Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent

Perfect Storm

Pathways to Managing India’s Water Sector Sustainably

Narae Kim, Swastik Das, Kangkanika Neog, Rudresh Sugam
June 2018 | Sustainable Water

Suggested Citation: Kim, Narae, Swastik Das, Kangkanika Neog, and Rudresh K Sugam. 2018. The Perfect Storm - Pathways to Managing India’s Water Sector Sustainably. New Delhi: CEEW.


India is home to around 17 per cent of the world’s population but has only four per cent of its freshwater resources. Water governance challenges are inevitable in ‘water-stressed’ India, considering that a growing population, rapid economic growth, along with climate change bring unprecedented complications. This white paper, published in partnership with the United Nations in India, presents a snapshot of India’s water management and security-related challenges, and recommends possible solution pathways for sustainably managing our water resources.

Key Highlights

  • Currently, global water demand has been estimated at approximately 4,600 km3 per year and is expected to increase by 20-30 percent by 2050.
  • The per capita availability of water in India reduced from 1,816 m3/year to 1,545 m3/year, during 2001 and 2011. The estimated values for 2015 and 2050 are 1,340 m3/year and 1,140 m3/year, respectively. As per UN’s classification, areas with annual water supplies below 1,700 m3/capita are water-stressed.
  • Unequal spatial distribution of water aggravates the water- stress situation in India. For instance, Brahmaputra and Barak basins covering only 7.3 per cent of India’s geographical area and 4.2 per cent of its population, have 31 per cent of the annual water resources.
  • India is the world’s largest extractor of groundwater, followed by the U.S., China, Iran, and Pakistan. Groundwater supports more than 60 per cent of irrigation and 85 per cent of drinking water requirements.
  • Currently, 38,600 MLD of untreated water pollutes rivers across the country affecting 650 towns.
  • 36,356 habitations have been affected by poor groundwater quality as per the 2018-19 data from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
  • As per Census 2011, more than 22 percent of rural households must walk at least half a kilometre or more to fetch water, with the burden mostly being borne by women. Women and girls are often at risk of physical, mental and sexual violence when they travel long distances to fetch water.
  • The demand for water from all sectors will increase in the coming decades, further complicated by various challenges in water use, especially that of access and efficiency. As per the World Bank, only 36.7 percent of the total agriculture land in India was reliably irrigated in 2013. Moreover, according to the 2011 Census Report, 30 percent of urban Indian households do not have access to water within their premises.

Key Pathways

  • Protect traditional water bodies through their mapping, strict maintenance of water quality, proactive approach in their governance, and encouragement of community management through collective action. These water bodies serve as lifelines for the rural economy, cutting across almost all districts and villages of India.
  • Develop a robust groundwater management framework based on participatory processes. Improvement in groundwater resource monitoring, institutional strengthening and capacity building of groundwater agency, among others, should be prioritised.
  • Adopt water-use efficiency across all sectors – agriculture, domestic, industry. Micro irrigation systems like drip and sprinkler, and practices like conservation agriculture and laser land levelling should be encouraged wherever feasible. Industrial policy should orient itself towards ‘water footprint’ management. Efficient water use in industries should be seen from the supply-chain point of view.
  • Introduce sectoral reforms based on understanding sector-specific challenges. Identifying location-specific challenges, creating markets for diverse crops, and developing capacity of communities are among some of the reforms suggested for the agriculture sector. In the domestic sector, utilities services across the world should be accountable and equipped to provide equitable service to all sections of society.
  • Shift from a – ‘use and throw – linear’ to a ‘use, treat, and reuse – circular’ approach to manage wastewater. The CEEW study in association with 2030- Water Resources Group found that such a practice will have the potential to augment existing water supply sources along with opening up avenues for financial gains from resource (energy, fertilisers, and water) recovery from this treated wastewater.
  • Develop an improved water database by introducing flow measurement, installation of meters, digital water-level recorders at small-scale, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, and satellite monitoring. Quality real-time data can significantly improve water management in the country.
  • Facilitate coordination among multiple institutions, especially those responsible for agriculture and water resources.
  • Promote transboundary water reforms by adopting a basin-wide approach to sharing of water, a departure from the status quo of bilateral treaties with vague clauses and redressal mechanisms.
  • Apply water boundaries. The potential of basin-level planning for water management instead of the one based on administrative boundaries should be considered and its feasibility studied.
A shift from ‘use and throw – linear’ to ‘use, treat, and reuse – circular’ approach to manage wastewater has the potential to augment existing water supply sources along with opening up avenues for financial gains from resource recovery from this treated wastewater.

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