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The Indian Water Crisis: How Should India Increase Water Supply to Better Manage Their Water Resource?

Kanmer, Gujarat, Credit: India Water Portal 

According to the World Bank, over two billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water services with that number expected to rise due to the impact of climate change and population growth. Many studies have confirmed that water scarcity will increase in the coming decades, putting pressure on food security, environmental sustainability and economic development. These consequences will be disproportionately felt by the poor and most vulnerable in society, particularly in underdeveloped countries. The importance of increasing water supply to better manage water resources is, therefore, more important than ever to ensure everyone has equitable access to clean water, which the UN recognises as a basic human right.

India is a water-rich nation with an average of 4000 billion cubic metres of water every year, confined to the monsoon season between June and September. However, with the lack of storage and poor infrastructure, only 18% of monsoon rain can be harvested. States in India like Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are classified as water-stressed states needing increased water supply.

The main water supply in India is from groundwater. Groundwater abstraction accounts for around 50-80% of domestic water use and 45-50% of irrigation in the country. The heavy reliance on groundwater has reached its limit with the majority of aquifers in India reaching unsustainable levels after decades of exploitation. This reliance on groundwater has been due to policies set forward in the 1960s by the Indian government for the ‘green revolution,’ to ensure food security across the whole of India leading to increased groundwater extraction.

Water scarcity in India and their issue around the lack of supply can also be attributed to water rights and poor infrastructure. Most urban water utilities in India maintain an intermittent water supply, meaning the users at the farthest point of the pipeline network do not get sufficient access to water due to lower pressure and water leaks due to poor maintenance.

The poorer members of society living in India are mainly living in Slums, due to water rights in India being connected to land rights people living in Slums do not own the land due to it being too expensive. Therefore, these people aren’t connected to formal water supply networks. Instead, they rely on private water tankers to fill their domestic needs paying extremely high prices for water while people who are connected to formal water supply enjoy highly subsidised water. This leads to inequality in the amount of water supply the poor receive compared to the rich.

India, over the years, has established many different frameworks and policies related to the supply management of water to increase and distribute water supply in India in an equitable manner. It’s important to note that the Indian government has used demand-side management policies to manage India’s water resources but this opinion piece only focuses on supply-side management initiatives.

The Jal Jeevan Mission, started in 2019 highlights India’s ambition of supplying piped clean drinking water to all rural households by 2024. This mission has focused on supply-side management strategies at the local level with a participatory approach in the creation of local water infrastructure like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture.

The Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation also launched a National Water Mission in 2011 with the aim to ensure the conservation and more equitable distribution of water, both across and within states through integrated water resource management. The National Water Mission launched a campaign called ‘Catch the Rain’ with the tagline ‘Catch the rain, where it falls when it falls.’ This was to nudge states and stakeholders who depended on water to create rain-harvesting structures to capture and store rainwater before the onset of the monsoon.

India has also introduced hard-engineering solutions to increase water supply. One example is the Sardar Sarovar Project, a project to build on the Narmada River which cuts through central India. The Dam was part of a mega project to build 3000 small, 135 medium and 30 extra-large dams on the river with the means to provide water to drought-prone areas in India, particularly in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan providing drinking water and electricity from hydropower.

This was accompanied by the Sardar Patel Participatory Water Conservation Scheme (SPPWCS), which was an initiative where local grassroots organisations funded local communities to build check dams which slowed river velocity to recharge aquifers as well as hold floodwater, building thousands in a few months. Therefore, the government launched the SPPWCS in January 2000 giving 60% subsidies, later became 80% subsidies, for the construction of check dams in the hopes of reducing water scarcity and drought proneness in Gujarat, with other states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka closely following.

Finally, the most ambitious project out of the lot is the Indian National Water Grid. This project also known as the Indian Rivers Inter-link is a large-scale civil engineering project that aims to effectively manage water sources in India due to climatic and population concerns. The aim is to link rivers by a network of canals and reservoirs to increase irrigation, groundwater recharge and water shortages more common in certain parts of India. The project is split into two sections: the Himalayan rivers inter-link and the Southern Peninsular component. The river interlink will therefore store monsoon water in reservoirs and the inter-link project will deliver the water-to-water stress regions in India.

For these projects to be more successful better policies need to be put in place. The right policies could strengthen the National water plan, make it easier to implement the river inter-link project and have a positive socio-economic impact on people's lives leading to more economic growth and better supply-side water management. It is important to note that supply-side management strategies can include technical solutions using technical fixes like water waste reuse technology and desalination technology. However, this opinion piece will diverge away from technical solutions focusing more on theoretical policy solutions the Indian government could implement to increase water supply as policy solutions can improve water supply nationally whereas technical fixes have a more limited scope of influence.

One solution to increase the water supply could be through education interventions and campaigns to teach local people how to increase water supply. This policy option provides the opportunity for citizens to change and increase their access to water supply. While this policy doesn’t directly address how to increase water supply in water-stressed areas of India, it does teach the Indian citizens, particularly in rural areas about the water scarcity problem that India faces as well as ways to increase their water supply through localised rainwater harvesting, storage tanks and check dams to help recharge aquifers and store monsoon water without many behavioural changes in the way people live their lives.

Overall, this solution promotes supply-side management and involves the local community. This policy option has opportunities for locals to learn and transfer knowledge to others, creating a positive feedback loop. However, it’s a non-participatory approach and requires the state and local government to already have good relationships with citizens and community members in their area for this policy to be effective.


Another solution could be the use of public-private partnerships (PPP), surrounding water vendors in India, giving the poorer members of society access to an increased water supply as well as richer members during times of water scarcity. Given the significant infrastructure investment the Indian government needs to extend pipeline connections to people living in urban areas who are not connected to Indian water utilities as well as the unattractiveness of peri-urban areas to the formal private sector, the city and state-level governments could consider recognizing, contracting with, and regulating local water entrepreneurs as mainstream delivery mechanisms rather than an interim one.


PPP surrounding water vendors can help the government by contracting out water delivery arrangements mainly through tankers with small-scale water suppliers who get water from farmers outside cities or import water into the city from areas of water surplus in India. Dar-es-Salaam's water infrastructure is a great example of this, where small-scale water providers complement public distribution systems, providing the same quality of water to slums as the city does to its customers.


The advantage of this policy tactic is that it is a relatively cheap solution compared to large-scale engineering projects, increases efficiency and organisation with the private sector involved, fairer prices due to increased competition, and PPP can attract future foreign direct investment around water infrastructure in India, further improving water management on the supply side. However, this strategy is a short-term solution and is primarily an urban water supply solution; it would be very difficult to implement this strategy in rural parts of India.


Finally, another solution to increase water supply is to change who controls water. Water management could be controlled by the federal government rather than water rights being in the control of the state. This allows for easier implementation of large-scale water supply projects between state boundaries. In the Indian constitution, it states water is essentially a state subject and the federal government only comes into action in the case of inter-state river waters and treaties such as the Indus treaty between Pakistan and India.


Reworking the constitution around water rights could lead to an increased water supply in areas of water stress and more equitable access to water for the entire population. The advantage of federalizing water rights means there will be less bureaucracy and red tape between the implementation of water supply strategies on inter-state rivers (e.g., Dam, channelling, reservoirs), leading to faster development of water supply projects. This will specifically help the development of the National Water Grid (River Inter-link project), where states like Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu support the scheme but states like Kerala, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Punjab, Chandigarh, and Goa oppose it. This bureaucracy has slowed down the project, limiting the ability to increase the water supply in water-stress regions. However, it will take time and money to build a new legislative framework around water rights and may be overly complicated for such a large country. This solution is also limited in scope, focusing more on the bigger picture and large-scale projects, leaving out citizens’ concerns and more localised supply issues with more localised solutions.


This opinion piece shows there are many ways to solve the problem of water scarcity, both through expensive hard-engineering solutions and inexpensive localised solutions. It is evident that for these solutions to be successful the right policies need to be put in place to ensure the nation collectively achieves its objectives. With India’s population continually growing and with the threat of climate change constantly on the horizon, it’s more important than ever that supply-side policies are implemented to sustainably manage and increase water supply effectively.


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