Insights into Editorial: Managing India’s freshwater

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Insights into Editorial: Managing India’s freshwater

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12 May 2016

India, with 2.5% of global landmass, has 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. This has however come under increasing demographic stress since India is home to about 16% of world population and the distribution of freshwater is skewed spatially and temporally. Also, the usage has been inefficient and wasteful.

  • Besides, the current drought in several parts of the country has made it necessary to manage the country’s water resources efficiently.

Why there is increased pressure on freshwater resources?

  • The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin with 33% of the landmass has 60% of total water flows and the western coastline with 3% of the area has another 11%. This leaves just 29% of water resources in the remaining 64% of the area in peninsular India where drought is common and farmer suicides routine.
  • Most rainfall is received over a relatively short duration during the monsoon. This leads to temporary flooding. Huge amounts of surface water quickly drain into the sea.
  • Agriculture is also the culprit here. It accounts for 80% of all freshwater usage. Flood irrigation, prevalent in more than 95% of the irrigated area, damages both ecology and farm economics.
  • Freshwater is also being extracted at levels exceeding the natural rate of recharge. While surface water and the phreatic water table have always been utilized for consumption, humans have only recently developed the technology to tap deep aquifers. This can completely empty them within a relatively short period of time.
  • Groundwater depletion in urban areas is largely due to poor piped drinking water supply. In rural areas, regions away from river systems, or disadvantaged by the scarce availability of surface water bodies, are constrained to fall back on groundwater for agricultural expansion, as in large parts of western, central and peninsular India. These are mostly areas of dry land cultivation, where agricultural productivity has expanded in recent times through massive, unsustainable exploitation of deep aquifers.
  • The drilling rig and electric pump revolution has permanently depleted groundwater reserves in several areas, with water and power subsidies compounding the problem through inefficient use of a scarce resource. Excessive drawal has also led to increasing concentration of toxic elements such as fluoride, arsenic and salinity in several areas.

What can be done to reduce the scarcity of water?

  • The river-linking scheme to transfer water from surplus to deficit basins may address the spatial imbalance to some extent. The pace of the run-off can be reduced through inter-basin transfers, new storage reservoirs, desilting, reviving traditional water storage structures such as ponds, dissemination of groundwater recharge technologies, and water harvesting structures such as check dams, open draw wells and rooftop devices.
  • A time-bound plan to bring the entire cropped area under controlled irrigation (sprinklers, underground pipes and other water conservation devices) should be undertaken.
  • Modern science and technology can be leveraged to artificially increase the rate of recharge of aquifers, thereby enhancing the sustainable exploitation of deep aquifers.
  • It is also imperative to have a good database updated in real time on the size and sustainable levels of exploitation of our freshwater resources. The beginning made through the National Hydrology Project needs to be extended and made more comprehensive, including through mapping of deep aquifers in the country and determining rates of recharge.
  • Also, extraction rates would need to be capped, calibrated to recharge. In this regard, a major legislative change which puts water on par with other natural resources is required.
  • Subsurface water resources belong to the property owner. Where private property sits on a deep aquifer, the owner is within his rights to drain the entire aquifer that may extend far beyond the boundaries of his property. This needs to change. Landowners should be free to tap the annually rechargeable phreatic water table through open wells on their property, but deep aquifers need to be treated as a common resource.
  • Policy coordination is also essential to improve the management of the country’s scarce water resources. Departmental fragmentation of water management needs to change, both in the centre and the states.


Water poses a more intractable problem for the world including India. Addressing this core problem holds the key to dealing with other challenges because of water’s nexuses with global warming, energy shortages, stresses on food supply, population pressures, pollution, environmental degradation, global epidemics and natural disasters. Effective water management can help transform economies and power security.