India suffering worst water crisis in its history

A drought-stricken plain in Ladakh, India

A nationally unprecedented water crisis threatens the lives of millions in India, according to the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) think tank.

Around 600 million people suffer under high to extreme water stress, and two hundred thousand die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, the institution argues in its latest report. Within 12 years, the growth of cities and subsequent demand for water is likely to reach twice the current supply and could wipe as much as 6 percent off India’s GDP.

“The crisis is only going to get worse,” NITI Aayog states.

Around the same number of people – 50 percent of the Indian population as a whole – live in the populous northern states of UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana, among others, all of which pose a management risk for the country.

The National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development of MoWR claims that the total water available remains lower than the projected demand for 2050 (currently around 1,180 billion cubic metres).

NITI Aayog’s report was produced using data from The Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), which is a collection of country-wide data on groundwater restoration, irrigation management, on-farm water use, rural and urban drinking water supply and water policy frameworks. The think tank says the tool could promote competitiveness among Indian states to improve their performance in the corresponding areas.

The highest risk states in the north account for 20 to 30 percent of India’s agricultural output, yet struggle with declining groundwater levels which policy is slow to address. This poses a food security risk as well as water scarcity. In addition, around 80 percent of India’s water is used for agricultural production, underscoring the severity of the shortage.

The Index has been developed in collaboration with several national and state stakeholders. It is designed to incentivise companies to improve their water management and governance systems and increase federal cooperation in the sector through centre-state collaboration in its annual update.

States shown to perform better in water management include Gujarat, which came top in the report’s rankings. Madhya Pradesh in central India and Andhra Pradesh in the south came next on the list. Of the 24 states assessed, 15 showed an improved score since 2017. The north-Eastern and Himalayan states of Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Tripura were among the top five performers.

“There is an imminent need to deepen our understanding of our water resources and usage and put in place interventions that make our water use efficient and sustainable,” the report said.