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Water Crisis in India: Agenda for the 21st Century

Part One: Some Facts

General Scenario

Water, the finite natural resource, covers more than two-thirds of the earth, but only a small part of it is suitable for drinking and irrigation and is distributed unevenly among countries. According to the UN estimates, the total amount of water on earth is about 1.4 billion (one point four billion) cubic kilometre (, which is enough to cover the earth with a layer of 3000 metres depth. But, less than three per cent of the total water available on Earth is fresh water of which more than 75 per cent lies frozen in Arctic regions and glaciers and 22.6 per cent of it is present as groundwater. The rest is available in lakes and rivers besides atmosphere, moisture, soil and vegetation. What is effectively available for consumption and other uses is a small proportion of the quantity available in rivers, lakes and groundwater, besides rainwater.

Earth’s 97 per cent water, which is in the sea, is very expensive to desalinate. Only about one per cent water is readily available for use and the irrigated agriculture consumes over 70 per cent of water used by people.  Industry accounts for more than 20 per cent. Households use only about eight per cent. In other words, the domestic water consumption is the only use that is practically bare minimum. To assure adequate health, people need a minimum of about 100 litres of water per day for drinking, cooking, and washing. In industrialised countries people are using as much as 450 litres per day, while in the developing countries consumption is as low as 20 litres per day. In water scarce places, the average water consumption is not even 20 litres a day.

The fact that more than 26 countries in the main water deficient regions of Africa, West Asia, South Asia, North America, South America, and Australia have already been experiencing water scarcity. And, according to the estimates, over three billion people of about 65 countries (India included) will be affected by the year 2025. The tragic part is that water is a finite natural resource and no technology, till date, has successfully contributed to making or producing water for mass consumption.


Indian Scenario

India is a victim of uneven spatial distribution of water. For example, the Central Himalayan region or the hilly state of Uttaranchal/ Uttarakhand houses several prominent water bodies but thousands of villages in the state still have to do with insufficient water availability. Similarly, despite being a part of the Ganga river basin, Rajasthan suffers with acute water shortage. Therefore, the importance of water has to be recognised and greater emphasis laid on its economic use and better management – simply because in our country, inefficient utilisation of water has already created a critical situation. Water is scarce even for drinking purpose, not to talk about its availability for agriculture, industries, etc.

In India the poverty-stricken regions tend to be in the climatic zones subject to drought and other water problems as they are least able to afford alternative sourcing. The crisis about water resources development and management thus arises because most of the water is not available for use and secondly it is characterised by its highly uneven spatial distribution. Environmentalists like Sunderlal Bahuguna are not wrong in saying that the acute scarcity of water may force the powerful nations to wage a new global war for the control of the depleted sources of water. Such a parallel makes the future picture essentially depressing.

India already faces an alarming situation. Its fragile water resources are stressed and depleting while various sectoral demands are growing rapidly even as about 200 million people in the country do not have access to safe drinking water and nearly 1.5 million children under five die each year due to water-borne diseases. The drought conditions in several parts of the country like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, and Andhra Pradesh are unfortunately on rise. And, disputes over sharing of the water resources are becoming grimmer.

India will face a severe water crisis if the available fresh water resources are not managed properly. According to the estimates, by the year 2025, the country will face a severe water shortage leading to serious struggles. Also, it is feared that within a few decades the availability of water in the country will be about 1700 to 2000 cubic metres per person as against the world average of 5000 to 9000 cubic metres per person. In one-third of India’s agro-climatic regions, there is water scarcity already in terms of per capita demand and supply of water. Such an imbalance is bound to lead to conflicts at the local, state and the national levels.

At present, thousands of Indian cities do not have sources of water and in future; it will be transported over larger distances as the water sources move much more away from the cities. The country’s current and future situation can be gauged by the trend in water availability. Presently, six of India’s 20 major river basins already fall into water scarce category. By the year 2025, five more river basins are feared to be water scarce. It is also feared that even Brahmaputra, Barak, and west flowing rivers will be water insufficient in the times to come. Who knows China does not divert the course of mighty river Brahmputra in the times to come?

The glaciers of Himalaya are rapidly melting and it is feared that within next 50 to 80 years, most of the glaciers will have disappeared. There is certainty from the surface temperature data, collected by WMO’s Global Observing System, that the globally averaged surface temperatures were rising. According to records maintained by members of the WMO, the warmest year since instrumental record began in 1860s, occurred in 1998. Nine of the ten warmest years have occurred in the 1990s. These conditions are part of a continuing trend to warmer global temperatures that have resulted in a rise of more than 0.6 degree celsius during the past 100 years. Since 1976, the global average temperature has risen at a rate approximately three times faster than the century-scale trend. The Gangotari glacier has already shrunk backwardly by several hundred metres. In such a scenario, there will be considerable changes in the runoff pattern of the rivers like Ganga causing floods, loss of property and life, and loss of agro-production.


Physiological Conditions

Before contemplation on the issue, let us take a look on the real situation. Ours is a country of many rivers and mountains. Its geographical area of about 329 m.ha is covered by a large number of small and big rivers, some of them figuring amongst the mighty rivers of the world. Physiographically, India has broadly seven defined regions: (i) the Northern Mountains, comprising the mighty Himalayan ranges; (ii) the Great Plains, traversed by the Indus and Ganga-Brahmaputra river systems and stretching to the arid zone of Rajasthan; (iii) The Central Highlands, consisting of a wide belt of hills running east-west starting from Aravalli ranges in the west and terminating in a steep escarpment in the east; (iv) The Peninsular Plateau Belt comprising the Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, North Deccan Plateau, South Deccan Plateau and Eastern Plateau; (v) The East Coast, a belt of land of about 100-130 km wide, bordering the Bay of Bengal land lying to the east of the Eastern Ghats; (vi) The West Coast, a narrow belt of land of about 10-25 km wide, bordering the Arabian Sea and lying to the west of the Western Ghats; and (vii) The Islands, comprising the coral islands of Lakshadeep in Arabian Sea and Andaman and Nicobar Islands of the Bay of Bengal.

Agro-Climatic Regions

But for resource development, the country has been divided into 15 agricultural regions based on agro-climatic features, particularly soil type, climate including temperature and rainfall and its variation and water resources availability as follows: (i) Western Himalayan Division; (ii) Eastern Himalayan Division; (iii) Lower Gangetic Plain Region; (iv) Middle Gangetic Plain Region; (v) Upper Gangetic Plain Region; (vi) Trans-Gangetic Plain Region; (vii) Eastern Plateau and Hill Region; (viii) Central Plateau and Hill Region; (ix) Western Plateau and Hill Region; (x) Southern Plateau and Hill Region;  (xi) East Coast Plain and Hill Region; (xii) West Coast Plain and Hill Region; (xiii) Gujarat Plain and Hill Region; (xiv) Western Plain and Hill Region; (xv) Island Region. After examining the various studies, the Planning Commission had also recommended that agricultural planning be done on the basis of agro-climatic regions.



The presence of the great mountain mass formed by the Himalaya and its spurs on the North and of the ocean on the South is the two major influences operating on the climate of India. The first poses an impenetrable barrier to the influence of cold winds from Central Asia, and gives the sub-continent the elements of tropical type of climate. The second, which is the source of cool moisture-laden winds reaching India, gives it the elements of the oceanic type of climate.

India has a very great diversity and variety of climate and an even greater variety of weather conditions. The climate ranges from continental to oceanic, from extremes of heat to extremes of cold, from extreme aridity and negligible rainfall to excessive humidity and torrential rainfall. The climatic conditions influence to a great extent the water resources utilisation of the country.



The variations in temperature are also marked over the Indian sub-continent. During the winter seasons from November to February, due to the effect of continental winds over most of the country, the temperature decreases from South to North. The mean maximum temperature during the coldest months of December and January varies from 29 degree centigrade in some part of the peninsula to about 18 degree centigrade in the North, whereas the mean minimum varies from about 24 degree centigrade in the extreme South to below 5 degree or below zero centigrade in the North. From March to May is usually a period of continuous and rapid rise of temperature. The highest temperature occurs in North India, particularly in the desert regions of the Northwest where the maximum may exceed 48 degree centigrade.

With the advent of Southwest monsoon in June, there is a rapid fall in the maximum temperature in the central portions of the country. The temperature is almost uniform over the area covering two thirds of the country, which gets good rain. In August, there is a marked fall in temperature when the monsoon retreat from North Indian in September. In Northwest India, in the month of November, the mean maximum temperature is below 38 degree centigrade and the mean minimum below 10 degree centigrade. In the extreme North, temperature drops below freezing point.


Rainfall and Evaporation

The annual precipitation, including snowfall, in the country is estimated about 4000  For the purpose or rainfall country has been divided into 35 meteorological sub-divisions. The Resources potential of the country, which occurs as natural run off in the rivers is about 1869 as per the basin wise latest estimates of the Central Water Commission (CWC), considering both surface and ground water as one system.

Rainfall in India is dependent in differing degrees on the South-West and North-East monsoons, on shallow cyclonic depressions and disturbances and on violent local storms, which form regions where cool humid winds the sea, meet hot dry winds from the land and occasionally reach cyclonic dimension. Most of the rainfall in India takes place under the influence of Southwest monsoon between June to September except in Tamil Nadu where it is under the influence of Northeast monsoon during October and November.

The rainfall in India shows great variations, unequal seasonal distribution, still more unequal geographical distribution and the frequent departures from the normal.

It generally exceeds 1000 mm in areas to the east of longitude 78 degree E. It extends to 2500 mm along almost the entire West Coast and Western Ghats and over most of Assam and Sub-Himalayan West Bengal. On the West of the line joining Porbandar to Delhi and thence to Ferozepur, the rainfall diminishes rapidly from 500 mm to less than 150 mm in the extreme west. The Peninsular has large areas of rainfall less than 600 mm with pockets of even 500 mm. The estimate of areal average rainfall is subjective depending on the method adopted. Therefore, estimates of local rainfall over the country obtained by employing other techniques differ in a vast country like India.

As regards evaporation rates, they closely follow the climatic seasons, and reach their peak in the summer months of April and May and the central areas of the country display the highest evaporation rates during this period. With the onset of monsoon, there is a marked fall in the rate of evaporation. The annual potential evaporation ranges from 150 to 250 cm over most parts of the country. Monthly potential evaporation over the Peninsula increases from 15 cm in December to 40 cm in May. In the Northeast, it varies from 6 cm in December to 20 cm in May. It rises to 40 cm in June in West Rajasthan. After the onset of monsoon potential evaporation decreases generally all over the country.


Rivers/Water Bodies

The rivers and mountains have a greater significance in the history of Indian cultural development, religious and spiritual life. A major part of India’s population is rural and agriculturally oriented for whom the rivers are the source of their very survival. Like other riparian civilisations, the civilisations of Ganga and Indus valleys developed a belief in the waters as the origin and sustaining principle of life. Northern India’s earliest historic cities were established, at the beginning of the first millennium BC, along the Ganga-Yamuna system: Indraprastha (modern Delhi), Hastinapura, Kaushambi, and Varanasi. Also, the rivers played an important role in connecting different places.

The rivers of India can be classified into four groups: (i) The Himalayan rivers, which are formed by melting snow and glaciers and therefore have a continuous flow throughout the year. As this region receives very heavy rainfall during the monsoon period, the rivers swell and cause frequent floods; (ii) The rivers of the Deccan Plateau, which are rain fed and fluctuate in volume, many of them being non-perennial; (iii) The Coastal Rivers, which, especially on the West Coast, are short in length with limited catchment areas, most of them being non-perennial; and (iv) The rivers of the inland drainage basin in Western Rajasthan, which are ephemeral, drain towards the silt lakes or are lost in the sands.

There are as many as 12 rivers that have been classified as major rivers. Their total catchment area is 252.8 million hectare (m.ha). Of the major rivers, Ganga – Brahmaputra-Meghana system is the biggest with catchment area of about 110 m.ha, which is more than 43 per cent of the catchment area of all the major rivers in the country. The other major rivers with catchment area more than 10 m.ha are Indus (32.1 m.ha.), Godavari (31.3 m.ha.), Krishna, (25.9 m.ha.) and Mahanadi (14.2 m.ha). The catchment area of medium rivers is about 25 m.ha and Subarnarekha with 1.9 m.ha. catchment area is the largest river among the medium rivers in the country.

The main rivers of the Himalayan group include Ganga and Indus. Indus even lent its name to India. The Himalayan rivers discharge about 70 per cent of their inflow into the sea. Indus has five major tributaries– Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej and rises in Mount Kailash in Tibet and traverses many miles through the Himalaya before it is joined by its tributaries in Punjab to fall into the Arabian Sea.

Ganga, famous alike in legend and history, is considered the most sacred river by the Hindus. It rises near the Gangotari glacier in Uttaranchal or the Uttarakhand Himalaya and flows through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal to fall into the Bay of Bengal. Ganga and its tributaries- Yamuna, Gomati, Ghagara, Sharada, Gandak, Chambal, Sonn and Kosi are spread out like a fan in the plain of India thus forming the largest river basin in India, with an area, one quarter of the total area of India.

Brahmaputra, rising in western Tibet flows for some 1300 km through the Himalaya, turns southwest and then south, joining the easternmost branch of Ganga, Padma, together with Ganga into the Bay of Bengal.

The Deccan rivers denuding their beds for long geological ages have developed flat valleys with low gradients. Other major rivers include Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, Pennar, Mahanadi, Damodar, Shravati, Netravati, Bharatpuzha, Periyar, Pamba, Narmada and Tapti. They contribute about 30 per cent of the total outflow in India. These rivers are entirely rain fed with the result that many of them shrink into rivulets during the hot season.

Besides rivers, the inland water resources of the country are classified as canals, reservoirs, tanks and ponds, lakes, derelict water, and brackish water. Other than rivers and canals, total water bodies cover all area of about seven m.ha. Of the rivers and canals, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh occupy the first place with the total length of rivers and canals as 31.2 thousand km, which is about 17 per cent of the total length of rivers and canals in the country. Other states following Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh are J&K and Madhya Pradesh.

Among the remaining forms of the inland water resources, tanks and ponds have maximum area (2.9 m.ha.) followed by reservoirs (2.1 m.ha.). Most of the area under tanks and ponds lies in southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. These states along with West Bengal, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, account for 62 per cent of total area under tanks and ponds in the country. As far as reservoirs are concerned, major states like AP, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, and UP account for larger portion of area under reservoirs.

More than 77 per cent of area under lakes, derelict water, etc lies in the states of Orissa, Uttaranchal, UP and Assam. Orissa ranks first as regards the total area of brackish water and is followed by Gujarat, Kerala and West Bengal. The total area of inland water resources is, thus, unevenly distributed over the country with five states (Orissa, AP, Gujarat, Karnataka and West Bengal) accounting for more than half of the country’s inland water bodies.

Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana system is the major contributor to total water resources potential of the country. Its share is about 60 per cent in total water resources potential of the various rivers. Due to various constraints of topography, uneven distribution of resource over space and time, it has been estimated that only about 1122 of total potential of 1869 can be put to beneficial use, 690 cu. km. being due to surface water resources. Again about 40 percent of utilisable surface water resources are presently in Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana system.

In majority of river basins, present utilisation is significantly high and is in the range of 50 per cent to 95 per cent of utilisable surface resources. But in the rivers such as Narmada and Mahanadi percentage utilisation is quite low. The corresponding values for these basins are 23 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. The distribution of water resources potential in the country shows that as against the national per capita annual availability of water as 2208 cu.m., the average availability in Brahmaputra and Barak is as high as 16589 cu.m., while it is as low as 360 cu.m. in Sabarmati basin. Brahmaputra and Barak basin with 7.3 per cent of geographical area and 4.2 per cent of population of the country has 31 per cent of the annual water resources.

Per capita annual availability for rest of the country excluding Brahmaputra and Barak basin works out to about 1583 cu.m. Any situation of availability of less than 1000 cu.m. per capita is considered by international agencies as scarcity conditions. Cauvery, Pennar, Sabarmati, east flowing rivers and west flowing rivers are some of the basins, which fall into this category.



Among Asian countries, India has the largest arable land, which is close to 39 per cent of Asia’s arable land. Only the US has more arable land than India. And, India has more than 17 million energised wells providing groundwater to more than 50 per cent of the irrigated area. Not only this, it meets 80 per cent of needs of the domestic use in rural areas and about 50 per cent in the urban and industrial areas. According to a World Bank report, the groundwater is the mainstay for one billion inhabitants of the country and in drought years it is the primary source of irrigation. What will happen to the underground water bank when there are no perennial water bodies to recharge the groundwater bodies or the vice versa?

In the non-monsoon period it is the groundwater that comes into rivers to recharge them. The subterranean aquifers are the biggest contributors to the water flow of the rivers in the lean months. Over the last two decades there has been a mushroom growth of tube wells in and around the major river basins of the country and they have drained the water from the underground reservoirs of our water basins. The water table has dropped by two to three metres in most parts of the country. In Gujarat it is down by four to five metres.

The depletion of underground water is matched by overuse of surface water. All our major rivers have been dammed at several points and water diverted into canals for irrigation. What were magnificent, perennial rivers 20 years ago have been reduced to seasonal ribbons of water now. In Delhi, groundwater has gone down significantly and almost 50 per cent of that is polluted.


Part Two: Agenda for the 21st Century


Water Needs for the 21st Century

For the 21st century, water management must take an innovative course. A course that recognises water as both a basic need and as a scarce resource. It is very simple to know that if there is scarcity of water, the ability to develop economically is limited. Therefore, three major issues– availability, quality and access—must be addressed. Water and sanitation improvements could reduce total child mortality by more than one-half. The fundamental relationship between water and survival has long been recognised. Now, it is time to ensure that our finite supply of this valuable resource is used optimally. Compromise will put the future of the country in danger.

The United Nations’ message is wide and clear: “Water is a scarce resource to be managed and protected.” India is not like Canada, a country blessed with nine per cent of the world’s renewable water supply. India has to remember that a large population in the country live with severe water problems. Many of them, without clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.


River Water Disputes

One had not heard of river water disputes till about the middle of the 20th century. Disputes and riots over river water are of a recent origin. And quite possibly, rivers and the distribution of their waters will become one of the most politicised of ecological issues in the near future. In India, we are already in the grip of water disputes. The dispute over distribution of Cauvery water is already a bone of contention between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Similarly, claims of UP, Haryana and Delhi on Yamuna water also cause problems from time to time. And, now the latest fight is emerging over sharing of the water of the rivers originating from Uttaranchal state and passing through Uttar Pradesh state.  In short, the commodification of river waters has to be reversed no matter at what cost.

The talks about establishing linkages among the river systems are nothing but a great threat to the people of India. If the ambitious project at all takes off in the years to come at phenomenal costs, it will be a real disaster. In fact, the need is to utilise water with care not with the intention of using more and more of it. In fact, connecting the Indian rivers is an engineer’s dream only and we have already seen negative results of such efforts in the erstwhile USSR. Actually, such a project will cause massive displacement of humans, disconnect them from their lands, indigenous cultures and ethos, damage extensively ecology/ biodiversity, finish thousands of species, and cut through millions of hectares of agricultural lands. Besides, the project will only remind us how in the past somebody had tried to shift the capital to Daulatabad from Delhi and at what cost.

Instead of thinking about such linkages, the Indian government must draw an effective strategy for solving the inter-state disputed over sharing of river waters and engage people in the efforts of judiciously using and saving water. Groundwater use patterns need immediate attention – locally, regionally, and nationally.


Remedies Through Constitutional Provisions

As most of the rivers in the country are inter-state, the regulation and development of waters of these rivers, is a source of inter-state differences and disputes. However, Parliament has power to make laws with respect to any matter for any part of the territory of the country not included in a state notwithstanding that such matter is a matter enumerated in the State List. In case of disputes relating to waters, according to Article 262, Parliament may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or in, any inter-state river or river valley. Only thing is that this has to be applied judiciously, justly and without close-minded approach. Governments’ dilemma can only make the things more serious.


Access and Shared Usages

The 1980s was the Global drinking water supply and sanitation decade. And during this period, significant advances in water management practices were made, but the goal of universal coverage remains unrealised. Therefore, the task of providing water and sanitation to all and protecting the world’s water is urgent as are the fundamental issues related to the access and shared usage. Successful water management will be contingent on integrated strategies, which address many considerations. Sustainable solutions could have economic, environmental, social, political or health implications.

Technical expertise in the areas of sanitation, drainage, identification of sources and waste management is critical. Initiatives should involve the use of appropriate technologies and institutional strengthening at all levels. Also, components like health protection, social mobilisation, community development, empowerment and capacity building for communities and the participation of the private sector has to be incorporated vigorously.


Water Policy

India’s national water policy aims at planning, developing and conserving the scarce and precious water resources on an integrated and environmentally sound basis keeping in view the needs of the state governments. The policy envisages strategies; inter alia, ground water development, water allocation priorities, drinking water, irrigation, water quality, water zoning, conservation of water, flood control and management. The state governments make their water policies within the overall framework of the National Water Policy.

If people think that the 2,525 km long Gangetic lifeline, whetting the life and appetites of nearly 100 big and small towns along it, will run it’s revered course, all the while nourishing 40 per cent of the Indian population for ever, are wrong. We now see decline in the number of water projects. Tehri is already in question due to protests by the environmentalists and its unprecedented slow speed. The higher project costs and increased competition for funding has made the things from bad to worse. New sources of water are becoming increasingly scarce, more expensive to develop, and more dependent on expertise and technological know-how for planning, design and implementation. Many donors are reviewing their participation in this sector causing increasing delays in the implementation of projects. The situation, therefore calls for an urgent soul-searching.

With millions of wells scattered throughout rural India and entrenched traditions of private ownership, protection of drinking water sources, groundwater recharge, and environmental concerns such as water quality problem are the key issues needing to be addressed. Also, pollution or deterioration in water quality can reduce the availability of water in ways that are far less reversible.

Besides, broad approaches are needed to monitor and address environmental impacts and concerns such as water logging and pollution. These need to be integrated effectively into groundwater development and management approaches. It is regrettable that the attempts to regulate groundwater through restrictions have had only limited success. There is a need for wider dissemination of access to water-related information among people. The effective management of the groundwater utilisation requires strong data collection and analytical input like descriptions of groundwater availability and the functioning of hydrologic systems.

Therefore, the groundwater legislation is essential for management. The interim order issued by the Supreme Court of India establishing the Central Groundwater Board as a central groundwater authority provides an important opportunity for developing and passing effective legislation and corresponding regulatory and management mechanisms at the central and state levels. The subsidised electricity in the rural areas will have to be discouraged in this regard so that people do not resort to maximum pumping of groundwater.



The World Bank assisted five-year swajal pariyojana or the water and sanitation programme was started in 1996 in the water scarce regions of Uttarakhand and Bundelkhand of the then Uttar Pradesh. The scheme was envisaged covering more than 900 villages in Uttarakhand and Bundelkhand. It is unfortunate that the Swajal as a community-based programme is an absolute failure as the village water and sanitation committees formed to look after the planning, execution/ implementation, monitoring and maintenance of the project concerned, were forced to become redundant due to undue interference of the state officials. Therefore, the efforts of the bodies like the World Bank to commodify water must be discouraged. Besides, the traditional knowledge has been ignored while implementing the scheme. Cannot sponsors of the projects like swajal take a lesson from Rajendra Singh, the Waterman of Rajasthan?


Indigenous Knowledge and Local Participation

The history of water harvesting in the country is very old, dating back to several thousand years, the mode being collection and storage of rain water, run-off water and water from the flooded rivers. Today, efforts are being made in several parts of the country in this direction. Even, the judiciary has intervened in the matter. It has been made mandatory in a city like Delhi that houses beyond a specified area limit are constructed after certain period, making arrangements for in-house water harvesting is necessary.

But, what is the most important is social mobilisation by engaging people in the efforts of water saving. People from different areas come on the common platforms and share their respective local ecological knowledge systems. Mere directives are never effective on a long-term basis. Any such activity must have the community involvement. Rajasthan’s waterman and the Magsaysay Award winner, Rajendra Singh, has had very bad experience with the government agencies. When he, along with his colleagues, began their first project at Gopalpura village, the government proved to be a hindrance. After they turned the river Arvari into a perennial river through water harvesting, the government started to give out licenses for fishing in that river. They had to fight tooth and nail to save the river from the clutches of fish contractors. His water management movement, apart from bringing agricultural prosperity to the region, has also helped in raising the cattle population. According to Singh, the forests cover has also increased in the Sariska Tiger Reserve.

Another cost of new technologies is the emerging tension between indigenous-folk systems of knowledge and exogenous-scientific knowledge bases. Traditional subsistence methods are based on bodies of knowledge that have evolved through trial and error over the centuries and are highly adaptive to the constraints of specific highland miao-niches, are sustainable without long-term damage to the land. In addition, these methods are not dependent on alternative market-based resources. The erosion of local knowledge affect households’ ability to adjust to emergencies and, in many instances, also leads to the devaluation of women who are the main repositories of this knowledge.

Therefore, the role of local people in the planning and development of water programmes in their own communities is essential. They offer considerable local knowledge and know-how, and the likelihood of their on-going involvement and ownership results in sustainability. Particularly, the involvement of women in the water sector leaps logically from their traditional roles as users, providers and managers in terms of household hygiene. Women, and to a lesser degree children, generally obtain, transport, store and then use water in the home.

Several Indian experiences have been success stories. Ralegan Siddhi, a village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, is just an example, where people turned the semi-arid village into a village with no water scarcity. Thanks to the efforts of Anna Hazare, an eminent social worker. Once drought-prone, the residents of Ralegan Siddhi have today turn the taps on, round the clock.


Integrated Management Approach

The Planning Commission had proposed, in 2000, an integrated management approach to conserve natural resources like water, soil, bio-diversity and forests, beside a well-organised monitoring and evaluation process. This was proposed with the aim to bring the natural resources under one umbrella and for the adoption of an integrated management approach. Unfortunately, each of the natural resources — water, soil, forests and bio-diversity – has been dealt with in a fragmented manner by different agencies.

Information-based efforts need to be initiated by the communities by empowering themselves at the grassroots levels. India should give a lead to the recognition that water is a scarce commodity. Efficiency in water use and development of water should be done hand in hand. Also, there is an urgent need to change the mindset of the people and institutional framework of the country to face the water crisis looming over the country.

It is not clear what has been done to the proposal of the Planning Commission that was aimed at equity and economic viability. Also, it is essential to devise a set of criteria and indicators (C&I), which would be applied by all those responsible for integrated management of soil for sustainable management of natural resources, including water. Besides, there is an urgent need for clarity in the criteria applied to monitor and evaluate the natural resources as well as yield regulation.

For increased flow of water, the goal of 33 per cent forest cover in the country has to be achieved combining both agriculture and forest policies. And, there has to be a sound system of substitution is worked out to ensure forests are not over-exploited and bio-diversity is not damaged yet sustained production took place to meet the economic needs of the local people.


Survival of the Rivers

The CPCB has identified as many as 22 rivers as polluted in the country and there is no doubt that the rivers have a natural capacity to cleanse themselves but with the growing urbanisation, agricultural demands for water increasing and sewage spewing into our depleted river systems, this innate capacity to rejuvenate is being incapacitated. Yamuna and Sabarmati are the most polluted rivers of the country. Pollution levels rise phenomenally when the water in the rivers decreases.

There are also disturbing reports of Ganga drying up because the Gangotari glacier, its main source of water, is receding at the rate of 10 to 30 metres a year. Most rivers are facing a water shortage heightening the pollution level. In the last 20 years, the area under agriculture has been augmented with increased irrigation drawn from our rivers. Ganga, which runs through one of most densely populated areas in the world and home to nearly 400 million people, is also heavily polluted. As access to sewer and sanitation facilities in the river basin is so scarce, dozens of cities spew millions of gallons of untreated human and industrial waste into its sluggish waters. Once one could see river dolphins in Ganga near Varanasi city, now even fish are few. Sad to say, all rivers in India are grossly over-exploited and heavily polluted.

One of the most regrettable environmental failures is the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), which was launched in 1985 and cost Rs six billion. A study found that the amount of sewage flowing into the Ganga has doubled since 1985, while a government audit found that funds meant for cleaning the river were being siphoned off.

It is now recognised that the major shortcomings of the GAP-I. Even the government had admitted the failure in Parliament. GAP-I has already been declared closed and work under GAP-II is likely to be “completed” by 2005. When the total cost of environmental degradation is considered, it more than offsets the positive economic growth of the past two decades, according to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. Although the nation has stringent pollution controls, compliance is low due to little political will, outdated technologies, lack of capital and poor infrastructure, activists say.

Saifuddin Soz as minister for environment and forests had to lament over the lethargy and corruption that had ruined a dream project. Under the GAP, sewage treatment plants (STPs) were to be put up in 27 Class One cities. By the time they were constructed the amount of sewage generated by the city had doubled in some places and the plants just could not handle the load. In the 10th five-year plan a sum of Rs. 3,000 crore has been earmarked for cleaning up rivers under the National River Action Plan. The plan will focus on 149 cities along these rivers.

In fact, the water pollution scenario is quite frightening. With the population explosion, urban centres are spreading and there is greater generation of wastewater. 16,000 mld (million litres daily) is generated from class-1 cities. Delhi alone generates 2,250 m.ld of sewage, which is more than that of all the Class-2 cities. The low level of the Yamuna and the huge quantity of waste it receives have given it the dubious distinction of being the most polluted river of the country. And, of the 17,600 million litres of wastewater generated in the country every day, only 4,000 million litres are treated. Vast quantities of untreated wastewater are getting into our water bodies and the environment.

Of the 45,000 km length of our rivers, 6,000 km have a bio-oxygen demand (BOD) above 3mg/l (milligrams per litres), which means they are unfit for drinking, according to the CPCB. Yamuna has a BOD of 35 to 40 mg/l. The coliform content in Yamuna is as high as in raw sewage, according to the National River Conservation Authority in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

According to several environmentalists, most of India’s rivers are already dead, because millions of tons of industrial effluents and domestic wastes flow into them daily. According to MC Mehta, an environmentalist, among the nation’s 18 principal waterways, most are already dead due to the dumping of untreated waste. Who knows Delhi will not be a desert if Yamuna vanishes in the city by 2025.


Must Do

The improvements in water facilities can offer both health and socio-economic benefits, especially, for women as closer water supplies can reduce time, energy and physical strain, allowing them to redirect their labour to other important development tasks. Similarly, improvements in the health and well being of children can indicate progress.

A vibrant water quality monitoring in India is needed desperately as contamination of groundwater and lakes is already devastating the ecosystems. While technological improvements are helpful, the constraints (political, institutional and social) are the crux of the problem. Therefore, an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to water management is necessary.

Policy instruments such as water pricing and cost recovery can be potential contributors to conservation. The users can use these tools to ensure reliable, equitable, rational optimisation. Water management will mean better conservation of water supplies by reducing and reusing. For the future, the fundamental approach and the mantra should be: the management of water as a finite and crucial resource.

Improvements in water and sanitation facilities can offer both health and socio-economic benefits for women. For example, closer water supplies can reduce time, energy and physical strain, allowing women to redirect their labour to other important development tasks. Similarly, improvements in the health and well being of children can indicate progress. For instance, a decreasing incidence of water-related diseases in children could signal improvements in water quality.

The order issued by the Supreme Court establishing the central groundwater board as a central groundwater authority provides an important opportunity for developing and passing effective legislation and corresponding regulatory and management mechanisms at the central and state levels. The report also points out that the subsidised electricity in the rural areas encourages individuals who own wells to maximise pumping of groundwater and sales to neighbouring farmers in informal water market.

Also, it is essential to devise a set of criteria and indicators (C&I), which would be applied by all those responsible for integrated management of soil for sustainable management of natural resources, including water and forests. Besides, there is an urgent need for clarity in the criteria applied to monitor and evaluate the natural resources as well as yield regulation.

For increased flow of water, the goal of 33 per cent forest cover in the country has to be achieved combining both agriculture and forest policies. And, there has to be a sound system of substitution is worked out to ensure forests are not over-exploited and bio-diversity is not damaged yet sustained production took place to meet the economic needs of the local people.

India is considered one of the vanguards of environmental protection. A country that is committed for the elimination of environmentally harmful processes and over-exploitation of non-renewable resources. She even created a separate department of environment in 1980 and subsequently upgraded it to a full-fledged ministry of environment and forests in 1985 with the aim to plan, promote and co-ordinate the environmental and forestry programmes.

But, the results have not been as enthusiastic as expected simply because no serious efforts were made to transfer the required technology to the developing societies living in the various regions of the country.

The Rio Declaration on environment and development adopted at UNCED in 1992 remains to be fulfilled. The declaration had stated: “Eradicating poverty and reducing disparities in living standards in different parts of the world are essential to achieve sustainable development and meet the needs of majority of people.”

Therefore, we have no option but to depend on the available sources of water and have the responsibility to save, conserve and strengthen them without fail. Their conservation and creating conditions (like forestation) for new sources are the only answer simply because as long as life is on Earth, demand for water is going to increase.

In nutshell, India will face a severe water crisis if the available fresh water resources are not managed properly and there is no devolution of power to the ground level. If the current fresh water resources are not used efficiently, then by the year 2025, the country will face a severe water shortage which may even lead to wars. At present, India is short of fresh water supply, which will aggravate within some years and result in availability of about 1700 to 2000 cubic metres of water per person as against the world average of 5000 to 9000.



Reference and Acknowledgement:

  1. UN Documents; Hindu Folio: July 2001

  2. CSE journals

  3. AFP: India Faces Catastrophic Crop Loss Through Global Warming (2001)

  4. Paul Routledge: Terrains of Resistance (1993)

  5. Ted Case Studies: Chipko Movement

  6. Bharat Dogra: Tehri Dam Struggle at Crucial Stage (1995)

  7. Marita Ishwaran: Environment and Human Rights

  8. Kazimuddin Ahmed: Forests on Fire (1999)

  9. Sanjay Tewari: Slope Stability Effect of Forests in Garhwal Himalaya (2001)

  10. Ajay Upreti: To Fetch a Pail of Water (1998)

  11. R Ramachandran: The Receding Gangotari (2001)

  12. The Nainital Samachar: (2000 & 2001)

  13. Bharat Dogra: Linking Environment Protection to People’s Livelihood (2000)

  14. John Kutzbach & Terry Devitt: Effect of Rise of Himalayas on World Climate Probed

  15. India Profile21 (1997); India Resources21 (1997)

  16. Darryl D’Monte: Big Dams Are No Good (2001)

  17. Tisha Srivastav: The True Eco-Friend (2001)

  18. US Environmental Protection Agency: Global Warming and its Impact (2001)

  19. World Development Report (1992)

  20. The Constitution of India; Vandana Shiva (1988)

  21. The World Bank Reports brought out in collaboration with the Indian Union Water Resources Ministry (2000)

  22. Suresh Nautiyal: Dhad Uttarakhand (1994)

  23. Suresh Nautiyal: Comprehensive Eco-Strategy for Uttarakhand (2001)

  24. Keynote Address of Professor GOP Obasi (Secretary-General, World Meteorological Organisation) at the International  Conference on Science and Technology Capacity Building in Climate Change in New Delhi on 20 October, 2002.


(Paper presented at a workshop on Corporatisation and Privatisation of Water in India

Asia Social Forum, Hyderabad, India on January 4, 2003).

01/04/2003 – 00:00


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