Water in India: Situation and Prospects


This 2013 report, funded by UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), involved several UN bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Habitat, UNESCO and the United Nations Resident Coordinator, along with SaciWATERs (South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies), a Secunderabad-based policy research institute.

The report compiles data on a range of water issues, including availability and scarcity, use by households, sanitation, agriculture and industry, access for the urban poor, water pollution-related health problems, unequal access to water due to gender inequities, the impact of climate change on water resources, and water-related policy. It suggests measures to address India’s growing water scarcity and the lack of access for the poor and marginalised. 

The report draws data from government records and census reports as well as the documentation of various water conservation efforts led by communities and the state. Additionally, UNICEF and FAO held five workshops across the country (in the north, south, east, west and north-east) to discuss water-related problems and possible solutions. Experts, government representatives, non-governmental organisations and citizens attended these workshops, and their outcome is included in the report as well.

The authors say that the demand for water far outweighs its supply due to rapid development, a growing population and unequal distribution. Severe water shortages have led to conflicts in the agricultural, industrial and domestic spheres, which are worsened by the effects of climate change. Despite large-scale investments in water storage since Independence, India’s infrastructure for storing water is among the poorest in the world. To address this, the report recommends that those who use water be involved in its management.   


  1. According to a 2010 report by the Central Water Commission, India is not a ‘water-scarce country’ but a ‘water-stressed country’. In a ‘water-stressed country’, less than 1,700 cubic metres of water is available per person per year, while in a ‘water-scarce country’, less than 1,000 cubic metres of water is available per person per year. On average, 1,588 cubic metres of water are available in India to a person per year.

  2. Given India’s temporal and spatial variations, 71 per cent of the country’s water is available only to 36 per cent of the total geographical area, while the remaining 64 per cent of the country’s area has access to only 29 per cent of the total amount of water.

  3. Rain-fed cultivation takes up 56.7 per cent of the net sown area, contributes 40 per cent of the total foodgrain production, and supports 66 per cent of the total livestock. Around 85 per cent of all coarse cereals grown, 83 per cent of all pulses, 42 per cent of rice, 70 per cent of oilseeds, and 65 per cent of cotton are rain-fed.

  4. A 2010 World Bank report says that India is the largest consumer of groundwater in the world, with an estimated use of 230 cubic kilometres per year. Around 60 per cent of the demand for groundwater is from agriculture and irrigation, and 80 per cent of the total domestic water demand is met through groundwater.

  5. The 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) said that even though the government had constructed 4,525 large and small dams, the per capita water storage in the country was 213 cubic metres, compared to 6,103 cubic metres in Russia, 4,733 cubic metres in Australia, 1,964 cubic metres in the USA, and 1,111 cubic metres in China.

  6. A 2010 study by the Water and Sanitation Programme (initiated by the World Bank) estimated that inadequate sanitation caused India an annual loss of US$ 53.9 million or 6.4 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2006.

  7. The National Sample Survey’s 65th Round (July 2008-June 2009) report states that in rural areas taps as a major source of drinking water were most common among the Other Backward Classes (33 per cent of all OBC households) and least common among the Scheduled Tribes (19 per cent of ST households).

  8. In rural areas, 76 per cent of all Scheduled Caste (SC) households and 75 per cent of ST households had no toilets, according to the same report.

  9. A Central Pollution Control Board report from 2009 found that from 1995 to 2009, microbial contamination was the main form of pollution in India’s surface water bodies. This kind of pollution has been attributed to the inability of municipal authorities to treat sewage and the inadequate amount of water in the water bodies to dilute the sewage.

  10. Millions of litres of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are dumped into India’s rivers every day. The biggest source of the pollution of rivers is city sewage and industrial waste discharge. Water from the fields that drains into rivers is another major pollutant because it contains fertilisers and pesticides. Overall, only 10 per cent of the waste water generated in the country is treated; the rest is discharged as is into water bodies.

    Focus and Factoids by Ankitha Rao.


Content advisors and reviewers: Satya Priya and Aidan Cronin

Writing: Anjal Prakash, Medhavi Sharma and Jayati Chourey   


UNICEF, New Delhi

Food and Agriculture Organisation, New Delhi

SaciWATERs, Secunderabad


14 Feb, 2013