India is not an inherently water-scarce country – but the mismanagement of available water has made it so. The country’s average annual rainfall of around 1,200 millimetres (mm) is higher than the world mean average of 980 mm. This, coupled with water available as snow, should, if managed well, have been sufficient.

Problems with water availability

  • A sizable part of rainwater is allowed to flow down wastefully to the sea.
  • The 90-odd major reservoirs and numerous smaller water bodies can hold barely a year’s requirement of water, where many countries have water storage capacity for two or more years.
  • Moreover, inter-state disputes hinder the optimal use of available water. Upper riparian states can be extravagant in tapping river waters; those downstream are frequently denied their share.
  • At least a dozen of these inter-state water conflicts have defied resolution through mutual agreements, high-level political interventions and even adjudication by specially created tribunals. Once in court, disputes stay there for decades. The longest lasting ones are over the Vansadhara river, the Mandovi river, the Babhali barrage and the Mullaperiyar dam. Arbitration by special tribunals has also failed to settle disputes over the sharing of the waters of the Godavari, the Krishna, the Narmada, the Cauvery, the Satluj and the Yamuna. Only a few tribunals have pronounced their awards and fewer still have been notified. None of the awards has been implemented successfully.

What is the solution?

  • Making water part of the State List of the Constitution was, clearly, a historic blunder. Ideally, water, a dynamic natural resource, should have been under the jurisdiction of the Centre. However, since rectification of this anomaly through an amendment of the Constitution is not feasible – as no state would like to give up its control over water – other available options need to be explored. One possibility is to make full use of Entry 56 of the Union List of the Constitution which allows the Centre to make laws on the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys when required. Unless such options are explored and gainfully used, the country’s water security will remain perilous.
  • Secondly, understand the energy-water nexus. Energy is central to water supply. Farmers hedge against poor quality power supply by over-pumping groundwater. This results in lower water productivity, lower incomes and farmer dissatisfaction, which compound the political economy of low electricity tariffs, poor finances of utilities and continuing poor electricity service. The success of the Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana (UDAY) depends on breaking this vicious cycle.
  • Acknowledge the impact of unsustainable water management. The crisis in groundwater lies at the heart of the challenge. Indian agriculture has become a groundwater economy, fuelled by more than 19 million electric and 10 million diesel pump sets. Shifting demand patterns across sectors must create new opportunities for efficiency improvements.
  • Just five states – Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha, and Gujarat – hold 57 per cent of reservoir storage capacity. Building groundwater storage capacity across India could partially ameliorate this situation. Fixing agricultural price signals, which distort farmers’ choices and cropping practices, is also necessary
  • Mitigate strategic threats – Climate change is a threat multiplier. Therefore, all infrastructure investments must be mandated to assess climate resilience. Alongside annual economic surveys, India needs periodic climate risk assessments, which can be reported to Parliament.


Water is the ultimate resource. Its impact on energy, agriculture, urbanisation, infrastructure, manufacturing and human development is pervasive. Yet, we fail to pay strategic attention. India is already enduring a crisis of mismanagement from the past. Are we risking the future, too, through a failure of imagination?

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