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India is staring at Water Poverty


Based on recently released data from the India Meteorological Department, the South-West monsoon for the June to August 2023 period has been inadequate in 42 percent of the districts (see the table for reference). Specifically, in August, the country witnessed a rainfall deficit of 32 percent compared to the normal average, with the southern states experiencing a particularly severe shortfall of 62 percent. This year has marked the lowest August rainfall in India in the past 122 years, tracing back to 1901. With only around one month remaining before the conclusion of the South-West monsoon season, the reduced precipitation not only poses a significant threat to agriculture but also raises concerns about potential widespread water shortages in various regions of the country.


GS3-Mobilization of Resources, Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation

Mains Question:

The decline in South-west monsoons rains poses a significant threat to agriculture while raising questions about  potential widespread water shortages. Examine. (10 marks, 150 words).

Water Scarcity in India:

  • The total annual usable water supply in our country is estimated at 1,121 billion cubic meters (bcm). However, data published by the Ministry of Water Resources indicates that the overall water demand will reach 1,093 bcm by 2025 and 1,447 bcm by 2050. This projection implies a significant water shortage in India within the next decade.
  • According to the Falkenmark Water Index, widely used to measure water scarcity worldwide, any region with less than 1,700 cubic meters of available water per capita annually is considered to be experiencing water scarcity. According to this index, almost 76 percent of India’s population is already living with water scarcity.
  • In the case of Tamil Nadu, which is among the states facing water scarcity in terms of per capita availability, the demand for water exceeded its supply even prior to 1990-91. For instance, in 2004, the total water requirement for Tamil Nadu was 31,458 million cubic meters (mcm), while the actual supply was only 28,643 mcm. This indicates that Tamil Nadu has been grappling with water shortages for the past three decades.

Causes of Water Scarcity:

  •  Since 1990-91, there has been a consistent rise in water demand, primarily due to increased economic activities, including the expansion of agriculture. Unfortunately, there haven’t been substantial plans to create new water sources or enhance the storage capacity of existing ones to keep pace with the growing demand for water.
  • Historically, rivers, small water bodies like tanks, and domestic wells have sufficed for daily water needs. However, the poor upkeep of these smaller water bodies prevented adequate water storage, even during years with good rainfall. India has experienced droughts on multiple occasions due to insufficient rainfall, exacerbated by recent climate changes leading to a reduction in rainy days.
  • Data from the Central Water Commission indicate that the water storage levels in 150 major reservoirs, as of August 31, were 23 percent lower than the previous year’s storage level of 146.828 billion cubic meters. The emergence of El Niño, attributed to global warming, has altered rainfall patterns and is becoming increasingly common.
  • Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have warned of rapid climate change leading to reduced rainfall both in terms of frequency and volume. Insufficient rainfall can result in water scarcity, adversely impacting human lives, livestock, wildlife, and more. Water scarcity can give rise to significant environmental and economic challenges. The World Bank’s 2016 report, ‘Climate Change, Water, and Economy,’ emphasizes that countries grappling with water shortages may experience substantial setbacks in economic growth by 2050.

Recommendations to Address Water Scarcity:

  • In states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana, where the issue of water scarcity is prominent, revitalizing tanks is crucial as these states possess a significant number of tanks. Data from the Minor Irrigation Census reveals a total of 642,000 tanks, lakes, and ponds across India.
  • The First Census of Water Bodies released by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2023 identified 38,486 cases of water body encroachments in India. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources, in its 16th report on ‘Repair, Renovation, and Restoration of Water Bodies,’ echoed the same concern, emphasizing the need for stringent measures to eliminate encroachments.
  • Currently, around 85 percent of the usable water is consumed by the agricultural sector. This can be reduced by altering the cropping patterns. Implementing appropriate minimum support policies to decrease the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as rice, sugarcane, and banana is essential. According to the MS Swaminathan committee report on ‘More Crop and Income Per Drop of Water’ (2006), the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation techniques can save up to 50 percent of water in crop cultivation and boost crop yields by 40-60 percent. Approximately 70 million hectares are identified as potential areas for implementing these micro-irrigation methods.


Water is transitioning from being a commonly accessible public resource to a progressively costly commodity. Given the shifting precipitation patterns, it is probable that there will be frequent occurrences of severe water scarcity in the future. A notable instance of this was the significant water shortage experienced in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2018, which necessitated water rationing by authoritiesallowing only 25 liters per person per day and leading to considerable hardship for the population. A similar situation could potentially arise in India. Consequently, it is advisable to store water whenever feasible during periods of insufficient rainfall to avert the risk of water scarcity in the future.

February 2024