Indian woman drawing water from the well as two of her children wait in the  Thar Desert, Rajasthan. Photo: iStock
An Indian woman draws water from a well as two of her children wait in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan. Photo: iStock

India faces a severe water crisis, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows it. It represents such an existential threat to stability across the subcontinent that orderly governance and sustainable economic development are in jeopardy if the government fails to address the problem adequately. 

Modi has been “stumping for water” for years. He, together with the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) and Lok Sabha (lower house), and the people, need to sort out the mess; the plight of a couple hundred million thirsty people is serious business. 

In early October, the PM announced the Jal Jeevan Mission, an effort not only to get all the people “to understand the severity of the problem” but to enlist their support in conservation. This decentralized approach to water management will help relieve pressure on water resources. 

The Jal Jeevan Mission is the latest in a long series of efforts by India to improve its management of water resources, especially rainwater and aquifers, as well as methods of collection, storage, transmission, leakage prevention, usage, and minimization of pollution. No small task. 

A huge problem

The magnitude of the problem has been known for years. The conclusions of the 2018 Composite Water Management Index by NITI Aayog, India’s premier government think tank, were alarming: “India [was] placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated.”

By most credible accounts, that is, by those basing their studies on science rather than trying to “cash in” on the crisis, the water problem continues to get worse. 

“India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat. Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about 2 lakh [200 thousand] people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. The crisis is only going to get worse.” Shocking. 

NITI Aayog’s 2019 Composite Water Management Index is also unequivocal: “As the water crisis worsens, production capacity utilization and new investments in capacity may both decline, threatening the livelihoods of millions, and commodity prices could rise steeply for consumers due to production shortages.” 

Modi fully grasps the significance of the problem: “India’s development and self-reliance is dependent on water security and water connectivity.… If the country is not concerned about water preservation and does not prevent the wastage of water, the situation will deteriorate in the coming decades. It is our responsibility that the water given to us by our ancestors should be made available for our future generations.”

The Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center recently presented insightful observations on water-energy-food confrontations in India.

The consequences of overdrawing groundwater in most Indian cities include increased water toxicity, challenges to irrigation, depletion of nearby lakes and rivers, and water rationing. India draws the most groundwater in the world, with more than 27 million borewells in existence, and more are being drilled daily, further depleting over-stressed groundwater levels.

As underscored in the 2019 Index, “In fact, the unchecked extraction of groundwater by farmers is driving the country’s groundwater crisis, with 61% of wells declining in levels due to extraction rates exceeding recharge rates.” The situation has become so dire that there are districts calling for bans on borewell drilling.

With less than 5% of the globe’s fresh water and more than a billion people, Indians suck out of the ground more water than any other country in the world, 90% of which is used for farming. Is India’s uprising in the agricultural sector a consequence of the water crisis? 

It’s a serious matter if “21 Indian cities – including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad – will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people, and 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030,” as NITI Aayog’s 2018 Composite Water Management Index reported.

Modi is keenly aware that the water crisis could be a major challenge to his leadership. 

Some countermeasures

Among his many actions, Modi has unveiled numerous water initiatives, such as a US$850 million plan (2019) to deal with water shortages in India’s middle states where agriculture is a mainstay – Rajasthan, Karnataka, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

In 2020, India and the World Bank agreed on a $450 million loan to underwrite efforts to slow the rate of groundwater depletion while strengthening institutional management. Efforts on multiple fronts continue. 

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), among others, are pitching in with resources and initiatives, chipping away at the problem. The India-EU Water Partnership has been helpful.

Regularly, India rolls out new water-related programs such as the Jal Jeevan Mission and Jal Shakti Abhiyan: Catch the Rain initiative. Despite the extent of the problem, India is deploying every weapon in its arsenal. It must deal with the stubborn issues not only of disorderly government but, more important, hydrologic cycles, weather patterns, aquifers, unsustainable demand, and poor management. 

To address the enormous issue of aquifers, in early October, India and Denmark agreed on measures to map groundwater resources.  

Much more needs to be done, as NITI Aayog has flagged: “The key driver of India’s groundwater crisis is the current legal framework (riparian law) that ties land rights to water rights and allows landowners to extract groundwater unchecked. Since groundwater is a common, finite resource, this has implications for both the distribution and sustainability of groundwater in the country.” A delicate matter that will require serious reflection. 

According to Indian sources, the state of Maharashtra is a good example of how the authorities use legislation to better manage extraction of groundwater. The state, by passing a serious of groundwater development and management rules, has required residents to seek permission to dig new wells, approval depending on building groundwater recharge structures. Moreover, government can impose extraction limits with regular monitoring. 

Explosive water conflicts

Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, is the first major city in India to go dry, causing innumerable problems for its 11 million residents. The neighboring state of Karnataka is now officially the most arid state in India and faces myriad challenges, especially in rural communities.

Because of water shortages, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are in conflict with each other – a water war of sorts. One recent headline in the Indian press reads: “Cauvery’s battle for survival amid TN, Karnataka water sharing dispute.” No resolution is in sight soon. (Cauvery is a river that runs through the two states.)

Up north, competition and control over water has been at the root of disputes along the Line of Control (Jammu and Kashmir) and the Line of Actual Control (Ladakh). It’s worth reading “China risks a Himalayan water war with India: China’s plan to dam the Yarlung Zangbao, the world’s highest river, threatens to spark conflict with downstream India” and “Himalayan glaciers on the eve of destruction”. Work to solve water use and conservation issues among India, Pakistan, Nepal, China and Bangladesh must continue. 

In general, “damming” should be discouraged because it contributes to the water crisis in the wider subcontinent, as enormous volumes of water are diverted or choked off. The water that flows down India’s main ranges – the Vindhya and Satpura, Western Ghats, Himalaya and Karakoram and Aravalli – “suffers.”

The largest rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus systems, have all been impacted negatively. India has more than 5,100 dams across the country – and the water crisis intensifies.

It is well known that India is a mega-biodiversity country, tremendously rich in flora and fauna. The water crisis will not help slow the pace of forest and biodiversity degradation.

In June, India’s Centre for Science and Environment published “The State of India’s Environment Report,” which stated the obvious again, namely that “both surface and groundwater in the country are under threat, with 86% of the water bodies critically polluted.” That is again confirmatory bad news for biodiversity.

The Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change’s Annual Report 2020-21 provides important data and conclusions about the connection between water management, natural resource use and biodiversity. 


The Covid-19 pandemic amplified the effects of water shortages in more than 33% of India’s districts. Even though the Asian Development Bank projects India’s economy to grow by 10% and 7.5% in 2021 and 2022 respectively, those forecasts are somewhat optimistic. But the most devastating result of efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 has been its impact on more than 200 million Indians, who have slipped into poverty over the past 18 months, and the water crisis has not helped. 

India is complex but its complexity has given it creativity and innovative abilities. Being the 13th most arid country in the world and the second most populous, India continues to devise strategies to conserve and manage its water resources better.

These include the installation of desalination plants, sustainably tapping into rivers, construction of well-managed reservoirs, the roll-out of demand-based strategies like rainwater harvesting, wastewater reuse, and irrigation optimization. While these strategies raise hope and build optimism, the size of the task is both overwhelming and urgent.  

As a matter of necessity, India’s water strategy needs greater integration to reinforce its efforts to identify and manage its aquifers, optimize management of rainwater runoff to replenish its groundwater resources, review reservoirs and dam policies, and set up a viable water resource tracking system using artificial intelligence and satellites (when possible) to keep the public up to date with water levels in lakes, rivers, and underground water sources. 

Despite all of India’s efforts, tensions are rising across the country with potentially disastrous consequences for peace and stability in the subcontinent. More needs to be done, and it seems India will be up to the task – it does not, after all, have an alternative.

To quote Modi: “I always say the strength of democracy lies in criticism. If there is no criticism, that means there is no democracy. And if you want to grow, you must invite criticism. And I want to grow; I want to invite criticism.”

And so, in collaboration with local governments and with the direct involvement of its people, India must figure out how better to share and manage its water, the most precious of natural resources. With smart innovative strategies, the application of technology – at which India excels – and an optimistic attitude, India should be able to manage the situation. 

Why not tackle the issue of water with the Indian spirit that Modi has so adroitly characterized: “We walk together, we move together, we think together, we resolve together, and together we take this country forward.” 

Javier M. Piedra

Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.