Country report - 2. India

Posted: 31 January 2001

Author: Anjani Khanna

Clean water - a huge prize for India

Behind India's water crisis lie the twin problems of poor management and rapidly-growing demand from a rising population. Here Anjani Kanna reveals the true scale of the challenge.

Some 200 million Indians do not have access to safe and clean water. An estimated 90 per cent of the country's water sources are polluted with untreated industrial and domestic waste, pesticides and fertilisers, run-off from fields.waste in waterWaste in water causes disease© WHOAccording to recent estimates about 1.5 million children under five die each year from water borne diseases. The country also loses over 200 million workdays annually due to these diseases. Water scarcity is now the single biggest threat to food production, as falling groundwater levels and shrinking rivers make less water available for agriculture. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), India will be water-stressed before 2025 - with average annual water availability limited to between 1000 cubic metres to 1700 cu m per person.

The actual amount of useable water available per person in India is decreasing steadily - from 3450 cu m in 1951 it fell to 1250 cu m in 1999. This, according to the ministry of water resources, is expected to decrease further to 760 cu m per person in 2050. In 1993, only 78 per cent of rural and 85 per cent of urban Indians had access to potable water. Water tankers are becoming a common sight in urban India.

The situation is graphically explained by the fact that in rural areas women are spending increasing amounts of time and energy travelling long distances to get water. women at handpumpWomen hand pump water, Rajasthan, India© Kai Friese In the dry regions of Rajasthan, they spend as much as four hours a day and walk an average six km for water.

Poor management

The Gujarat-based non-governmental organisation SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association) found that women in the drought prone regions of Gujarat and the flood affected areas of Uttar Pradesh walked similar distances and spent as much time to fetch water, each day. Fed by the seasonal monsoon rains and rivers that flow from the Himalaya, India has potentially large water resources. However, the distribution and availability of water is not uniform across the country or through the year. Surface sources often run dry in the summer and groundwater availability varies from the rich aquifers of the Indo-Gangetic-Brahmaputra plains to the comparatively low yielding hard rock regions of peninsular India. Ancient and traditional systems of managing this uneven distribution have broken down, leaving the country in the throes of a serious water crisis.

Behind this crisis lies a very apparent human hand.

The mismanagement is clearly seen in increasing inter-state (and local) conflicts over water resources. Urban areas are also in conflict with rural needs. Reportedly, Tirupur in Tamil Nadu suffers a water deficit of 22 million cu m a year - apart from serious degradation of water quality - and has begun to "import" water. Many farmers within a 35 km radius of the city have abandoned farming and instead sell their water to industrial and domestic users.

Linked to poor management are increasing demands by a growing population and agricultural and industrial development. Women farmers, IndiaWomen farm workers carry home the rice harvest, Karnataka, India© Jorgen Schytte/Still PicturesMost of the country's water (as much as 84 per cent) is used to irrigate fields. A small proportion of it is consumed in people's homes, while industry and other users claim about 12 per cent.


Mismanagement of water at the farm level is rampant. Where water is available in abundance it is overused, leading to water logging and salinisation of once fertile agricultural lands. Alongside, there is increasing extraction of groundwater to meet the demands of agriculture, especially for the cultivation of water intensive crops, like sugarcane. Some 90 per cent of the groundwater extracted is used for irrigation.

Today, more than 8.5 million electric and diesel pumps are used to withdraw groundwater leading to falling water tables in most states. Farmers are forced to dig ever deeper and in many cases have begun to mine geologically ancient aquifers. The crisis is so severe that in 1996, the Supreme Court directed the Nagpur based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), one of the country's premier research institutes, to examine the problem of declining groundwater levels.

NEERI found that "over-exploitation of groundwater resources is widespread across the country" and that water tables in critical agricultural areas are sinking at an alarming rate. Nine states - Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, and Punjab - are running major water deficits, where demand exceed supply. The situation is particularly serious in Punjab and Haryana the country's bread basket. Village surveys here found that water tables are falling by 0.5 to 0.7 metres per year. In Gujarat 87 of the 96 observation wells showed decline during the 1980s and over-pumping has caused salt water to invade freshwater aquifers, contaminating drinking water supplies.

The indiscriminate dumping of untreated industrial and domestic waste into rivers and lakes further exacerbates the already stretched water situation. Such pollution reduces the amount of water available for use and creates scarcity in regions which otherwise have abundant water resources.

Arsenic poisoning

Homes produce about 75 per cent of the wastewater, and sewage treatment facilities are inadequate in most cities and almost absent in rural India. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, in 1995 of the 8,432 large and medium industries in the country only 4,989 had installed appropriate measures to treat wastewater before discharge. Of the over two million small-scale industrial units, a number of which-like tanneries for instance are extremely polluting, very few have any treatment facilities whatsoever and their untreated wastes invariably find their way into the country's water systems. banned water tapA red pump means don't drink this water© WHOIn the North Arcot district of Tamil Nadu for instance, some 80,000 litres of effluent containing toxic chemicals like mercury and chromium are discharged untreated each day from the tanneries. With increasing groundwater exploitation, poisonous minerals like fluorides and arsenic present below ground also find their way into the extracted water. They cause fluorosis and arsenic poisoning.

In localised areas aquifers have also been polluted through leaching of agricultural chemicals and even industrial effluent. In Bichchri village in Rajasthan for instance some 80 wells have been polluted due to discharge of dangerous chemicals into irrigation canals.

The consequences of water pollution are dire, because in India people still use water directly from rivers and lakes for drinking and bathing.

Groundwater pollution is particularly serious as some 80 per cent of the country's domestic water needs are met from this source, according to UNICEF. Diseases like hepatitis and diarrhoea, and roundworm, hookworm and guineaworm infections amongst the population are commonplace and, as reported by the World Bank, some 21 per cent of all communicable diseases in India are water borne. Guinea worm victimGuinea worm victim. Extraction scar can be seen on his abodmen© Kai FrieseThe Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research in Mumbai (Bombay) estimates that water borne illnesses cost the country as much as Rs 366 billion (approximately US$8.3 billion) per year.

Women and children are particularly susceptible to pollution. Toxins have a lethal effect on the reproductive health of women. Fluorides in the water have also been known to affect the foetus. Not only are women biologically more susceptible to the impact of contaminated water, but their contact with polluted water is greater than that of men.

Studies show that better water supply and sanitation facilities can considerably reduce illness due to water borne infections. Deaths due to diarrhoea could be reduced by 65 per cent, while overall child mortality could be reduced by 55 per cent.

Anjani Khanna wrote this article for the Women's Feature Service based in Delhi