the area under cultivation has remained constant at around 121 million hectares, and is likely to be further reduced due to increasing urbanization and tremendous increase in real estate returns. An increase in production therefore, is possible only through increasing the per hectare yield of food grains, which has been around 1,700 kg per hectare, almost one-third of the grain yield in countries like China.

Irrigation is a great moderator of food grain production variability, and has been a cornerstone of success during the first green revolution. Since then the increase in food grain production has been directly linked with the increase in net irrigated area. It is estimated that the productivity of irrigated land is three times higher than that of rain-fed land. With estimates of 1,500 to 3,000 litres of water required for producing every kilogram of food grains, it is projected that an additional 15 percent of water would be required to meet the food production demand by 2020.

Furthermore, food security has direct implications for energy security. Doubling the total food grain production since 1980-81, to offset the increase in population and maintain the per capita per day net food grain availability, has been possible only by increasing agricultural electricity consumption fivefold. With the 2011 National Food Security Bill, the Government of India is now promising cheaper food grains as a legal entitlement to 63.5 percent of the country's poor population. But to achieve the goals of food security, it is necessary to ensure water and energy security as well.

Grain storage in Pataura, East Champaran, Bihar Province: A store of grain at a government aid distribution center, during the 2007 South Asian floods. Over 12 million residents were displaced in India alone and many lost their lives during the crisis.

Energy security

With over a billion people – a fifth of the world population – India ranks fourth in the world in terms of energy demand. It produced 811 billion KWh of electricity in 2010-11 – 85 percent of that through thermal and nuclear power plants – which was 8.8 percent short of the total electricity demand in the country. With transmission and distribution losses ranging up to 30 percent, a large part of the population as well as industrial establishments depend on private generators for much of their electricity requirements. With the national economy projected to grow by 7-8 percent over the next few decades, demand for energy is likely to increase further. 

It has been projected that electrical energy demand for 2021-2022 will be 1915 terawatt hours with a peak electric demand of 298 gigawatts. For meeting the growing needs of the economy, the Government of India plans to double the electricity generation capacity every ten years for at least the next three decades. To achieve this goal, it plans to develop Ultra Mega Power Projects (UMPPs) with a capacity of 4000 MW each and requiring an estimated investment of about US$4 billion. Thirteen such thermal power projects have been envisaged which are at various stages of development.

Water is used intensively for thermal and nuclear power generation. It is estimated that on an average, for every kilowatt hour of power, Indian thermal power generation plants (TPPs) consume as much as 80 litres of water. Compare this with the water consumption in modern TPPs in developed countries at less than 10 litres for every kilowatt hour. Given the currently grim water security scenarios fulfilling India's energy ambitions would be impossible. In other words, to achieve energy security, water security needs to be ensured.

India's Electricity Consumption
India's National Solar Mission

Solar Resources Map of India 

Solar Map


India is densely populated and has a high degree of solar radiation energy. In 2009 the Indian Government launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change, with plans to generate 1,000 MW of power by 2013 and up to 20,000 MW grid-based solar power, 2,000 MW of off-grid solar power and cover 20 million sq metres with collectors by the end of the final phase of the mission in 2020.