Where India's water economy stands

Tushaar Shah works at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Anand and leads the IWMI-Tata water policy programme in India. He was selected for the CG Award for outstanding scientist of the year, 2002. He talks about India’s approach to water infrastructure, and how its improvement is closely linked to the human development index

By Tushaar Shah
Published: Friday 22 March 2013

Tushaar ShahIndia demonstrates three main characteristics when it comes to the management and use of water: there is an unusually high reliance on all sources of water; the water economy is highly informal; water infrastructure is extremely neglected.

In South Asia, groundwater is the mainstay of agriculture. However, this valuable resource is over-exploited by industries.

Over the past 20 years, while the canal system of irrigation in India has deteriorated, reliance on groundwater has risen. Hence private investment in the tapping of groundwater and construction of wells has increased not just in cities, but in smaller towns as well.

According to the 65th round of the survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2009, two-third of the rural water economy depends on self-supply. This means 66 per cent of the rural population use their own deep wells and bore wells as domestic water sources. Only 15 to 20 per cent depend on community resources such as tanks and ponds. Cities present a contrary picture.

When it comes to water for irrigation, too, tube wells and ponds serve as informal water sources. Thus 75 per cent of the water economy is dependent on self-supply. 

Such figures demonstrate the woeful neglect of water infrastructure in the country, but at the same time also serve to highlight that India provides a unique example of communities taking charge of their own water resources. Here the society and not the state acts as the driving force.

An aspect of the water economy in India which has tremendous scope is the treatment and recycling of waste water. A few years ago, Centre for Science and Environment in its research found that Indian cities produce 15 billion litres of waste water daily. The general belief is that a large volume of water is necessary to tackle water shortage. But it is  more efficient use of existing resources, and proper reuse of waste water that could contribute to reducing the problem of water shortages. 

It is believed that water governance and water investment can improve water welfare for state and society. An important tool used in water management is the water poverty index (WPI). The water poverty index is an aggregate index, describing the lack of freshwater. The index is calculated based on five components: resources, access, capacity, use, and environment, using indicators describing these.

The development of water infrastructure should be seen as closely linked to the improvement of the human development index (HDI). WPI shows that water is accessible to those states which have higher gross national product (GNP) than sources of water availability. There is no correlation between water availability and its quality or accessibility. Countries with a low per capita income such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos have high per capita water availability. However this does not guarantee its accessibility to their people. This shows the relation between WPI and HDI.

Research shows that the water resources of a country which rises in terms of economic development, tend to deteriorate. Ten years ago, in China, the government began to voice serious concern regarding its deteriorating water resources. Hence it is vital that a country like India which is developing at a tremendous rate, should take its water economy and infrastructure more seriously so as to preempt a water crisis in the future.


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