Who is guzzling India's drinking water?

Indians are water-stressed people. In 1951, per capita water availability was 5,177 cubic meters. In 2011 Census figures, this came down to 1,545 cubic metres — a decline of about 70 per cent in 60 years.


People gather to get water from a huge well in the village of Natwarghad in the western Indian state of Gujarat. (File photo: Reuters)

Monsoon has picked up momentum and is expected to improve water availability in many parts of India with some places such as Mumbai facing the problem of extreme due to visible lack of preparation on the part of municipal bodies. But even a gathering monsoon would not be of much help in improving drinking water situation for the country which saves only eight per cent of rainwater.

On Monday, Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat launched Jal Shakti Abhiyan for water conservation and rainwater harvesting, renovation of traditional and other water bodies, reuse of water and recharging of structures, watershed development, and intensive afforestation.

The campaign covers 1,592 stressed blocks in 256 districts, where groundwater has been over-exploited for various purposes. Groundwater constitutes the main drinking water for people in India.


Empty metal pitchers in an opening made to filter water from polluted lake in Thane, Maharashtra. (Photo: Reuters)

Indians are water-stressed people. In 1951, per capita water availability was 5,177 cubic metres. In 2011 Census figures, this came down to 1,545 cubic metres — a decline of about 70 per cent in 60 years.

Per-capita annual water availability of less than 1,700 cubic metres is defined as a water-stressed condition. The government’s own assessment says that India is inching towards water-scarce status. Scarcity means availability below 1,000 cubic metres.

The average annual per capita water availability in 2001 was 1,820 cubic metres and the government estimates that this may reduce to 1,341 cubic metres by 2025 and 1,140 cubic metres by 2050.

So, where is drinking water going?

Wastage of rainwater

According to the Central Water Commission, annual water requirement of India is 3,000 billion cubic metres while it receives 4,000 billion cubic metres of rain every year on an average. The problem is the country of 1.3 billion people fails to utilise three-fourth of water it receives from the sky.

The National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD) report, the utilisable water is 1,123 billion cubic metres a year, comprising 690 billion cubic metres of surface water and 433 billion cubic metres of replenishable groundwater. The rest is lost.



People of Karamdi village in Banasakantha, Gujarat offering prayer for rain in this drought hit district. (File Photo)

Groundwater is the main potable or drinking water for the country. But groundwater finds maximum utilisation in irrigation that consumes up to 80 per cent of the water extracted from the aquifers. Irrigation also gets water from rain, rivers, ponds and other reservoirs but groundwater, according to a World Bank report, remains the source of 60 per cent of all irrigation in the country.

Most farmers and industries – that use about 12 per cent of groundwater – find groundwater extraction the easiest option to meet their water requirements. This has made India the biggest extractor of groundwater. India extracts more water than the second and third biggest extractors – China and the US – combined.

Ironically, only about eight per cent of extracted groundwater in India is used for drinking purposes.


People wait to fetch water in Thane, Maharashtra. (Photo: Reuters)

Groundwater is mostly of drinking water quality while other sources need purification for drinking purposes. The situation gets more complicated given that irrigation efficiency is very low – at around 40 per cent – in the country, effectively meaning 60 per cent of all water used for irrigation is lost. Much of that is drinking water extracted from the groundwater table.

The current usage of groundwater has led, according to the Economic Survey 2015-16, to decline of water table at the rate of 0.3 metres per year in India. It said India consumed more than 109 cubic kilometres groundwater between 2002 and 2008 — double the capacity of country’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga.

Increase in the share of irrigation water from other sources will save drinking water and ease the current and impending grievous crisis.


Being a universal solvent, coolant and cleaning agent for industry, water is extensively used in industrial units, particularly those engaged in manufacturing. Most industrial units use own borewell extracting groundwater to meet their water requirements.

Industry’s relation with groundwater is mutually damaging, as experience shows. Industry’s over-exploitation of groundwater contributes to water crisis, which in turn forces shutdowns in the sector.


A woman drinks water from an earthen pot in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

Power, paper and pulp, textiles and automobiles sectors are among the biggest users of water, primarily extracted from the ground. A 2018 report by the World Resources Institute said 14 of 20 largest thermal power plants had to shut down their operations at least once due to shortage of water between 2013 and 2016.

A shift from groundwater to other sources of water will benefit both – the industry and people facing drinking water crisis.

Household wastage and RO purifiers

It is estimated that about 80 per cent of the water reaching households in India is drained out as waste flow through sewage. In most cases, this water is not treated for reuse or used for agricultural purposes. This is in sharp contrast to countries like Israel and Australia which have managed to treat household waste water and put to reuse. Israel treats 100 per cent of its used water and recycles 94 per cent of it back to households.

Water purifier is one of the fastest growing businesses in India. But it has raised concerns about inherent wastage of water. For one litre of drinking water from a reverse osmosis-based water purifier, four litres of water is required to pass through it.

In a 2015 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evolution (CITE) conducted in Ahmedabad found that RO-based water purifiers waste 74 per cent water.

Water purifiers are usually attached to the running taps in homes which sources water either from groundwater or supplied through municipal pipes. Simply put, drinking quality water is passed through to purify water.

NGT knows it

This concern came up for hearing in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which in May this year directed the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) to issue notification prohibiting use of drinking water prepared through RO-based systems in areas where the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) was less than 500 milligram/litre.

The NGT also ordered the ministry to lay down a rule to ensure that recovery of treated water is at least 60 per cent in RO-based systems and not more than 40 per cent should go as brine or waste. It said the recovery rate should go up to 75 per cent in future.

The tribunal, in its order, mentioned that more than 16 crore Indians have no access to clean water. This is the highest number of such population in the world.

Bottled water

Bottled water and other packaged beverage industry is another area where drinking water is lost in plenty. There are more than 6,000 licensed bottlers – registered with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) – for doing business in packaged drinking water. This number does not include unbranded and unregistered bottlers. On an average, a single bottler selling packaged drinking water extracts somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of groundwater every hour.

These bottlers claim to use more than 65 per cent of groundwater extracted from aquifer in packaging as drinking water. This puts wastage of groundwater at a minimum of 35 per cent. And, the business of packaged drinking water is growing at over 15 per cent a year in the country.

According to the bottledwaterindi.org – a website that provides information about bottled water industry, consumption of bottled water in India is linked to the level of prosperity in the different regions.

“The western region accounts for 40 per cent of the market and the eastern region just 10. However, the bottling plants are concentrated in the southern region – of the 3400 + bottling water plants in India, more than 55 per cent are in four southern states. This is a major problem because southern India, especially Tamil Nadu, is water-starved,” the website says.

Soft drinks too

Excessive use of groundwater by soft-drink makers is another region for fast depletion of groundwater in the country. Two cases could be cited in this regard. PepsiCo was forced to close operations at its bottling plant in Kerala’s Kanjikode.


A passenger drinks water from a pipe running along a railway track. (Photo: Reuters)

PepsiCo was extracting more than 6 lakh litres of groundwater every day for the plant at a time when Kerala faced drinking water crisis leading to protests by civil rights activists and politicians. In January 2017, Kerala had ordered industries to reduce water usage by 75 per cent.

In November 2016, the Madras High Court had directed that water from Tamirabarani river in Tamil Nadu must not be diverted to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. The order came in the wake of water crisis arising out of depletion in groundwater table and scarcity of river water for irrigation.

The governments – both at the Centre and in the states are now focusing on water conservation launching various campaigns. In December 2018, the Central Ground Water Authority issued a notification proposing a conservation fee for groundwater use. This was to be implemented from June 1 this year. With water being a state subject, implementation of water conservation fee rests with the state governments, which have shied away from notifying it fearing backlash from people.

This article was originally published in India Today.