Water Sector in India

September 29, 2011

  • India's per capita water storage capacity in India is currently much below that of China or the United States.
  • More than 60 percent of India’s irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater.
  • Climate change is expected to intensify monsoon, glacier melt, and flooding, further exacerbating India’s “difficult hydrology."


Water is a cross-cutting issue that is of critical importance if India is to make progress on major development challenges, including food security, rapid urbanization, sustainable rural development, disaster risk management, adaptation to climate change, equitable allocation of natural resources, and economic cooperation with its neighbors in the region.

Water permeates the cultural, social, economic and political fabric of India. A massive concentration of people (1.21 billion) compounded with high poverty rates and a monsoonal climate (June-Sept, with 90% of river flow in 4 months, 50% of rain in 15 days) creates great susceptibility to hydrological shocks by any global standards. Harnessing the rain is difficult, and the current per capita water storage capacity in India is currently much below that of China or the US. As a result, more than 60 percent of India’s irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater. Climate change is expected to intensify monsoon, glacier melt, and flooding, further exacerbating India’s “difficult hydrology”. But it is also the immense scale of this susceptibility combined with the considerable potential for the productive development of water resources in India that together create unusually complex challenges and major opportunities.

Issues and Challenges 

Water scarcity and conflicts. Water resources in India are ridden with competition and conflict at all levels – between states (water is a “state subject” in the Constitution), between sectors (industries versus farmers; cities versus rural areas), and within irrigation command areas. On a national basis, total demand for water resources is expected to exceed the utilizable potential by 2050. Groundwater is being depleted at an alarming rate. A nationwide assessment (2004) found 29 percent of groundwater blocks to be in the semi-critical, critical or overexploited categories, with the situation rapidly deteriorating. At the same time, diversion and contamination of surface water threatens the health of rivers and the people dependent upon them. Policies of data secrecy inhibit the effectiveness of agencies responsible for planning, resource allocation and disaster preparedness and add to the atmosphere of mistrust. In the absence of a credible system for defining and enforcing resource allocations, conflict will continue to arise as a result of scarcity and competition for use.

Inadequate service delivery and weak management institutions and policies. Supply augmentation continues to be the preferred response to scarcity, rather than improved management. A decades-long push to expand the country’s irrigated area has left Irrigation Departments in most states focused primarily on the construction of physical works. The same focus on supply augmentation can be seen in most of the state agencies responsible for urban and rural water supply and sanitation. Delhi, for example, with 220 liters per capita per day water resource availability and at least 40% system losses, is procuring more water from new dams in the Himalayas and reservoirs in neighboring states, while giving little attention to improved management. Although significant progress was made on increasing access by rural communities to water supply over the past decade, many systems are no longer operating properly due to poor maintenance, contamination or depletion of water source. Officials acknowledge that the traditional approach of “build-neglect-rebuild” is unsustainable, inefficient and largely responsible for the poor performance of an estimated $500 billion dollars worth of assets in water resources and irrigation infrastructure. Poorly targeted subsidies continue to be the norm. Political will is required to hold service providers accountable for efficiency and delivery of good service and allow tariffs and user charges sufficient to enable proper maintenance and renewal of facilities and incentivize efficiency on the part of users.

Limited capacity to deal with new developments and pressures such as population growth, economic development, climate change. Many of the state agencies responsible for irrigation and water supply are overstaffed, but also under-qualified in certain critical areas as a result of hiring freezes. For example, there is little capacity for social and environmental management, economics, and modeling and decision sciences, as well as inadequate knowledge of the current best practices in water management. Involvement of stakeholders most affected by poor water management (e.g., water user associations, village water committees) is still the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, the capacity available in the private sector has been barely tapped as a means of improving accountability and efficiency.

Government Strategy

The Government’s National Water Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change addresses many of these issues. With its main objective of “conservation of water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated water resources development and management,” it has the potential to shift focus from supply augmentation to efficient utilization of available resources. The Mission identifies the following five goals:

(i) comprehensive water data base in public domain and assessment of impact of climate change on water resource;
(ii) promotion of citizen and state action for water conservation, augmentation and preservation;
(iii) focused attention to vulnerable areas including over-exploited areas;
(iv) increasing water use efficiency by 20%, and
(v) promotion of basin level integrated water resources management.

The Planning Commission in its new Framework for the Twelfth Five Year Plan is likely to recommend measures that reach even further in improving oversight and regulation of the sector, increasing transparency and stakeholder involvement and targeting subsidies more effectively. Specific measures under consideration include establishment of a National Water Commission to monitor compliance with conditionality attached to central funding, systematic mapping of aquifers and disclosure of this information to farmers and other water users, establishment of Aquifer Management Associations, separation of electricity feeders for irrigation and other uses, and targets for reuse water.

As encouraging as these pronouncements and plans are, performance in the water sector in India has typically lagged behind policy pronouncements and targets. Perhaps more significant, then are the efforts underway at the national level and in some states to:

-Improve the capacity of institutions responsible for monitoring and analyzing data on groundwater resources

-Improve hydrological and meteorological forecasting

-Enhance disaster preparedness

-Improve policies and legal frameworks for regulation of water resources

-Establish state regulatory agencies and river basin authorities and build their capacity

-Clean-up rivers

-Build capacity of water user associations to manage irrigation systems

-Implement state Sector-Wide Approaches (SWAps) governing investments in and management of rural water and sanitation schemes

-Demonstrate sustainable approaches to development and management of urban water supply

-Recent attention to climate change is also encouraging. A number of studies are being carried out to analyze the impacts of climate change at the river basin, sub-basin, city and community level as the basis for developing strategies for adaptation. In addition, the private sector is conducting water audits and developing strategies to improve efficiency, reduce their “water footprint”, and enhance the sustainability of water resources.

Opportunities for Improving Water Resources Management and Service Delivery

To improve performance, reduce water-related shocks, and increase resilience and adaptation to growth and change, more comprehensive reform is needed in the following areas:

Enabling water policies, institutional and legal frameworks to improve the stewardship of the resource base and service delivery for end users, and to facilitate inter-jurisdictional management and development.

Inter-sectoral approaches at the basin level that integrate surface water with groundwater, urban with rural, quantity with quality, and minimum flows and ecosystem services with river regulation for hydropower, flood management and abstraction for water supply and irrigation.

Restructuring of public sector institutions (including through capacity building and the strategic realignment of incentive structures and skills mixes) and the establishment of new institutions (including regulatory authorities, water users associations, river basin agencies, and public-private partnerships).

Decentralized and participatory service delivery mechanisms, with a particular focus on improving customer/user service, enhancing accountability and transparency, and extending service to the poor.

Modern management practices and technology applications, including improved operations and maintenance through asset management planning, and the development of a comprehensive knowledge base and decision support tools.

Financial sustainability of resource management and service delivery through rational charges and tariffs and improved financial management, including removing distorting subsidies and moving towards user charges that reflect at least O&M costs.

Openness and cooperation on water resources data, research and knowledge sharing, not only within India but also with neighbors in the region.