Water resources management in India


India is facing a serious problem of natural resource scarcity, especially that of water in view of population growth and economic development[1]. The annual average rainfall in the Indian terrain is a healthy 1869 cu/Km[2] which is much more the world average. The rainfall in India shows a very high spatial and temporal variability[3]. That indeed is the reason for water resource management becoming a complex affair in India, for, the rainfall that is received during this short period has to be distributed for a variety of activities.

Traditionally India has been agriculture based economy and hence is the importance of development of irrigation schemes so as to reduce the dependence on ground water by effective utilisation of the river waters. The annual potential groundwater recharge from rainfall in India is about 342.43 Km3, which is 8.56 % of the total annual rainfall of the country[4]. While rain is a vital source of water for almost the whole of the Indian peninsula, the snowmelt from the glaciers of the Himalayan belt is a significant contributor to the water source to the valley parts and the foothill region of the Himalayas. While an exact value of water resources of the country is a difficult ask, estimates of the water resources has been done in a comprehensive manner by the Ministry of Water Resources. An analysis of the resources gives a very rosy picture, however the complexities involved in harnessing the resources in an optimum manner is what is causing nightmares to the ministry. There is a need to ensure a delicate balance between the inflows to the water resources of a region and the outflow components.

The National Water Policy[5] stipulates that the total quantity of nation’s ground water pumped out must be limited to annual recharge. Scientist using NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites have determined that ground water in North Western region of India is decreasing at a alarming rate[6]. If the ground water table goes down the government will be forced to think of alternatives which is more efficient use of river waters. The facts state that though water resource availability is adequate till year 2020 but because of the current rate of growth of the population the availability will become critical after 2020. Also the fact that India will be forced to look at other sources of river water than those granted by the IWT.


The drought prone area assessed in the country is of the order of 68% of the total land mass[7] which is roughly equivalent to 51.12 Mha[8] . Many interior parts of peninsular India, such as the Deccan plateau, Southern and Central India come under the grips of dry spells even in the monsoon season itself due to scanty rainfall. Drought is not the result of a single cause, but a cumulative effect of many causes. Not only the availability of water for irrigation of agricultural lands is acutely hit, but also the day to day human life is subjected to inconvenience due to shortage of water for personal use.

History has chronicled several droughts in India, and no part of India has escaped dry spells due to failure of monsoons and the resultant drought. A disturbing fact as an offshoot of drought conditions is that even crime rates such as robbery and looting steeply increase, as a sequel to the migration of people affected by drought looking for a decent life, but taking to unsocial activities in the absence of job opportunities. Also it is during these times that sharing of river water by riparian states is a cause for concern. What is paradoxical is that states which have a long coastline or lesser water resources at their areas have not taken any steps to come out of this problem by way of concentrating on desalination, drip irrigation, rain harvesting changing crop pattern requiring less water etc.

Drought prone areas in India

The total area affected by inadequate rainfall is a little over one million square kilometres. The areas which are drought prone are Thar Desert terrain, Kalahandi- Koraput belt, areas such as North Arcot, (Tamil Nadu) Anantpur and Chittoor (Andhra Pradesh) Bellary and Bijapur (Karnataka) Osmanabad and Aurangabad ( Maharastra).[9] Most of the areas in this rain shadow zone is densely populated with hard working, knowledgeable and enterprising people. There are several towns having more than 100,000 population, besides innumerable villages situated in this zone. Sparse vegetation, Pediment type of wastelands and deep levels of ground water table make life difficult in these places. Wastelands dominate over cultivable fields and in the cultivable lands too only one crop is grown in an year. Proper water management in this terrain is capable of transforming the arid to semi arid conditions to a highly productive areas This area is ideal for drip/ sprinkler irrigation to reclaim the drought affected areas. Examples exist as is done at Israel.

A few more pockets of chronic drought prone areas are- Ramanathpuram and Thirunelveli districts of Tamil Nadu, the linear corridor between Coimbatore and Pallakad and the Saurashtra and Kachchh regions of Gujrat. Also reports of arable lands situated slightly further away from the flood plains and the Deltaic regions of Ganges, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery rivers coming under the grip of water scarcity for agricultural activities. Locations like Kodaikanal, Udhagamandalam and Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu,[10] and Dehradun and Mussorie in Uttaranchal are examples of excessive human interference leading to unsustainable urban development and decadent imbalance in availability of water resources in areas otherwise known for copious rainfall.

A generation ago farmers in Gujrat used bullocks to lift water from shallow wells in leather buckets. Now farmers draw water from 300 metres below ground using electrical pumps. According to state water officials, water tables are dropping by 6 metres every year. India had a pump revolution in the last four decades and farmers have drilled approximately 21 million tube wells into the saturated strata beneath their fields. Every year farmers bring another million wells into service mostly outside the control of state irrigation authorities.[11] These pumps powered by subsidised electricity work day and night to irrigate fields of more water consuming crops like rice, sugarcane and alfalfa.

The problem is serious and severe and keeping in view that agriculture is the backbone of our economy, replenishment methods like placing numerous dams across river beds, water harvesting and water shed schemes to recharge our underground resources besides flood management need to be given the right impetus. In crop production there is a need to encourage modern methods of irrigation.

In spite of an abundance of water resources it has not been easy for the state to tap these resources. Discussion of internal water disputes is far beyond the scope of the dissertation and is therefore not being mentioned; however one disagreement due to the distribution of water of the Indus river system is worth having a look. Disagreement over the sharing of river waters from the Indus river system has been one of the major causes of the violent secession movement in the Punjab province of India in the 1980s and 1990s. This Sikh dominated province has been traditionally provided with a water supply from the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi Rivers. The demands of the downstream provinces of Rajasthan and Haryana persuaded the Indian government to construct canals and divert 60 per cent of Punjab’s water and energy to Hindu majority regions[12]. This became a major point of confrontation due to which insurgency was encouraged.

Water Demand and Resource Management

If the total water availability in India is analysed that the logical conclusion would be that that there is adequate water for all. However water availability on the Indian subcontinent is strongly influenced by a number of climatic and geographic factors. Together these combine to provide India with enough freshwater to meet the various demands arising from the agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors. However, the actual distribution of water resources over space and time limits access to certain geographic regions and during a few months of the year. Government policies and economic incentives have also influenced the water distribution and consumption across India[13]

  1. ” Alarming Scarcity of Water in India”, NK Garg and Q Hassan, Current Science Vol 93 No 7 10 Oct 2007.
  2. National Water Resource at a Glance
    Wrmin.nic.in accessed on 18 Nov 2009
  3. Rakesh Kumar, R D Singh & K D Sharma Water Resources of India
  4. Ibid p4.
  5. Indian Ministry of Water Resources, National Water Policy. Retrieved 09 Nov 2009 from
  6. GRACE reveals ground water depletion in India. Retrieved on 11 Dec 2009 from
  7. Drought in India , Challenges and Initiatives, p5 , PACS Programme 2001-08
  8. “Water Resources of India”, Rakesh Kumar, RD Singh and KD Singh, Current Science, Vol 89, No 5 , Sep 2005 ,pp794.
  9. H Sarvotham, Water Resources Augmentation, Management & Policies p45.
  10. Peter P Molinga, On The Waterfront,p61.
  11. Harendar Raj Goutam Water Crisis and Rain Water Harvesting Kurukshetra Quaterly p4.
  12. ” Managing Water Conflicts” by Ashok Swain , pp 21
  13. ” Water privatization and Implications in India”, Anitha Sampath , Association for India’s Development.