Water Insecurity in India Paints an Uncertain Future for Agriculture

30 March 2016 Somya Rajawat, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


Consecutive drought years, poor sanitation and poorly maintained infrastructure have painted a bleak future for the water supply in India. Approximately half of all surface water supplies are contaminated and the national aggregate reservoir supply has fallen from 47 per cent to 29 per cent in the last two years, while water availability per person has been in gradual decline since 1947. Historically, the government’s response to water scarcity has been lacking, mirroring general attitudes of apathy among wealthier urban populations, where the uneven impacts of declining water supply have not been felt as intensely as in rural areas. Early predictions of water scarcity have come to pass and, given the less than encouraging history of government action on water sustainability, a water crisis is imminent. By 2030, 40 per cent of India could face the possibility of absolute water scarcity. India has found itself in a delicate position where farmers, industrialists and the common people must compete for dwindling water supplies.

India Water Stress


With the Indian agricultural sector focused on the production of water-intensive crops, such as rice and cotton, it is no surprise that farmers account for between 80 and 90 per cent of all water use. Given the high level of pollution in unsanitary surface water supplies, the overwhelming majority of water supply in India comes from groundwater, a virtually unregulated source. With no incentive to conserve or recycle, groundwater has been subject to exploitation, creating irreversible damage.

In northern Gujarat, for example, water tables have been declining by an average of nine feet per year, while salinity has been steadily increasing. The average well can now only irrigate 60 per cent of its land. Approximately half of the farmers in the region plan on abandoning irrigated agriculture within the next six years if current trends continue. There is also the added factor of the increased number of thermal power plants in India, which are intensifying the situation by diverting potential water sources away from the agricultural sector.

Evidently, farmers sit in a precarious position; their overuse of groundwater will increase the chance of permanent salinisation, which will end crop production. Alternative sources of irrigation are either inaccessible or costly to the point where they could bankrupt the average farmer and are therefore not a suitable solution. If the impending water crisis is not addressed, farmers will be put in a “catch 22 situation”. This could see famers face significant declines in production and massive losses of income. If farmers cannot fall back on pastoral farming or dry farming, the loss of livelihood for many may be a distinct possibility.

Of course, there are broader implications of a water crisis, including a food shortage and the potential for violence, conflict and general unrest amongst the population, which has already occurred to a certain extent. The northern state of Haryana has seen water become a tool of political persuasion, with the Jat people cutting off the water supply to Delhi in a protest to alter the caste reservation system. The western state of Maharashtra is currently preparing for an outbreak of violent uprisings in response to the water crisis.

The future is uncertain. To say that India may face a food and water shortage as well as the breakdown of one of its largest industries is the worst-case scenario. The government has adopted a number of strategies and policies to alleviate the crisis and provide a small avenue of relief for severely water-stressed communities. It has begun to improve the sanitation of surface water supplies, through the removal of pollution and the creation of infrastructure to prevent further insanitary conditions. Of course, these initiatives will not entirely combat the crisis when the key issue is sustainability. Perhaps investment in renewable energy sources that are not as water intensive, or decentralised control of groundwater supplies will provide long-term solutions to the issue. Whichever avenue the Indian Government decides to pursue, it is vital that it engages in such actions immediately.

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