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Water Resources : Background & Perspective

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

At Independence, only 6% of rural India had access to safe drinking water. That figure has gone up to 82%. The per capita availability of renewable freshwater in the country, however, has fallen drastically over the last 50 years. The water table is rapidly falling with unregulated over-exploitation of groundwater. By 2025, water scarcity in India will be acute. And big dams, mega river-linking projects or privatised water distribution may not help

Water stress/ Geographical and climatic variations/ Groundwater/ Surface water/ Major river systems of India/ Wet deserts/ Large dams vs small dams/ Water recharge/ Water governance

With an average annual rainfall of 1,170 mm, India is one of the wettest countries in the world. At one extreme are areas like Cherrapunji, in the north-east, which is drenched each year with 11,000 mm of rainfall, and at the other extreme are places like Jaisalmer, in the west, which receives barely 200 mm of rain. Though the average rainfall is adequate, nearly three-quarters of the rain pours down in less than 120 days, from June to September.

The country gets about 420 million hectare-metres (mham) of precipitation annually, of which 20 mham is contributed by rivers flowing in from neighbouring countries. Net evapo-transpiration losses are nearly 200 mham. About 135 mham is available on the surface and the remaining recharges groundwater.

There is little consensus on the issue of exploitable precipitation. Estimates range from 85 to 105 mham. Even if the lower value of 85 mham is taken into account, domestic consumption is no more than 10 mham. The remaining goes to irrigation. But, with demand outpacing the exploitable potential, the maximum usable water supply of 105 mham will be inadequate to meet the growing demand by 2025.

Water stress

If per capita water availability is any indication, water stress is only just beginning to show. The annual per capita availability of renewable freshwater in the country has fallen from around 5,277 cubic metres in 1955 to 2,464 cubic metres in 1990. Given the projected increase in population by the year 2025, the per capita availability is likely to drop to below 1,000 cubic metres. If the availability falls below 1,000 cubic metres, the situation is labelled one of water scarcity.

According to Professor Malin Falkenmark of the Swedish International Water Institute, 100 litres a day (36.5 cubic metres a year) is the minimum per capita water requirement for our basic human needs. Agriculture, industry and energy usage is roughly 5-20 times that of human requirements.

Although India is endowed with sufficient water, there are significant variations in the spatial and temporal availability of this resource. Consequently, at any given time, there are areas of both water excess and water stress in the country. There are significant variations in water availability even within a river basin. For instance, the availability of water within the Ganga basin varies from 740 cubic metres in the Yamuna to 3,379 cubic metres in the Gandhak.

Rural water schemes have remained the scourge of planners since Independence. Despite massive resource allocation during the last nine Five-Year Plans, there were as many as 61,747 problem villages in the country towards the end of 1997. Interestingly, the country started out with a figure of 150,000 problem villages in 1972; this rose dramatically to 231,000 in 1980.

According to the latest statistics, about 15,000 habitations in the country were reported to be without any source of potable water; some 200,000 villages were partially covered by drinking water schemes; and 217,000 villages reported problems with the quality of water.

It is difficult to estimate the proportion of population that has access to clean drinking water. At the time of the First Five-Year Plan, 6% of the rural population and some 48% of the urban population had access to safe drinking water. There has been a dramatic increase in coverage, and by 1994-95, as much as 82% of the rural population was covered. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, about 81% of the country's total population has access to safe water.

Water stress is becoming acute in both urban and rural situations. Not only the quantity but also the quality of water supplied or available is being questioned. At one extreme, water is being wasted in urban areas and by industries; at the other, the rural poor lack access to safe water. According to experts, the usable water resources in several river basins will eventually be exhausted, most surface water will be polluted, and environmental deprivation will be universal. Water scarcity has led to the emergence of the bottled water industry worth over Rs 1,000 crore.


Geographical and climatic variations

A major feature of the Indian climate, which has a direct bearing on water dynamics, is the alternation of wind direction twice a year, resulting in four distinct seasons. Consequently, the distribution of rainfall in the country is erratic and varies both in space and time.

Some areas in Rajasthan and Gujarat receive annual rainfall ranging between 100-150 mm. The south-western parts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat are a little better off -- they receive around 500 mm of rain. The plains of Punjab and western parts of the Deccan, extending further south and east to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, are blessed with 500 and 1000 mm of rain respectively. Moderately high-rainfall areas, from 1,000 to 2,000 mm, form a broad belt in the eastern parts of the country.

About 70-90% of total annual rainfall is provided by the south-west monsoon, from June to September, in most parts of the country except in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kashmir where winter rain contributes a major part of annual precipitation. The number of rainy days varies from just 10 in Rajasthan to 50 in the north-east.



India's groundwater resources are almost ten times its annual rainfall. According to the Central Groundwater Board of the Government of India, the country has an annual exploitable groundwater potential of 26.5 mham. Like surface water, nearly 85% of currently exploited groundwater is used only for irrigation.

The importance of groundwater in the Indian economy can hardly be overemphasised. According to researcher Marcus Moench, groundwater accounts for as much as 70-80% of the value of farm produce attributable to irrigation. With agriculture contributing roughly 29% of India's GDP and production from irrigated land claiming the lion's share, a large percentage of the country's GDP is closely tied to the availability of groundwater.

Besides, groundwater is now the source of four-fifths of the domestic water supply in rural areas, and around half that of urban and industrial areas. Further, in drought years, groundwater is the predominant source of irrigation. While groundwater development has had important implications for the economy, the overuse of groundwater is emerging as a major concern.

A burgeoning population is overdrawing aquifers in several states, including Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The latest data indicates that in Punjab and Haryana, water tables are falling by up to 1 metre per year. David Seckler, former head of the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, estimates that aquifer depletion could reduce India's grain harvest by one-fifth. Simply because evidence suggests that crop yields per cubic metre on groundwater-irrigated farms tend to be 1.2 to 3 times higher than on surface-water-irrigated farms.

But groundwater exploitation is not uniform across the country. At the national level, only 30% of the actual groundwater potential has been harnessed. However, in a few states such as Punjab, against a critical level of 80%, the level of exploitation is over 98%. Haryana is a close second at 80%, and Tamil Nadu is reaching criticality at 60%.

Within states too there are pockets that have reached a very critical condition with respect to groundwater utilisation. According to the Central Groundwater Board, six of the 12 districts in Punjab (Kapurthala, Jalandhar, Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana and Amritsar) and three in Haryana (Kurukshetra, Karnal and Mahendragarh) have already reached a utilisation rate of above 100%. Likewise, Gujarat's Mehsana district and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu have permanently exhausted their groundwater reserves.

The small mechanical pump, now widely used for irrigation all over the country, is largely responsible for the over-exploitation of groundwater. Punjab and Haryana face massive problems of groundwater over-development as a consequence of mechanical pumps. Water tables in these regions have dropped beyond the reach of muscle-driven water lifts that were used by farmers barely 30 years ago as the water in the wells was at depths of 10-15 metres. Thanks to the 35-75 hp pumps used to lift water, the groundwater level has now dipped to 400-450 metres in these states.

Large cities like Ahmedabad, Jodhpur and Chennai support thriving private groundwater businesses that draw water from tubewells in the neighbouring hinterlands for supply to high-income residential areas, because groundwater tables in the cities are falling at a rate of 7-10 feet per year. Besides depletion, pollution of aquifers through human activity constitutes another major problem. (For more on the privatisation of water distribution, see

The use of groundwater must be regulated from the standpoint of sustainability and equity. Spacing restrictions and other direct regulatory steps such as curtailing loans and subsidised electric connections could succeed. But, in the absence of groundwater legislation, pockets of over-exploited areas will continue to develop.

While the pressure on groundwater resources has built up, the policy framework pursued over the last 50 years for the management of groundwater has not promoted judicious and equitable use of a vital natural resource. The State's policy of subsidising power and water has, in fact, led to a greater use of groundwater sources for irrigation.

Most groundwater structures are privately owned and have therefore been outside the purview of direct regulation by the State. Measures to regulate groundwater-extraction chiefly through restrictions on credit or electricity have had limited impact. On the contrary, wherever the water table is high, affluent farmers use diesel pumps if electricity is in short supply. In the legal framework, for the management of groundwater in India, there are no de jure rights to groundwater; de facto, all landowners have the right to the groundwater in their land. Thus, groundwater is viewed essentially as an add-on to the land. As a consequence, there is no limit to the amount of groundwater a landowner can extract from his land.

A hidden dimension to this de facto right on groundwater by landowners is now beginning to unfold. Increasing demand for water in urban areas is prompting landowners sell their groundwater. Not only is such a trend causing irreparable damage to the hydrology of the area, it is also creating a rural-urban divide in groundwater utilisation.


Surface water

India is a land of rivers. There are 14 major, 44 medium and 55 minor river basins in the country. Major rivers have a catchment area of 20,000 square kilometres or above, medium between 2,000 and 20,000 square kilometres and minor systems have a catchment area of 2,000 square kilometres or less. But, in some dry areas of Rajasthan, every inch of land contributes water through runoff to these rivers.

The major river basins constitute about 83-84% of the total drainage area. This, along with the medium river basins, accounts for 91% of the country's total drainage. Though only the last 4,000 kilometres of the Brahmaputra pass through Indian territory, the river carries 31% of all the water carried by Indian rivers. By contrast, the Ganges carries about 30%. In all, a total of 1,645 cubic kilometres of water flows through our river system every year.

Major river systems of India


Catchment area (sq km)

Annual flow (million cubic metres)

Ganges 8,61,404 4,93,400
Indus 3,21,289 41,955
Godavari 3,12,812 1,05,000
Krishna 2,58,948 67,675
Brahmaputra 2,58,008 5,10,450
Mahanadi 1,41,589 66,640
Narmada 98,796 40,705
Cauvery 87,900 20,950
Tapti 65,145 17,982
Periyar 55,213 3,238
Brahmani 39,033 18,310
Mahi 34,842 8,500
Sabarmati 21,674 3,200

Given this extensive river system, our country's planners have been justified in storing the water for hydroelectric power generation as well as irrigation. Consequently, India ranks amongst the most important dam-building nations in the world. The Register of Large Dams in India lists 3,600 completed dams, and between 300-400 in varying stages of construction.

No wonder then that India has the largest irrigation infrastructure in the world. As against the ultimate irrigation potential of 113 million hectares, towards the end of the Ninth Five-Year Plan a total irrigation potential of 95.40 million hectares was realised through major and medium projects. But it isn't cheap to irrigate a hectare of land. The Planning Commission has observed that the average cost of irrigating a hectare has risen sharply from Rs 1,060 per hectare in 1950 to over Rs 150,000 in 2000.

Several reports, both from the World Bank as well as from the country's own water resources establishment, have shown that India's irrigation system is in a sorry state. It is not performing anywhere near optimum capacity. The irrigation efficiencies are notoriously low, at around 35%. As a mid-term review of the Ninth Plan made clear, even a 10% increase in irrigation efficiency could lead to additional irrigation potential of 14 million hectares.

It is true that in some places the water lost performs the useful function of groundwater recharge. However, this is not true everywhere. In many areas, water recharge is causing waterlogging. The Planning Commission has repeatedly said that we do not have the resources to maintain these systems properly. In fact, in spite of the additional investment of hundreds of crores of rupees, the area irrigated by canals is decreasing in a number of states -- Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are just two cases documented by the World Bank.


Wet deserts

Associated with an extensive surface irrigation system is the syndrome of waterlogging and salinity. Such affected lands are called 'wet deserts'. The problem of waterlogging, which was first noticed in the 1880s, has since become worse. According to the National Commission on Agriculture, about 7 million hectares of land were affected by waterlogging in 1976. In the absence of a systematic survey, it is hard to get a proper picture of waterlogging and salinity. Conservative estimates indicate that there has been a three-fold increase in waterlogged area, from 7 million hectares in 1976 to 23 million hectares today.

It is evident that the problems of waterlogging and the resultant salinity have not received the attention they deserve. In the absence of systematic and detailed surveys, these issues have been sidelined by our planners and engineers. Canal lining seems to have undergone little or no improvement over the past hundred years.


Large dams vs small dams

Considered the 'temples of modern India' by the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the lure of big dams dates back to the early-1960s when the prestigious Bhakra dam was built in Punjab. Since then, large dams have been seen as the harbingers of the Green Revolution, through assured irrigation in Punjab. Despite the fact that the success of the Green Revolution has not been repeated elsewhere, dam construction has continued unabated. Records indicate that the country has 3,600 large dams and some 300-400 still under construction.

Interestingly, the India Country Study and the Study on Irrigation Options in India, done for the World Commission on Dams, both arrived at the conclusion that the gross contribution of land irrigated by large dams in India is just about 10% of India's current foodgrain production of 208 million tonnes. These studies have not yet been challenged. However, the cumulative investment on large dams in the country stands at a whopping Rs 16,000 billion.

India undoubtedly has the world's largest irrigation infrastructure. But it remains grossly under-utilised on account of project delays, cost overruns and inefficient utilisation. A report, jointly prepared by India's water resources ministry and the World Bank in 1999, revealed that this huge irrigation infrastructure is not maintained, with most of the available financial resources going towards funding new projects. Spillover projects worth Rs 160,000 crore need to be completed in the Tenth and Eleventh Plan periods.

With the proposed interlinking of rivers up on the country's agenda (see, these spillover projects are likely to be sidelined in favour of 36 large dams under the mega-project of linking India's Himalayan and peninsular rivers. This proposal, which has been floating around for decades, is gaining ascendancy as the sites available for building large dams are getting exhausted. The country's National Water Policy passed in April 2002 shows no break from the past. Curiously, there is no letup in `giganticism' as the solution to our water problems. Even the World Bank, which in recent years had wisely shown some reluctance in funding large dams directly, has offered new hope to India's big-dam lobby through the Bank's new Water Resources Sector Strategy.

The serious problems that the poorest in the country face, following the misguided agenda of large dams, are becoming clearer. Even the claim about increased food security due to improved irrigation has been exposed. Research by many, including Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, has shown that the reason for the absence of large-scale famine in India today, as compared with the 1943 famine in Bihar and elsewhere in the country in the 19th century, is not due to increased production thanks to large dams, but to a number of other factors related to governance, adversarial politics and public advocacy institutes such as the media (for more on drought in India see

Even today, however, the water resources establishment is not ready to explore cost-effective, sustainable, quick options for satisfying the water needs of the people. And we have no credible, independent and comprehensive assessment of the thousands of dams built over the years. Nehru himself had later been inclined towards small projects when he said: "For some time past, however, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call a `disease of gigantism'. We want to show that we can build big dams and do big things. This is a dangerous outlook developing in India….The idea of having big undertakings and doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things is not a good outlook at all…We have to realise that we can also meet our problems much more rapidly and efficiently by taking up a large number of small schemes, especially when the time involved in a small scheme is much less and the results obtained are rapid. Further, in those small schemes you can get a good deal of what is called public co-operation, and therefore, there is that social value in associating people with such small schemes."

Not many from the big-dam lobby would like anyone to know that these were the words of none other than Jawaharlal Nehru, spoken at the 29th annual meeting of the Central Bureau of Irrigation and Power on November 17, 1958.


Water recharge

Though India has attempted to store a sizeable portion of its surface water in large dams, some 1,150 cubic kilometres (out of an annual rainfall of 4,000 cubic kilometres) of its rainwater still runs off into the seas annually in the form of 'rejected recharge'. Given the emerging water stress conditions, it is clear that this runoff needs to be stored on the surface and/or left to recharge the groundwater by reducing the velocity of the runoff.

The country has begun to take rainwater-harvesting and groundwater recharge seriously at all levels. These are at the heart of its massive Integrated Watershed Development Programme, which provides public resources to local communities to treat watershed catchment areas and to construct rainwater harvesting and recharge structures. Trends during the 1990s also suggest a progressive shift of budgetary allocation from irrigation development to water harvesting and recharge.

Across India, some 6.2 million hectares of rain-fed lands are currently under treatment through 5,200 micro-watersheds, at a whopping cost of Rs 8 billion (for the year 2001-2002). Of the total cultivable area of 142 million hectares, 89 million hectares of non-irrigated land requires similar investments. Not without reason though, as this segment of cultivated area alone contributes a significant 45% of the total foodgrain harvest in the country. With irrigated areas having reached a production plateau of 110 million tonnes, any increase in foodgrain production, from the current level of 200 million tonnes, in the coming decades will have to come from rain-fed agriculture.

Improving the productive use of water is another area that is receiving attention. Punjab, the bread-basket of the country, has taken the lead by encouraging its rice and wheat-growing farmers to switch to water-saving diversified farming. So far, the state is exporting `virtual water' in the form of water-intensive crops like rice and wheat. It has now developed an incentive system to encourage farmers to switch to other crops along with a suitable buy-back mechanism for the harvest. These are potentially powerful indirect demand-management strategies that do not even form part of academic discourse. However, they offer important trade-offs that need closer scrutiny.

Water stress has led to the revival of domestic rainwater harvesting techniques as well. Himachal Pradesh became the first state in the country to make the installation of rooftop rainwater systems mandatory in all new constructions. Over the years, a number of states and cities have promulgated similar orders. Even Delhi's Rashtrapati Bhawan has a rooftop rainwater-harvesting system that accounts for the sizeable daily demand, even if it is for ancillary consumption activities such as irrigating gardens and washing floors.


Water governance

In the emerging situation of water scarcity, the central issue is that of redefining water governance. Unless alternative institutional and policy arrangements are examined, the situation is only going to get worse. In the context of groundwater, the real issue is the formulation of management principles that address the ecological, equity and sustainability concerns. Further, there is a need to identify and strengthen local institutions that ensure equitable and sustainable use of water within ecological confines. Institutional reforms, differential water pricing and water conservation are pivotal issues that need to be addressed in order to tide over the present and emerging situation of water scarcity.


InfoChange News & Features, April 2003