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The Big Picture – Water Crisis: Why has it reached such proportions?

The Big Picture – Water Crisis: Why has it reached such proportions?


As the summer sets in, many parts of the country are said to face one of the worst water crisis in the history. Reservoir levels in many states have come down alarmingly. Also, drinking water situation in states like Maharashtra is equally alarming. Ganga, which was to provide water to 1/3rd population of the country, is witnessing lower and lower water levels every year. Ten states had declared drought last year and with depleting water levels in reservoir it’s getting worse. In 91 major reservoirs of the country water level is just 25% of the capacity with monsoon still two months away.

How bad is the situation?

This is one of the worst water crises in recent decades. The situation is acute in western parts of the country and equally concerning in southern states. Around 330 million people in India are affected by drought, according to the government.

  • The Marathwada region in India’s western Maharashtra state is badly affected, reeling under the worst drought in decades. In Latur, Maharashtra, the looming fear that the survival instinct can turn lethal on account of the water crisis, has led authorities to invoke Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that bars the assembling of more than 5 persons near wells and other water collecting sources.
  • Currently, water levels in the 91 major reservoirs in the country have dropped to less than one-third of their capacity at 29%, as per the Central Water Commission’s report. This is considered the lowest in the decade.
  • Also, agriculture is largely dependent on a mere 400 BCM (billion cubic metres) of groundwater, which is again fast depleting.
  • Rivers are faring no better. The Ganga, regarded the lifeline of North India, catering to a quarter of India’s population, has been experiencing a much-reduced flow. To a great extent the river’s water level is determined by the groundwater reserves of the areas along its course. With the water table shrinking further over the years, and the delay in the melting of the Himalayan ice this year, the shortage is being acutely felt.
  • In South India, while the Krishna River basin is badly affected, Cauvery and Godavari basins are facing deficiency.

Reasons behind the crisis:

A combination of factors apart from inadequate monsoons has led to this crisis. It has been caused by an amalgamation of natural and man-made factors. The rampant plundering of groundwater reserves for agricultural and industrial purposes, contamination of underground drinking water sources, the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in vulnerable areas, and the damming of rivers in the upper reaches have been instrumental for this catastrophe.

Also, the rapid growth of population and its growing needs has meant that per capita availability of fresh water has declined sharply from 3,000 cubic metres to 1,123 cubic metres over the past 50 years. The global average is 6,000 cubic metres. As water demand is expected to rise further, the pace of supply is expected to fall further.


This situation has been in the making for several years, and will likely aggravate in the coming days.

  • This is the worst time for agriculture and industries, with even power generation coming to a halt at the National Thermal Power Corporation’s station in West Bengal’s Farakka. This will affect also affect prices of cereals and other essential commodities. On the farming side, crop cycles tend to get affected as a result.
  • Depleting groundwater levels are the biggest threat to rural livelihoods and food security. There’s been a 6% dip in share of groundwater wells within 10 metres below the ground. This depth is the threshold beyond which farmers have to start using deep-water equipment, which adds to their hardship.
  • Mispricing of water has meant that large parts of Indian cities do not have access to regular water supply. Two of India’s 5 biggest cities are unable to meet the recommended quantities of water supply. Most of the water goes to privileged classes.

What needs to be done?

Land reclamation and efficient soil and water management, with well-planned seasonal crop mixes using short-duration varieties, should form part of a comprehensive strategy to protect and boost monsoon-dependent agriculture.

  • India’s monsoon-forecasting models need to be supplemented with emerging methods in data science, irrigation and seed use, and evangelised with communication technology-driven extension methods.
  • The stereotype of the Indian farmer needs to change from the haggard punter on rains to an Internet-savvy manager of nature. This needs fiscal and policy commitments. Agriculture is a state subject under the Constitution, and the kind of responsibilities required to overcome the monsoon’s challenges need active central intervention.
  • Cooperative groundwater management should be accorded top priority. This involves government at all tires, empowering local groups with the understanding of the status of groundwater on a regular basis, so that extraction does not exceed the sustainable limit.
  • Desalination and recycling are two other viable measures with strong support from experts. Recycling in addition to being cost-effective, also takes care of the problem of wastewater and is therefore, a much better long-term solution.


At present 4 billion people worldwide are affected by the shortage for at least one month every year. Latest studies show that the impact of the crisis is most acutely felt by about 1.8 billion people for six months in a year. The World Economic Forum rates “water crises as one of the three greatest risks of harm to people and economies”. What India needs is a permanent wake-up call, not a snooze button in the form of news reports of water crisis cropping up once in a few weeks or months. Measures such as those suggested above needs to be complemented by conservation efforts from the grassroots level.