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Unseen Consequences Growing Water Crisis of India’s


  • The United Nations World Water Development Report 2022 (UN WWDR 2022) of UNESCO has encapsulated global concern about the sharp increase in freshwater withdrawal from streams, lakes, aquifers, and man-made reservoirs, impending water stress, and water scarcity being experienced in various parts of the world.
  • The report “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible” describes the global challenges and opportunities associated with groundwater development, management, and governance.
  • According to the report, groundwater accounts for 99 percent of all liquid freshwater on the planet. However, because this natural resource is poorly understood, it is undervalued, mismanaged, and even abused.


GS Paper 3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

Mains Question

India is experiencing a water crisis of such magnitude that it is causing widespread unrest. Discuss the causes of such conditions, as well as what needs to be done to address the situation on the ground. (250 words)


  • The theme of World Water Day in 2007 was “coping with water scarcity” (observed on March 22).
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a new Water Report warning of a global silent crisis, with millions of people deprived of water to live and sustain their livelihood.

A decade of activity

  • World Water Week 2022 was recently held in Stockholm, Sweden (23 August to 1 September), with many discussions centred on the theme “Seeing the Unseen: The Value of Water.”
  • These discussions are expected to help push the water agenda forward in the run-up to the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater in Paris in December 2022.
  • The agenda will be expanded at the United Nations Water Conference in New York in March 2023, formally known as the 2023 Conference for the Midterm Comprehensive Review of Implementation of the United Nations Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018-2028).

Increasing water scarcity

  • According to the Water Scarcity Clock, an interactive web tool, over two billion people live in countries that are currently experiencing high water stress, and the number will continue to rise.
  • According to the Global Drought Risk and Water Stress Map (2019), major parts of India, particularly west, central, and peninsular India, are highly water stressed and face water scarcity.
  • A NITI Aayog report, ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (2018), has issued a warning about the country’s worst water crisis, with more than 600 million people facing acute water shortages.

Water scarcity’s impending dangers

  • Encourages competition: In areas where water is scarce, water is usually transferred from the hinterlands/upper catchments or drawn from stored surface water bodies or aquifers. This sparks competition at the sectoral and regional levels.
  • Demonstration: One such global concern that has been noted in many countries since the early twentieth century is increasing trans-boundary transfer of water between rural and urban areas.
  • Statistics: According to a 2019 Review paper, urban water infrastructure imports an estimated 500 billion litres of water per day over a combined distance of 27,000km.
  • Inter-basin transfers: At least 12% of the world’s large cities rely on inter-basin transfers.
    • According to a UN report titled ‘Transboundary Waters Systems – Status and Trend’ (2016), this issue of water transfer is linked to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are slated to be achieved between 2015 and 2030.
    • The report classified water transfer risks into three categories: biophysical, socioeconomic, and governance.
    • South Asia, including India, is classified as having high biophysical and socioeconomic risks.

India’s Urban Water Use Framework

  • Growing urban population: According to the 2011 Census, India’s urban population accounted for 34% of total population, distributed across 7,935 towns of all classes
  • World Urbanization Prospects 2018: According to the report, the urban population component in India will surpass 40% by 2030 and 50% by 2050.
  • Future scenario: Although India’s urbanisation has been relatively slow, it is now accelerating.
    • Water use in the urban sector will increase as more people move to cities, and per capita water use will rise as living standards rise.
  • Urban water management trajectory: When a city is small, it is only concerned with water supply. Water is also sourced locally, with groundwater providing the majority of the supply.
    • As the city grows and water management infrastructure develops, reliance on surface water shifts.
    • As cities expand, water sources shift further up in the hinterlands, or urban water allocation is increased at the expense of irrigation water
    • This trend is observed in almost all Indian cities that rely on surface water. City water supply is now a topic of inter-basin and inter-state water transfers.
  • Potential for conflict: Regardless of the source, surface or groundwater, cities rely heavily on rural areas for raw water supply, which has the potential to spark a rural-urban conflict.
  • Evidence: Available studies covering Nagpur and Chennai point to the impending problem of rural-urban water disputes that the country will face in the not-too-distant future as water scarcity worsens, exacerbated further by climate change.

Case Study of Ahmedabad

  • Previous layout: Until the mid-1980s, more than 80% of Ahmedabad’s water supply came from groundwater sources. In confined aquifers, the depth to groundwater level reached 67 metres.
  • Today’s picture: The city now gets the majority of its water from the Narmada canal. The transition is from local groundwater to canal water receiving supply from inter-state and inter-basin surface water transfers.
    • Groundwater dependence persists, particularly in peri-urban areas, in almost all large cities that have switched to surface water sources.
  • Assessing water levels: While surface water transfer from rural to urban areas is visible and calculable, groundwater aquifer recharge areas are dispersed far beyond the city boundary or its periphery and difficult to enumerate.

Reversing the roles

  • Water transfer from rural to urban areas is currently a lose-lose situation in India, as water is transported at the expense of rural areas and the agricultural sector.
  • In cities, the majority of this water is grey water, with little recovery or reuse, contributing to water pollution.
  • However, rural and urban areas draw water from the same source, namely the country’s water resources. As a result, it is critical to strive for a win-win situation.
  • Such a situation is possible by addressing governance issues in rural and urban areas, fostering rural-urban collaboration, and implementing an integrated approach to water management.

The way forward

  • A system perspective and catchment scale-based approach are required to link water reallocation with broader discussions on development, infrastructure investment, and so on in order to address the world’s critical water crises.
  • Institutional strengthening can also provide opportunities to build flexibility into regional water resource allocation, allowing for adjustments in rapidly urbanising areas.

December 2023