Skip to Main Navigation
FEATURE STORY March 22, 2019

Helping India Manage its Complex Water Resources


  • India is among the world’s most water-stressed countries. In 1950, India had 3,000–4,000 cubic meters of water per person. Today, this has fallen to around 1,000 cubic meters, largely due to population growth. China, by contrast, has twice the amount of water per person- about 2,000 cubic meters.
  • Growing competition over finite water resources, compounded by climate change, will have serious implications for India’s food security, as well as for the livelihoods of its farmers and for the country’s economic development.
  • India’s water resources are not evenly distributed. Half of India’s annual precipitation falls in just 15 rain-soaked days, making floods and droughts a fact of life in the country. India does not so much face a water crisis as a water management crisis, calling for a fundamental reassessment of the way the country manages water.

Today is World Water Day and we take a closer look at six broad areas where the World Bank is supporting India’s efforts to better manage its water resources:

1.     Providing Drinking Water to Rural Areas 

Since 1991, however, it has sought to place communities in charge of their own water supply systems.

To help bring this about, four generations of World Bank projects have worked with India to test various reform options and pioneered new models of service delivery. Village level governments are now being empowered to choose, construct and operate their own water supply systems, with government water institutions playing the role of facilitator.

. Strong community involvement has lowered the cost of infrastructure, curbed the leakage of funds, and led to huge savings for the state exchequer.

2.     Groundwater


. If current trends persist, 60 percent of India’s districts are likely to see groundwater tables fall to critical levels within two decades, placing at least 25% of the country’s agriculture at risk.

Unlike surface water bodies, which are managed by government institutions, groundwater management lies primarily in the hands of millions of water users across the country.

A new World Bank supported project will soon introduce water conservation practices and help equip communities 78 districts in seven Indian states to manage groundwater.

"Since 2000, some $3.4 billion in World Bank support has helped 36 million people in 40,000 villages gain better access to drinking water. Strong community involvement has lowered the cost of infrastructure, curbed the leakage of funds, and led to huge savings for the state exchequer."



3.     Improving access to water on dry rainfed lands

India has among the world’s largest areas under non-irrigated (rainfed) agriculture, leaving farmers dependent on fickle monsoon rains to cultivate a single crop. In many poor rainfed parts of the country, a series of World Bank supported watershed projects have used remote sensing images, soil profiles, and hydrological information to help communities build check dams, farm ponds and other water retention structures to make water available for many more months a year.  

In the remote western region of West Bengal – one of the poorest parts of the state - another World Bank supported project is using the latest remote sensing technologies and mobilizing communities to build small, scientifically-placed irrigation structures. With water now available during the dry winter months too, farmers have been able to reap a second crop of vegetables and diversify into more profitable horticulture, giving a much-needed boost to family incomes.

4.     Cleaning the Ganga

Only one-third of sewage from the hundreds of towns and cities along the Ganga is treated before it flows into the river, making India’s most iconic river a highly polluted one.  

.  The project’s investments in Prayagraj (Allahabad) are now complete. Soon, no untreated wastewater will flow into the Ganga at this critical stretch of the river.

5.     Managing Floods and Droughts

. This is especially important for reservoir managers, as even small mistakes when dealing with large volumes of water can have devastating consequences for lives and livelihoods downstream.

Since 1995, a series of World Bank supported hydrology projects – Hydrology I (1995-2003); Hydrology II (2004-2014) - have introduced systems and technology that enable reservoir managers to take crucial decisions so that their reservoirs remain full, dams remain safe, and no damage is caused downstream.

Installed at a cost of cost of Rs 30 crores, these reservoir management systems have helped avert flood damages of over Rs. 238 crores per year. They have also cushioned farmers and townsfolk from the harshest impacts of drought in the dry season.

Under the ongoing National Hydrology Project III (2017-2025) federal water agencies will now share critical water data with states in real time, making it transparent and accessible to all.

6.     Enhancing Dam Safety in India

Given its highly seasonal pattern of rainfall, India’s 5,000+ large dams provide essential water storage for the country. However, many dams are ageing (605 dams are more than 50 years old and another 3,000 + are over 25 years) risking the lives of ever‐increasing numbers of people downstream.

A World Bank supported project is helping rehabilitate and modernize over 220 large dams in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu. It is also helping reform institutions and strengthening regulations to make these dams both safe and financially sustainable.