The depth of India’s water crisis, explained in charts

India's water use is the highest among similar emerging economies. (Image: Pixabay)
India's water use is the highest among similar emerging economies. (Image: Pixabay)


  • As Bengaluru’s taps run dry, here’s a look at the extent of India’s problem—from groundwater table to poor quality, and unclean rivers to lack of access to drinking water

Summer is yet to fully set in, but taps in India’s tech capital Bengaluru are running dry. Coming on the back of Karnataka’s worst drought in over four decades, the current crisis shows us what could be in store for the rest of the country—in the immediate future for some parts, and in the foreseeable future for others—as water remains a precious and scarce commodity. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has warned of a hotter and drier summer this year due to the El Niño effect. Ahead of World Water Day on 22 March, we take a look at India's water crisis in charts.

Widening gap

Population growth, rapid urbanisation and poor conservation efforts have put severe stress on India’s water tables. The country’s water use is the highest among similar emerging economies. An average Indian had access to 5,178 kilolitres of water per year in 1951, but this sank to 1,651 kilolitres by 2011, giving India the ‘water-stressed’ status for the first time. By 2051, this could fall to a mere 1,228 kilolitres, government estimates show.

Losing ground

The groundwater levels in one in four districts of India are in either over-exploited, critical or semi-critical stage. In four north Indian states, the situation is particularly dire. Just 8.7% of the districts in Punjab, and 12.1% and 13.6% in Rajasthan and Haryana, respectively, are within the desired limits. The lack of good quality data has also hindered accurate assessment of groundwater quality. For instance, data was not available to measure the presence of arsenic in groundwater at 57% of the 1,138 groundwater monitoring stations, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Toxic flow

Nearly 46% of all rivers in India are polluted, according to the environment ministry. Biochemical oxygen demand, which measures the concentration of oxygen dissolved in water and is an important indicator of water quality, was found to be within safe limits (less than 3 mg/litre) at only 1,130 out of the 1,920 (57%) locations on rivers across India, according to a 2022 CPCB report.


Baby steps

Over the years, the government’s initiatives have increased access to improved water sources. While some states boast near-universal coverage, challenges remain, particularly in rural areas. Contamination of water sources and lack of treatment continue to remain an issue. Nearly half of the country does not have access to safe sanitation services as of 2022, according to a United Nations index.

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