Ground Water Crisis and NITI Aayog Report: Analysis and way forward
Baljit Dhaka

Ground Water Crisis and NITI Aayog Report: Analysis and way forward

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Ground Water Crisis:: Analysis & Way Forward

Why in the news?

NITI Aayog released a report called “Composite Water Management Index (CWMI)” in association with the Ministry of Jal Shakti and Ministry of Rural Development, which said that 21 Indian cities, including Delhi, Chennai, and Bengaluru, will run out of groundwater soon. It also noted that not only there is a quantitative crunch but 70% of India's water resources are contaminated.


As an indispensable building block for life, water is essential for healthy, stable, and sustainable civilizations. Therefore, scarcity can disrupt a country’s social stability, hamper its economic prosperity, and destroy its ecology and ecosystems. 

Presently, India is facing a water challenge, which stems not only from the limited availability of water resources but also its mismanagement. The impact of water scarcity is already being severely felt in some regions, and if states and UTs fail to control the situation, it is only going to deteriorate.

India’s Water Situation at a Glance::

1.India is suffering a very significant water crisis with economic growth, livelihoods, human well-being, as well as ecological sustainability at stake.

2.The macro-water availability and numbers are unsettling - India is home to ~17% of the world’s population but has only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources

3.About two lakh people die every year due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene, and ~820 million people of India have per capita water availability close to or lower than 1000m3.

4.The Ganges has witnessed unprecedentedly low levels of water in several lower reaches in the last few summer seasons, and for the next 30 years, groundwater contribution to the river will continue decreasing. The dwindling of the Ganges river would severely affect water availability for surface water irrigation, with a potential future decline in food production. Consequently, by 2050, nearly 1/5th (~115 million) of the ~500 million inhabitants in the Ganga Basin would not have adequate access to carbohydrate-based food essential for survival.

5.  The entire green revolution in the country was based on the development of groundwater resources. Despite possessing surface water resources, India is highly dependent on groundwater resources for day to day survival. The per capita water storage capacity in India is about 209 m3 which is meager in comparison to per capita storage capacities in countries like Australia (3223 m3), The USA (2193 m3), Brazil (2632 m3), and China (416 m3).

6. India’s population is expected to increase to 1.66 billion by 2050. At the same time, per capita income is estimated to increase by 5.5% per annum. With increasing population and purchasing power, the annual food requirement in the country will exceed 250 million tons by 2050.

7. A closer look at cropping patterns in the Indian states reveals a frightening inefficiency and sub-optimal planning that is causing most water-related problems, including depletion of the groundwater tables at an alarming rate

Risks associated with the issue and their mitigation measures::

Social and Political Risks:

Social stability is predicated on people’s access to resources to survive and live healthy lives.

Depleting access to clean water will impact food security and health, and can cause social unrest and political instability.

Key reasons for this decline include:

A. lack of well-considered water pricing for agricultural use

B.  Energy subsidies that promote over-extraction

C.  Sub-optimal matching of crops with the agro-climatic water zones in states.

D. Our international trade in agricultural commodities is contributing to large quantities of virtual water loss through the export of water-intensive crops.

E. Increasing consumer preferences for high-value crops and dairy and meat products, which require significantly higher amounts of water for production

F. Climate change will also contribute to these challenges as increasing temperature levels, floods, and droughts create unfavorable environmental conditions for cultivation and impact crop productivity. 

Risk of exceeding the carrying capacity of urban hubs:

Five of the world’s largest cities are in water stress and New Delhi ranks 2 among them.

No Indian city can provide a 24*7 water supply to its entire population. Only 35% of urban households in India have piped water.

Reasons associated::

Lack of adequate infrastructure to handle wastewater.

improper solid waste management 

contamination of remaining groundwater resources

Additional stress on existing clean water sources due to migration

Mitigation Measures:

a. Management of crop production pattern in the country and international export of virtual water.

b. Minimization of Minimum support price for water-intensive crops

c.  Promotion of Farmer awareness and education about efficient water utilization

d. Enabling advisory services and off-farm water supply infrastructure to improve the efficiency of water utilization

e.  Micro Irrigation (Drip and sprinkler) to increase sustainability and coverage.

f.    Integrated approach to land use planning and zoning to ensure sustainable water supply in urban areas. Putting restrictions on development activities against proper water management.

2.   Economic Risks:

Water is essential for the production of most physical goods (directly) and services (indirectly). Water scarcity poses a serious threat to sustainable economic activity in India and can hamper national growth.

As the water crisis worsens, production capacity utilization and new investments in capacity may both decline, threatening the livelihoods of millions, and commodity prices could rise steeply for consumers due to production shortages.

This can lead to economic instability and disrupt growth. 

The risks to sustainable industrial activity:

Industrial activity accounts for ~30% of GDP contribution at the national level and Estimates suggest that industrial water requirement will quadruple between 2005 and 2030.

The rising cost of water can affect Small-to-Medium Enterprise (SME) and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME) segment significantly which can cripple India’s aspirations to be an economic superpower in the future.

Risk of energy shortages:

70% of India’s thermal power plants are likely to face high water stress by 2030 and 90% of thermal power plants in India rely on freshwater sources for cooling an essential process in thermal energy production.

If energy shortages intensify in India in the future due to thermal power shutdowns, businesses will become further vulnerable to power cuts and operational inefficiencies. This will reduce economic output, increase the cost of doing business, and slow down economic growth.

Mitigation Measures:

Industrial water quotas, tradable permits, and water availability linked licenses can help in optimizing water usage in scarce regions.

Industrial zoning can restrict water-intensive industries from setting up in water-scarce regions. Also using modern technology can optimize the water use efficiency of industries.

Shifting to alternatives such as solar and wind energy can reduce reliance on thermal power plants and create additional energy sources that are not heavily reliant on water for production.

3.Environmental Risks:

As India’s water crisis worsens, environmental damage will intensify with increased attempts towards finding additional water resources. This will lead to serious harm to the country's biodiversity, environment, and ecological balance.

Risk of biodiversity destruction:

The cumulative impact of climate change, increasing temperatures, and human engineering of hydrological flows through dam construction and river diversion are already there.

Building dams on rivers slow down the water flow, leading to sedimentation and reduction in nutrients carried by the rivers, whereas linking rivers can change salinity levels and monsoon patterns.

Such changes in water composition and environmental factors can seriously harm the local flora and fauna that thrive on these water resources.

The impact on biodiversity can manifest in the form of changing migration patterns, decline, and even extinction of species' population, all of which can lead to the destruction of biodiversity hotspots in the long run.

Risk of desertification:

Water management and desertification have a two-way relationship. 

Extensive groundwater extraction contributes to loss of vegetation cover, which eventually leads to desertification. Increasing desertification and land degradation diminish green cover, which reduces the land’s capacity to recharge groundwater and regional water tables. 

Mitigation Measures:

Environmental impacts need strong attention when new development activities, such as building dams or reservoirs, are planned. 

Undertaking smaller projects in more locations can also be tested, rather than a large project being executed in a single geographical region.

 Increasing green cover(Afforestation) can help widen the reach of these conservators of the local ecosystem and curb desertification. 

Central and various State Govt Initiatives::

In this context, the government constituted an integrated ministry called Jal Shakti Ministry. The Jal Shakti Ministry has recently launched Atal Bhujal Yojana which aims at improving groundwater management. It is a World Bank-funded, central sector scheme aimed at improving groundwater management and restoring the health of the country’s aquifers.

Schemes of States::







Way Forward::

1. By emphasizing on local-level institutions like the Water User Associations(WUA), the Atal Bhujal Yojana has signaled the inclination towards persuasive solutions. However, a lot more than, than mere persuasion is required.

2. Ways must be found to balance the demands of farmers with the imperatives of reviving the country’s aquifers.

3. The government should promote alternatives to water-intensive crops. For example, Maize requires only one-third of water as a paddy.

4. States can draw inspiration from community water management which is followed in Andhra Pradesh which has already shown how aquifer management and sharing of borewells can ensure equitable distribution of water.

5. Finally, there is a need to set up National Water Commission, with multi-disciplinary expertise including hydrology (surface water), hydrogeology (groundwater), meteorology (atmosphere), river ecology, agronomy, environmental economics, and participatory resource management.