India grapples with depleting water resources to avoid a parched future


Photo courtesy: Asian Development Bank

It is often said that the next world war will be fought over water. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the stress on the water supply is likely to be felt in India as the country’s burgeoning population is set to overtake China’s over the next decade.

The world’s second-most populated country has about 4% of the total renewable water resources with around half of the workforce dependent on agriculture for a livelihood. Given that the agriculture sector accounts for around 70% of the country’s water use, the looming pressure on the critical resource becomes apparent.

The bulk of the rural sector population comprises of small and marginal farmers who are poorly educated. With large tracts of the agriculture dependent on groundwater supply, experts at a  Water Conclave said that there is an urgent need to build up awareness about water on three planks — reduce, recycle and reuse.

With the urgent need to preserve the water resources, the Indian government has embarked on an Atal jal mission to strengthen the process for recycling of ground water besides a plethora of other programs aimed at boosting the efficiency of water usage, Pankaj Kumar, secretary of Department of Water Resources said.

Currently, the per capita availability of water in India is around 1,545 cubic meters and this is set to decline to 1,340 cubic metres by 2025. Coupled with climate change, the stress on India’s depleting water availability means that the demand side management would be critical as the efficiency of usage is low, Kumar added.

The government had set up the Jal Shakti Ministry (Water Resources) a couple of years ago to integrate the management of water resources from a previously compartmentalised approach.

This has helped bring about an additional 3.9 lakh hectares of land under irrigation, while recently the government has doubled the allocation for micro irrigation to Rs 10,000 crores to encourage methods like drip irrigation

However, given the critical importance of water, the industry needs to be accorded the status of an infrastructure sector — just like roads, airports, power or telecom, industry participants said.

Consensus emerges on water management

“It is true that we do have a serious water crisis. But the good thing is we are arriving at a national consensus on the need for water management, ” said Mihir Shah, a Professor at Shiv Nadar University, who is helping shape a National Policy on Water Management that is being drafted.

He urged that the management of water resources should not be seen only as a responsibility of the government.

“Water is too important to be left to the government alone. We need an institutional architecture and not fleeting partnerships,” he added.

Naina Lal Kidwai, head of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s water mission division, said that water security was an issue not just for the country but also for companies.

While a few companies have begin applying the principles to establish circular, but unfavourable management  of this resource continues to plague the industry.

A few Municipal Corporations such as Gurgaon and Vadodra have also embraced practices for boosting water recycling, but this needs to be stepped up.

She suggested that companies can allocate higher portions of their fund allocations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) towards building more sustainable water management.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at

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