Water Scarcity - Water Stress in India & Prevention of Water Scarcity [UPSC Notes]

Water scarcity is insufficient freshwater resources to meet the human and environmental demands of a given area. This article will talk about the topic ‘Water Scarcity’ which is important in the IAS Exam from the perspective of UPSC General Studies I & III, and essay papers of the Mains Exam.

To cover important topics of  UPSC Syllabus, candidates can  check the below-mentioned important articles:

Table of Contents:

Types of Water Scarcity
What is Water Footprint?
Effects of Water Scarcity Across the Globe
Water Scarcity in India
Effects of Water Scarcity in India
Measures for Preventing Water Scarcity in India (Central Government)
Measures for Preventing Water Scarcity (State Government)
4 Ways Adopted to Prevent Water Scarcity Across the Globe
Water Scarcity is an important environmental issue. There have been many questions in GS-III that revolve around the environment. Candidates can get previous year Environment questions for UPSC Mains practice, in the linked article.

Types of Water Scarcity

Adequate access to safe drinking water is a priority for global development. However, given the challenges of population growth, profligate use, growing population, and changes in weather patterns due to global warming, many countries, both wealthy and poor are facing water scarcity in the 21st century.

There are two types of water scarcity:

  1. Physical water scarcity
  2. Economic water scarcity

Physical Water scarcity

Physical or absolute water scarcity is the result of regions demand outpacing the limited water resources found in that location. As per the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, around 1.2 Billion people live in areas of physical scarcity; many of these people live in arid or semi-arid regions. People impacted by this kind of water scarcity are expected to grow as populations increase and as weather patterns become more unpredictable due to climate change.

Economic Water scarcity

This kind of water scarcity primarily arises due to the lack of water infrastructure in general or due to the poor management of water resources where the infrastructure is in place. As per FAO estimates more than 1.6 Billion people face economic water shortage. Economic water scarcity can also arise due to unregulated water use for agriculture and industry at the expense of the general population.

What is the Water Footprint?

Everything that we consume in our daily life, whatever we eat, sell, buy, wear requires water to make them. Water footprint measures the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use. It can be measured for any process, like growing crops, for producing clothes, for the fuel we use in our travels, or for a multinational company.

A nation’s water footprint is defined as the total amount of water needed for the production of goods and services calculated by adding all the water consumed plus the water inherent in products imported, then subtracted by water in exports.

India’s water footprint is 980 cubic metres per capita, ranks below the global average of 1243 cubic metres. India contributes roughly 12 % of the world’s total water footprint.

Effects of Water Scarcity Across the Globe

The problem of water scarcity has gained a lot of importance due to the potential damage it can inflict. As per some reports, 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 Billion people find water scarce for at least one month of the year.

  • As per 2017 Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum, in terms of impact on humanity, the water crisis is ranked as the 3rd most important global risk.
  • Governments will be forced to choose between agricultural, industrial, municipal or environmental interests and some groups would win at the expense of others.
  • Water scarcity can result in forced migration. It may lead to domestic or regional conflicts, in geopolitically fragile areas.
  • As per the UN report, over 2 Billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress. As per UNESCO 24 Million and 700 Million people will be displaced in some Arid and Semi-arid regions by 2030.
  • Inadequate sanitation is also a problem for 2.4 Billion people. They are exposed to diseases, such as Cholera and Typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses. 2 million people, mostly children, die each year from diarrheal diseases alone.
Availability of Fresh Water across Continents
Continent Percentage of World Population Percentage of Available Freshwater Reserves
Asia 60 36
Africa 13 11
North & Central America 8 15
South America 6 26
Australia & Oceania 1 5
Read in detail about the World Water Day – 2021 background and themes on the given link.

Water Scarcity in India

India has 4 % of the world’s freshwater which has to cater to 17 % of the world’s population.

As per NITI Aayog report released in June 2019, India is facing the worst-ever water crisis in history. Approximately 600 million people or roughly around 45 % of the population in India is facing high to severe water stress. As per the report, 21 Indian cities will run out of their main source of water i.e. groundwater by 2020. The report goes on to say that nearly 40 % of the population will have absolutely no access to drinking water by 2030 and 6 % of India’s GDP will be lost by 2050 due to the water crisis.

Main causes of Water Scarcity in India

As per World Bank data, India accounts for 25 % of global demand for groundwater. More than 90 % of groundwater in India is used for irrigated agriculture. The remaining 24 Billion m3 supplies 85 % of the country’s drinking water. Approximately 80 % of India’s 1.35 Billion population depends on groundwater for both drinking and irrigation.

Countries with the Largest Water Withdrawals for Agriculture
Country Agricultural Water Withdrawals (Billion m3) Total water withdrawals (Billion m3) Share of Agricultural water withdrawal in Total water withdrawal (%)

Area Equipped for Irrigation

(m ha)

India 688 761 90 67
China 358 554 65 69
United States 175 486 40 26
Pakistan 172 184 94 20
Indonesia 93 113 82 7

The table shows India has a smaller area equipped for irrigation compared to China, yet India consumes almost double the amount of water for agriculture purpose. This shows inefficiency in water usage which is unsustainable.

India is a major exporter of rice which implies India is exporting millions of litres of water annually.

The most important crops of India are rice, wheat and sugarcane. They are the most water-consuming crops. Rice, which is a major crop export, consumed about 3,500 litres of water for a kilogram of grain produced. Punjab which is the 3rd largest producer of rice in India, is completely dependent on groundwater for production of rice, though Punjab fares well from a land productivity perspective, they are lagging behind states like West Bengal, Bihar in terms of water productivity as they consume two to three times more water than Bihar and West Bengal to produce a kilogram of rice. For detailed information on Major Crops of India, visit the link provided here.

Check out other links related to crops of India –

Major cropping Seasons in India Crop Diversification – Origin, Analysis, Effect on Economy High Yield Crops in India – Benefits, Disadvantages
Rabi and Kharif Crops: Overview Genetically Modified Crops New Crops Insurance scheme

Sugarcane is another water-guzzling crop in India, which is a very popular crop among farmers in Maharashtra because they are assured of marketing by sugar mills. The primary source of water for growing this crop is groundwater, whereas states like Bihar which is more suitable for the production of sugarcane produce only 4 % of the country’s total sugar cane output. Know in detail about Agriculture in India on the given link.

Water storage in India is about 209 m3 per person far below the minimum threshold of 1,000 m3 per person for identifying water scarcity in a country. In addition, the per capita availability of water has reduced from 2,209 m3 per year in 1991 to 1545 m3 per year in 2011.

Water usage for Crop Production in Different Countries (m3 / tonne)
Crops The average amount of water needed to grow crops (m3 / tonne)
Brazil India China United States
Rice 3082 2800 1321 1275
Sugarcane 155 159 117 103
Wheat 1616 1654 690 849
Cotton 2777 8264 1419 2535

Though the Minimum Support Price (MSP) announced by the Government was usually for around 22 crops, the MSP incentive was skewed in favour of rice and wheat. Hence even states which are dry, where weather conditions were not in favour, farmers still preferred to grow rice and wheat resulting in excessive extraction of groundwater to grow the rice and wheat.

Given below are a few important links related to agriculture –

National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA Farm Acts, 2020 – Arguments For & Against National Agriculture Market | e-NAM
No-Till Farming; Zero Tillage Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices – CACP List of Agricultural Revolutions in India
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)  National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development – NABARD Agricultural pricing and crop insurance issues

Effects of Water Scarcity in India

Social and Political Effects of Water Scarcity in India

Effects of Water Scarcity on Food Security

  • 74 % of the area under wheat cultivation and 63 % of the area under rice cultivation faces extreme levels of water scarcity.
  • Expected demand-supply gap of up to 570 Billion m3 by 2030 in the agriculture sector.
  • Virtual water export adds to the problem, the export of approximately 37 lakh tonnes of Basmati rice alone cost India 10 Trillion litres of water in 2014-15.

8 Ways to Prevent Risks on Food Security due to Water Scarcity

  1. States should start using a water lens while developing agricultural policies and incentives.
  2. India needs to manage its international export of virtual water.
  3. Ensure that crop production patterns within the country, across different states, are aligned to regional water availability.
  4. Agriculture policies that limit the export of water-intensive crops or reduce Minimum Support Price (MSP) and subsidies for water-intensive crops (particularly sugarcane, cotton and rice) in regions with declining water tables.
  5. Emphasise on the adoption of water-efficient technologies, management systems, farmer education, and advisory services.
  6. Consider developing an agricultural water export index to track virtual water, to track the amount of virtual water exported by India through trade commodities to other countries. This can enable better policy and incentives that support water sustainability.
  7. The water footprint network has developed an interactive tool to calculate and map the water footprint by different users, assess its sustainability, and identify strategic interventions for improving water use.
  8. Invest in scaling up Micro-irrigation. It is a vital solution to make India’s agriculture more water-efficient, the adoption rate is still small due to problems in the sustained adoption of micro-irrigation across seasons due to maintenance challenges and cost pressures. A programme that takes care of financial support, operational support, and technical support is essential. The Government of India’s ‘Per Drop More Crop’ component under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana promotes the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation by farmers.
  9. Effects of Water Scarcity on the Carrying Capacity of Urban Hubs
  • 5 of the world’s largest cities under water stress present in India.
  • No Indian city is able to provide 24 hours 7 days a week water supply to its entire urban population.
  • Expected water demand-supply gap of approximately 50 Billion m3 for the domestic sector by 2030, as future demand doubles present use.

3 Ways to Prevent Water Scarcity in Urban Areas

  1. An integrated approach to land-use planning and zoning where water will be the crux of the planning is the sole way to ensure sustainable urban development in which the needs of the city’s water needs are met.
  2. While creating city plans and providing permits for new establishments, state and city governments should consider water resource availability in the region, and resist developmental activities that are not sustainable from the perspective of water management.
  3. The government can take a leaf out of the book from the American Planning Association (APA) in the United States which has introduced water-related policy guidelines, which treats water as a critical component of infrastructure planning.

Economic Risks of Water Scarcity in India

  1. Effects of Water Scarcity on sustainable industrial activity
  • Industries expected to draw 3 times water compared to their actual consumption by 2030.
  • Shutdowns possible as states prioritize irrigation and household needs, and fail to provide water to industries.
  • Water intensive industries such as Food & Beverages, Textiles, Paper & Paper products are likely to be worst affected.

4 Ways to Prevent Risks for Industrial Activity due to Water Scarcity

  1. Water usage can be optimized by giving permits that put caps on water consumption by each user.
  2. Industrial zoning can restrict water-intensive industries from setting up in water-scarce regions, this will promote water efficiency amongst small and large industries.
  3. We could take an example of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin which supports water trading worth AUD 2 Billion annually. It is a system where water entitlements and allocations are provided to industrial units annually, and they are allowed to trade i.e. buy and sell their water quotas amongst different users, to maximize their outputs and income by optimizing water use.
  4. ESG compliance checks by banks can act as an effective tool for adopting water conservation activities by organisations that seek external funding. The risks posed to organisations due to water shortages and scarcity will affect the performance of banks. An Indian bank checks and raises a red flag if the availability of water in the region is insufficient to support the business operations of an organisation. Another bank conducts portfolio analysis and covers water as a key non-financial risk.

Effects of Water Scarcity on Energy Production in India

  • 40 % of India’s thermal power plants presently located in water-scarce regions
  • 70 % of India’s thermal power plants are expected to face high water stress by 2030.

Read about Thermal Power Plants in India from the linked article.

4 Ways to Prevent Risks on Energy Production due to Water Scarcity

  1. Diversifying to renewable energy sources like Solar and Wind energy, that are not reliant on water to generate energy. Government has already set targets of 175 GW of energy by 2022, this will considerably help in diverting the crisis.
  2. Make sure that new Thermal power plants are only established in regions where there is no scarcity of water availability.
  3. Promote the adoption of water-efficient technologies for operation of power plants and the production of energy.
  4. National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is exploring solutions such as desalination plants which can create additional water for human use, and floating Solar PV can reduce the natural rate of evaporation and support conservation of water.

Environmental Risks of Water Scarcity in India

  1. Effects of Water Scarcity on Biodiversity of India
  • Human intervention impacts 35 species on average in biodiversity hotspots in India.
  • The Western Ghats, the Himalayas and North East are amongst hotspots with threatened species category.
  • Dam construction on the Kali river contributed to the Western Ghats decline in forest cover of 30 percentage points in approximately 40 years.

3 Ways to Prevent Biodiversity Destruction in India

  1. Economic policy needs to incorporate economic value of biodiversity, impact on the environment needs to be evaluated when new development activities, such as building dams or reservoirs are planned.
  2. Explore the possibility of smaller projects in multiple locations instead of one large project in one geographical location, since the cumulative environmental footprint of such smaller projects might be lower compared to one large project.
  3. Undertake large scale tree plantation to re-establish habitats and support resuscitation of bird population and wildlife in the region.

Effects of Water Scarcity on Desertification

  • Approximately 30 % of Indian land is degraded or faces desertification
  • Water erosion is the largest cause of desertification and is responsible for approximately 11 % of total desertification.
  • Cost of land degradation estimated at approximately 2.1 % of India’s 2014-15 GDP.

Read more about Desertification from the linked article.

4 Ways to Prevent Risks of Desertification

  1. Afforestation is a very effective method, but it must be done strategically and scientifically so that the right mix of flora is propagated i.e. local species, drought-tolerant variety of trees etc.
  2. Adopt agroforestry, in this method trees and shrubs, are grown next to crops and pasturelands. It can reduce erosion and even increase biodiversity in areas currently covered with mono-cropping and without cover crops and natural barriers.
  3. By increasing the green cover it will help in groundwater rejuvenation as water absorption and retention capacity of soil increases. It is important to tap into local and grassroots knowledge to select the right trees for the appropriate geography.
  4. China’s ‘great wall’ initiative is a phenomenal example of China making large scale investments in tackling desertification. The country has planted 66 Billion trees in the arid Northern territory and they claim to have reduced sandstorms by 20 % and desertification by nearly 5,000 miles in recent years.

Measures for Preventing Water Scarcity in India (Central Government)

Ministry of Jal Shakti

The Government of India established the Ministry of Jal Shakti to consolidate interrelated functions pertaining to water management. The Ministry launched Jal Shakti Abhiyan – a campaign for water conservation and water security. Get detailed information on Jal Shakti Ministry on the page linked here.

Jal Shakti Abhiyan Campaign

Jal Shakti Abhiyan launched in

  • 1592 water-stressed blocks
  • 256 districts

The major focus areas of Jal Shakti Abhiyan is given below

  • Water conservation and rainwater harvesting
  • Renovation of traditional and other water bodies/tanks
  • Borewell recharge structures
  • Watershed development
  • Intensive afforestation
  • Block and District water conservation plans
  • Promotion of efficient water use for irrigation
  • Better choice of crops for Krishi Vigyan Kendras

Jal Abhiyan is a time-bound, mission-mode water conservation campaign. Hence to make sure that efforts are going in the right direction, The National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has developed a comprehensive water management metrics named Composite Water Management Index (CWMI).

The Government of India has announced an ambitious target of providing piped clean drinking water to all villages by 2024.

Read more about Jal Shakti Abhiyan from the linked article.

Atal Bhujal Yojana 

In order to acknowledge and contain the ever-growing problem of groundwater depletion, the Indian Government introduced the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABY) in December 2019 after getting financial approval from the World Bank in 2018. It was launched under Jal Jeevan Mission. It is related to groundwater usage and conservation in India.

The objective of the program was to lay emphasis on the recharge of groundwater resources and improve the exploitation of the groundwater resources, with the involvement of people at the local level. Further details on Atal Bhujal Yojana can be read on the linked page.

Adoption of Composite Water Management Index (CWMI)

The National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has developed the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) to enable effective water management in Indian states. The first edition was published in 2018 and became a very well-received publication inside and outside the country.

Mandate of CWMI

  • Establish a benchmark for state-level performance on key water indicators.
  • Identify the high performing states and low performing states thereby inculcating a culture of constructive competition among states
  • Identify areas for deeper engagement and investment on the part of the states.

Measures for Preventing Water Scarcity (State Government)

Rajasthan – Mukhya Mantri Jal Swalambhan Abhiyan (MJSA)

The objective is to make villages self-sufficient in water through participatory water management approach.

  • Launched in 2016
  • A unique feature is the usage of Drones to identify water bodies for restoration
  • Gram Sabha in villages is responsible for budgeting of water resources for different uses, providing greater power to the community members in decision-making.

6 Accomplishments of the MJSA program

  1. In the 1st 2 phases of the program, 7742 villages in Rajasthan benefited by 2.3 Lakh water conservation activities.
  2. In the 2nd phase, 1.35 Lakh water conservation structures were created in 4213 villages.
  3. Benefited more than 88 lakh people, 93 lakh heads of livestock, covering an area of 33.50 Lakh hectares.
  4. After the 1st phase, there was a 56 % reduction of water supply through tankers and the average rise in the groundwater table by 4.6 feet in 21 non-desert districts of the states.
  5. 50,000 hectares of additional land had been made fit for cultivation in the districts
  6. 64 % of the handheld pumps had been rejuvenated.

Andhra Pradesh – Neeru Chettu Programme

The objective is to make Andhra Pradesh drought-proof and reduce economic inequalities through better water conservation and management practices. Highlights of the program are given below.

  • Repaired about 7,000 farm ponds
  • Repaired 22,000 check dams
  • 102 lift irrigation schemes have been commissioned or revived.
  • This program has enabled irrigation access to approximately 2,10,000 acres of land in the state.

Maharashtra – Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan

Launched in 2015 – 16, with the aim of making 5000 villages water scarcity free, every year. This program entails the following

  • Deepening and widening of streams
  • Construction of cement and earthen stop dams
  • Works on nullahs and digging of farm ponds.
  • Geo-tagging of water bodies and use of a mobile application to enable web-based monitoring

3 Accomplishments of the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan program

  1. Increase in groundwater levels of 1.5 to 2 metres.
  2. 11,000 villages have been declared drought-free
  3. Agricultural productivity has increased by 30 % – 50 %

Telangana – Mission Kakatiya Program

  • Launched in 2014
  • Aims to restore 46,000 tanks across the state and bring over 20 lakh acres land under cultivation.
  • Enhancing the development of minor irrigation structures
  • Promoting community-based irrigation management.
  • Restoration of tanks to enable effective utilization of the 255 TMC water allocated for minor irrigation under Godavari and Krishna river basins.

4 Accomplishments of the Mission Kakatiya Program

  1. Over 22,500 tanks had been restored till March 2018
  2. The program Boosted water storage capacity of water bodies
  3. Enhanced on-farm moisture retention capacity in the region.
  4. Increase in the gross area irrigated under tank ayacut by 51.5 % compared to the base year.

Gujarat – Sujalam Sufalam Yojana

It is a water conservation scheme by the Gujarat Government launched in May 2018; it focuses on

  • Deepening of water bodies before monsoons
  • Desilting of water bodies
  • Target to increase water storage capacity by 11,000 lakh cubic feet through deepening of 13,000 lakes, check dams, and reservoirs. The program was a success as per media reports.
  • 2nd edition was launched in 2019 in which the state increased its financial contribution to 60 % for programme activities, requiring private entities to pay only remaining 40 %

Madhya Pradesh – Kapil Dhara Yojana

  • Develop irrigation facilities on private land of small and marginal farmers, through the construction of dug wells, farm ponds, check dams etc.
  • Focuses on providing financial support to landholders without access to irrigation facilities and prioritizes marginalized communities to maximize impact.
  • The program has contributed to improved productivity, intensity, and diversity of crop production in the region and generates livelihood sources.

Punjab – Pani Bachao Paise Kamao

The program launched to break water-energy nexus.

  • It is an innovative program, where farmers are provided with fixed electricity quota and receiving Rs 4 per KWh (Kilowatt-hour) for every unit of electricity saved through Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT).
  • The scheme launched by the Department of Power on a pilot basis in the districts of Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur; allows farmers to join on a voluntary basis.
  • A unique solution to the widespread problem of electricity and water wastage by farmers by encouraging them to use the resources efficiently by incentivising them monetarily for being water efficient.

Uttar Pradesh – Jakhni Village, Bundelkhand

Jakhni village of Banda district in the Bundelkhand region was one of the most water-scarce regions in India. There was heavy migration from the village in search of water and for better livelihood, but the villagers drastically changed the situation through rigorous water conservation techniques as given below.

  • Construction of farm ponds
  • Restoration/rejuvenation of water bodies
  • Collection and utilization of greywater
  • Raising of farm bunds
  • Intensive plantation of trees

The uniqueness of this success is farmers of Jakhni undertook the entire work without any

external funding, machinery or resources.


  • It has become a water self-sufficient village, it was earlier drought-prone
  • Improved agricultural production – now produces 23,000 quintals of Basmati rice, production of other crops has also increased by manifolds

Water contamination in India

As per the NITI Aayog report, 70 % of all of the country’s fresh water in the ground or on the surface is polluted. As per the report, 600 Million Indians are facing a high or extreme water crisis. 2,00,000 Indians die every year since they are drinking, washing, and bathing in contaminated water.

Relevant links to cover up the topic on water and its scarcity comprehensively for the upcoming UPSC exam are given below-

Central Water Commission (CWC)  National Water Mission – NAPCC Mission National Water Framework Bill, India – 2016
8th International Conference on Ground Water  National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunals in India
Drinking Water: Quality & Challenges: RSTV Water Resources United Nations World Water Development Report 
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)  India’s Water Crisis – Every Drop Counts: RSTV Interlinking of Rivers – National River Linking Project

4 Ways Adopted to Prevent Water Scarcity Across the Globe

We need to use a multi-pronged approach to address the matter.
1. Aquifer Recharging

An aquifer is a body of permeable soil or rock that contains or transmits groundwater. They are usually refilled from rain or melting snow. As per UN reports groundwater withdrawal has tripled in the past 50 years; areas with highest groundwater withdrawals include parts of China, India and the United States. Around 67% is used for agricultural purposes, 22% for domestic use, 11% for industrial use. Aquifer recharge involves injecting excess surface water into underground aquifers. Water can be treated before injection. Use native plant species in wetland areas to boost aquifers natural recharge capabilities.

2. Water reuse and Zero-Liquid Discharge Technology

This method can alleviate water scarcity for municipalities and industries. Zero Liquid Discharge technologies use, treat, and reuse water in a closed-loop system without release or discharge.

3. Coastal Reservoir Projects

Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan have Coastal reservoir projects that have been effectively functioning and supplying people with drinking water.

4. Desalination Plants

This is a process of treating saline or brackish water. This process can be used to treat seawater or groundwater containing salt concentrations that make it unfit for drinking. Highly saline water contains salt in the concentrations ranging between 10,000 ppm and 35,000 ppm. Freshwater is defined as water with less than 1,000 ppm of salt.

Due to growing demands, many nations are investing in this technology. There are an estimated 16,000 desalination plants in operation around the world. The largest desalination plants are in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel. Unfortunately, desalination plants are energy guzzlers. It requires 10 times more energy than that consumed by pumping well water.

As the trend suggests, the number of questions being asked from the environment segments is increasing. Candidates can get the complete trend analysis in our GS 3 strategy, Structure and Syllabus page.

The above details would be of help to candidates preparing for UPSC 2022 exams from the perspective of mains examination.

Relevant Articles:
UPSC Geography Notes IAS Geography Syllabus
IAS Salary Static GK
Civil Services Exam UPSC Eligibility

Relevant Links

Science & Technology Questions in UPSC Mains General Studies Paper – 3 Previous Years Agriculture Questions in UPSC Mains General Studies Paper-3
UPSC Mains General Studies Paper-III Strategy, Syllabus & Structure Topic-Wise General Studies Paper – 3 Questions for UPSC Mains
Topic-Wise UPSC Prelims Questions [2013-2020] UPSC MCQ Questions on Environment


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