Drinking Water Problems in India

WaterAid/ Dieter Telemans


India has the highest number of people who lack access to clean water, imposing a huge financial burden for some of the country’s poorest population.

As per UN Water, water security refers to the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality of water for supporting livelihoods.

India’s Water Crisis

India’s water crisis is often attributed to the urbanisation, industrialisation and human waste flowing into water sources and polluting groundwater, as well as corruption at different levels that delay various processes and tasks. In addition, water scarcity in India is expected to worsen as the overall population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by year 2050.

As per the report submitted by the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), 2016 if the current pattern of demand continues, about half of the demand for water will be unmet by 2030. Water tables, the level below which the ground is saturated with water, are falling in most parts of India. Minerals like fluoride, arsenic, mercury, and uranium are present in the groundwater, which lead to chronic water borne diseases. Climate change poses fresh challenges as more extreme rates of rainfall and evapotranspiration intensify the impacts of floods and droughts.

Groundwater provides 80% of India’s drinking water and nearly two-thirds of irrigation needs. Over the last four decades, around 84% of the total addition to irrigation has come from groundwater. Moreover, 60% of India’s districts face groundwater over-exploitation and/or serious quality issues. In fact 11% of the rural water supply is based on groundwater.

India’s 251 cubic kilometre (cu km) annual groundwater extraction rate makes India the world’s biggest consumer of groundwater, according to a 2012 United Nations Educational.

Equity in Water Supply

As per JMP Thematic Report on Drinking Water and Equity 2011, a great amount of progress has been made by India in terms of access to improved drinking water sources. Coverage levels have increased significantly across all quintiles. A majority of the richest quintile, however, continues to use piped water on premises, whereas an increasing number of the poorest rely on boreholes with hand pumps.

Water Quality

The quality of water available to the country is in a very poor state. It is affected by sewage discharge, surface runoff of rainwater caused due to urbanisation, and untreated discharge from industries.

S. No. Contaminant Number of Affected Habitations Rural Population Habitations in %
1 Fluoride 13,065 10,515,000 0.76
2 Arsenic 18,242 16,996,000 1.06
3 Iron 24,001 14,684,000 1.39
4 Salinity 14,216 4,352,000 0.82
5 Nitrate 1,945 1,973,000 0.11
6 Heavy Metal 2,482 2,911,000 0.14
Total 73,951 51,431,000 4.28

Source: NRDWP 31 July, 2017

The alarming condition of water quality is based on the fact that the lack of clean drinking water has put over 11.5 million people of India at a high risk of a bone crippling disease, fluorosis. The ministry of health and family welfare has identified 19 states severely affected by high fluoride content in drinking water, and at least 10 states suffering from arsenic contamination causing Arsenicosis – a disease that affects the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver due to arsenic poisoning.

WaterAid India (WAI), since its inception in the country in 1986, has focussed on water, sanitation, and hygiene, and has demonstrated sustainable solutions for the same, to make an impact at the district, state and national-levels and influence policies to be inclusive.

Thus, WAI aims at promoting sustainability of rural water supply service, based on clear operating, maintenance and management procedures including operation and maintenance (O&M), measurement for equitable distribution, and transparent arrangement for renewal, replacement and expansion of the source and/or the systems.

WaterAid India’s school programme focuses on ensuring clean and adequate drinking water in schools. Children and school management members are trained as champions to promote water quality and sustainability in school and communities.

Similarly, in the healthcare centres, clean water is extremely essential for the good health of patients, as well as for conducting everyday functions. WAI ensures access to clean drinking water by talking about inclusion of water, sanitation and hygiene policies, budgets and programming for prevention and control of diarrhoea, malnutrition, stunting and maternal health, amongst other diseases.

WAI also promotes clean water handling in households as part of its hygiene messages and if needed, appropriate use of treatment systems for ensuring clean drinking water.

The World Bank estimates of 2015 show that in India 28.1 percent of the deaths took place due to communicable diseases. Evidently, these were linked to unsafe water and the lack of hygiene practices. These include parasitic and infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies such as underweight and stunting, as well as respiratory infections.