Some Random Thoughts on Water Security of India Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

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India is a water rich country with 4% of world’s water resources. But, India is also one of the most populous countries in the world, which supports about 17.1% (> 1.3 billion) of world’s population and about 500 millions of livestock population that accounts for 20% of world’s livestock population. Booming economics, population growth and rapid urbanization have considerable impact on India’s water demand. Changes in the food consumption, lifestyle and land use pattern also play a major role in water requirement. Although, India receives plenty of water as rainfall during monsoon (average precipitation of 1,170 millimetres per year, or about 4,000 Billion Cubic metres (BCM) of rains annually or about 1,720 cubic metres of fresh water per person every year), however, due to lack of storage only a small percentage of that water is actually added to the reserve. The total storage capacity of  91 reservoirs of Central Water Commission (CWC) in India  is 161.993 BCM, which is about 63% of the total storage capacity of 257.812 BCM, which is estimated to have been created in the country.  In addition there are 3842 water storage structures available in India, having a cumulative capacity of 213.477 BCM. This shows that almost 88 percent of the rain water goes waste.  It would be relevant to note that at least five countries are having much greater storage capacity as compared to India. These are; Canada, China, Russian Federation; USA and Brazil. In all fairness all these countries have water resources which are far more than India, as such India is not doing badly. However, it needs to be noted that India supports 17.1 % of World’s population and  20% of the livestock of the world and that is where the problem lies and Indian endeavour has to be to conserve every drop of water.

In this regard another aspect that merits consideration for further analysis to address the mismatch between demand and availability is that while, as per the international norms, countries with per-capita water availability less than 1700 m3 per year are categorized as water stressed, with per capita available water of 1545 m3 India is definitely water stressed country . Studies shows that the projected per capita water availability will become 1401 m3 and 1191 m3 by 2025 and 2050 respectively and eventually India is likely to become a water scarce country.

Relevance of the subject is that the water security (universal sustained availability) is the bedrock of the food security which itself is very important for the peace and tranquillity with in the country finally, as such it becomes an important element in the national security matrix.   

Water Resources of India and its Effective Management

Surface water

  • India has 12 major rivers, which cater for about 253 Million Hectare (mha) of catchment area and 46 medium river with 24.6 mha of catchment area. Many of the river systems with their tributaries are perennial and some of them are seasonal. The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna system is the largest river system in India with 43% of the catchment area of all the  major river systems. The other major river systems are Indus, Sabarmati, Mahi, Narmada, Tapi (or Tapti), Brahmani, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery. Apart from that, there are several other medium rivers systems of which Subarnarekha (with 1.9 mha of catchment area) is the largest.
  • Besides rivers and canals, other inland water resources include numerous reservoirs, tanks and ponds, which cover almost 7 mha of area. They are unevenly distributed over the country with Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and West Bengal possessing more than 50% of these inland water resources. Total water resources potential in the country is 1869.35 BCM and out of that the utilizable surface water resource is 690.1 BCM (our endeavour should be to bridge this gap- author’s comment).

Ground water– Ground water is a replenishable resource. Annual utilizable ground water resources in India is assessed to be  433 BCM. The main source of ground water is the recharge from monsoon precipitation, which is about 58 % of the ground water. Balance of 32 % is contributed through; seepage from canals, tanks, ponds and other water structures and irrigation. Among the states of India Uttar Pradesh has highest net annual ground water availability (~ 72 BCM) while Delhi has the least (0.29 BCM). In this connection it needs to be noted that agriculture, industry and domestic use, generally utilize ground water. One way to address the ever shrinking water table is the rejuvenation of the minor rivers and village ponds (this is one aspect which needs to be addressed on priority. Afforestation and statutory rain water harvesting needs to be strictly implemented- author’s comment)  .

Watershed Management– It is essential for the optimisation of the water availability in rivers, ponds and any other water holding structure. In this connection a great effort done by the Barabanki District administration in Uttar Pradesh, to rejuvenate Kalyani River during 2020 is a good case study. This rejuvenation not only helped the recharge of water table along the river but also helped to enhance the water storage of the rain water which otherwise would have caused inundation in the area. Availability of water also improved the micro climate of the area. This was done by deepening the alignment of the channel and also doing  small engineering interventions to ensure that  of the flow of the water is directed towards the channel. This flags, the need of identification of such minor channels and doing necessary water shed management to re-channelise  rain water towards the channel (It is understood that the state administration has identified 25 such minor rivers in the state and has planned to get them deepened them. Indeed a highly laudable step- author’s comment) . Reforestation of the catchment area will also help to arrest the rain water going waste in conjunction with the necessary water shed management. In mountainous terrain it has also been observed that encroachments near the springs which feed to the main channel of the river disrupt the flow of water into the main river and this interrupted water if not collected in a proper check dam may result into landslide due to increase in the hydrostatic pressure. This again flags the need for a better Watershed management.

Need for Desilting- Rivers in North India are generally glacier fed. The alignment and Height of Himalayas make the glaciers dirty glaciers and as such plenty of silt is brought down by these rivers with them. This excessive silt causes changes in the cross section of the river from a trapezoidal section to a saucer section. This change, firstly; reduces water carrying capacity of the river and secondly also results into changing of the course. Thus there is a need to do two things, firstly; to do desilting of main channel regularly (may be an independent authority is constituted, which takes action Suo Moto- author’s comment)  and secondly; ensure that river plain is not encroached upon, because it is important for the health of the river and also to reduce the probability of the pollution of the river.

Selection of Crop, seeds and best practices in Agriculture

  • There are alternatives for a particular crop which are comparatively less water intensive and it would be advisable that the crop pattern be designed accordingly. For example not only wheat and rice, the crop should have coarse grains like millet and barley as part of the design. Also those seeds should be chosen which result into crop which consumes less water. For example dwarf seeds of rice of Monsanto Company consume much more water through evapotranspiration as compared to many of seeds from India.
  • Technology like drip irrigation can be used to reduce the quantity of water used for irrigation.
  • Infrastructure to enhance storage capacity so that more and more rain water can be collected and stored.
  • Innovative actions like use of solar panels over canals to reduce evaporation needs to be considered. Panels used to generate power will be able to reduce power required from other sources.         

Projection for Future– On account of rapid economic and demographic change, the water demands in all the sectors are increasing. According to the projections by the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD) the irrigation sector alone is going to need additional 71 BCM by 2025 and 250 BCM of water by 2050, compared to the demands of 2010. Similarly other sectors are also likely to have increased water demand. As explained earlier a considerable amount of water requirement is met by the ground water. This is where, the problem is brewing up, a long term analysis of water recharge in both pre-monsoon and post- monsoon seasons shows lowering of water table due to limited recharge (we shall examine the reasons for reduced recharge in next sectionauthor’s note!). If this trend continues, India is going to face huge water deficit in future, especially in the irrigation sector. In the domain of water usage by individual per capita, the water use is projected to increase from 99 litre/day (l/d) (2009) to 167 l/d (2050). Average domestic water demand would also increase from 85 litres per capita per day (lpcd) in 2000 to 125 lpcd and 170 lpcd by 2025 and 2050 respectively. Total industrial water demand is also supposed to increase to 92 BCM and 161 BCM by 2025 and 2050 respectively.

Problem Areas in case of India

Mismatch in Spatial distribution– A significant issue is the mismatch of spatial distribution of available water with the population. Ironically less water is available where more people live. Other than rains, the melting of snow over the Himalayas after winter season feeds the northern rivers to varying degrees. The southern rivers, however experience more flow variability over the year. For the Himalayan basin, this leads to flooding in some months and water scarcity in others. The total water resources going waste to the sea are nearly 1200 BCM after sparing moderate environmental / salt export water requirements of all rivers. This water which is getting wasted out, can be utilized to irrigate those areas which get parched during certain period of time and under tropical climate lend themselves conducive for agriculture  throughout the year, provided perennial water supply is available to cater to the high rate of evaporation from the cultivated land. Thus, though the overall water resources are adequate to meet all the requirements of the country, but because of the gaps in the availability of water due to temporal and spatial distribution of water resources, agriculture activity gets limited. One of the recommended option to address the issue of season water supply is the interlinking of the rivers of India. However, it has to be planned in a judicious manner so that the environmental degradation is avoided. The recent decision to link Ken and Betwa is a step in the right direction. Also, it needs to be appreciated that in times to come the Food Security in India will be a major issue and that can be achieved only if the water availability is ensured; all through the year. Related issue, which needs to be addressed is the availability of electricity 24X7 for all 365 days. Which will be a spinoff of the river linking in the form of generation of hydroelectricity.


  • Surface water– About 70% of surface water resources in India are polluted. The major contributory factors for water pollution are draining of wastewater from different sources into the river water ( Village ponds are being used as garbage dumps), intensive agriculture and use of chemical fertilizer in the agricultural activity which gets drained into the water streams, as quite a substantial part of the agricultural activity these days is done in the river plains, draining of industrial effluent into river streams and the consequent chemical bye products which affect adversely the downstream communities, infrastructure development, untreated urban runoff and the wastewater finding its way into the river stream. Such contamination of the river water results in a number of water borne diseases. It is  significant to note that according to World Health Organisation (WHO), half of India’s morbidity is water related. Waste management in India has not been as efficient as it is required to be. The existing system is hardly able  to manage  only a part of the  increasing volume of the waste generated daily in India, especially in cities. Also, municipal wastewater treatment capacity developed so far in India accounts for only 29% of the waste generated in urban habitations having population more than 50,000 and the gap is likely to only increase. Domestic effluents contribute a substantial portion of the water pollution in India. In fact, more than 70% of the domestic untreated effluents are disposed of without any treatment.  Water quality data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that the organic and bacterial contamination are becoming increasingly critical in water bodies leading to a gradual degradation of water quality. Biological Oxygen Demand  (BOD) for most of the rivers of India is increasingly exceeding the standards laid for the safe water (It needs to be appreciated that the consumption and utilisation of the polluted water affects the health of people and as such is against the concept of a ‘healthy nation is a strong nation’. Thus pollution is a non-traditional threat to the national security- author’s comment).
  • Arsenic and fluoride contamination in ground water is another challenge that India has to combat (this threat is more for the water trapped within 100 meters below the ground level and it is most prevalent in and around the Ganges delta and North Eastern India). Parts of Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal are suffering from contamination of arsenic in ground water above permissible limit due to soil chemistry , while Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are known to have fluoride contamination along with arsenic contamination. In this connection it needs to be realised that almost 86% of the ground water of Bangladesh is contaminated and unless we initiate measures to arrest it we will have bigger problem staring in our face (As has been explained earlier that a large section of the society/ industry depends on ground water and this kind of contamination will definitely affect the water security of the country with the consequent implications for the national security- author’s comment).

Impact of Climate Change-

  • India is highly vulnerable to the projected/ on going climate change. The country is already experiencing changes in climate and the impacts of climate change, including water stress, heat waves and drought, severe storms and flooding, and associated negative consequences on health and livelihoods is being experienced. With a population of 1.3 billion plus, which is still growing and with very high dependence on  agriculture, India probably will be severely impacted by continuing climate change. In this connection. Following aspects are relevant:-
    • Glaciers are receding, due to climate change at an average rate of 10–15 meters per year. If the rate increases, flooding is likely to happen in river valleys from where rivers, fed from these glaciers, pass, (as was experienced in Rishi ganga incident during earlier part of the year), followed by diminished flows, resulting in water scarcity for drinking and irrigation for the downstream communities.
    • All mathematical models used for predictions, show a trend of general increase in the mean annual temperature as well as decreased range of diurnal temperature and enhanced precipitation over the Indian subcontinent. A warming of 0.5oC is likely to happen, over the entire land mass of India by the year 2030 (this warming would be approximately equal to the temperature rise,  which has happened over the entire 20th century) and a warming of 2-4oC by the end of this century, with the maximum increase over the Northern part of   Increased warming is likely to lead to higher levels of tropospheric ozone pollution and other form of air pollution.
    • Most Meterological models predict that the Indian summer monsoons would intensify. The Increased precipitation, including monsoon rains is likely to come in the form of fewer rainy days but more days of excessive rainfall, leading to significant flooding, as was the case with Uttarakhand in June 2013. Drizzle-type precipitation that helps the  soil to get moisturised, is likely to decrease. It is also speculated that the timing of the onset of monsoon might also shift, causing a dry season during the late summer sowing season. Climate models also predict an earlier snowmelt, which could have a significant adverse effect on agricultural production. Growing emissions of aerosols from energy production and other sources may suppress rainfall, leading to drier conditions with more dust and smoke from the burning of drier vegetation, affecting both regional and global hydrological cycles and agricultural production.
    • Uncertainties about changes in the monsoon pattern will affect farmers’ choices about which crops to plant and the timing of planting, reducing productivities. In addition, earlier seasonal snowmelt and depleting glaciers will reduce river flow needed for irrigation. The large segment of poor people (including small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural workers) are likely to  be hardest hit.
    • Finally, migration, especially from the neighbouring countries in search of livelihood may also happen more often.
  • The important impact of climate change is likely to entail following:-
    • Agriculture– High-input, high-output agriculture will be negatively affected even as demands for food and other agricultural products rise because of an increasing population and expectations for an improved standard of living. Millions of subsistence and smallholder farmers will experience hardship and hunger through being less able to predict climate conditions. To a certain extent, trade may be able to compensate for these deficits. Case of Bangladesh is quite relevant here as they have made a reasonably smooth transition to manufacturing of apparel. However, reduced agricultural output will impact the food security of India.
    • Water- Glacier melt may yield more runoff in the short term but less in the medium and long terms. More severe storms (especially cyclones) will cause more damage to infrastructure and livelihoods and exacerbate salt water intrusion in the storm surges. Changes in the timing and amount of monsoon rains will make the production of food and other agricultural products more uncertain, so that, even during a  good-weather year, farmers will be faced with situations where selecting a particular crop may become a difficult choice and if that decision goes bad it would result into lower-productivity.
    • Drought– On an average, 28% of the geographical area of India is vulnerable to drought. In depth studies of the climate change indicate that the drought occurrences in East Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Meghalaya are increasingly becoming alarming. Also certain districts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, East Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh are also gradually moving into alarming stage. Probability of drought occurrences in India, based on 115 years of data, varies between 10 – 26 % with central and peninsular India having the higher probabilities.
    • Tropical cyclones– are very common in the coastal regions of India. Global warming, heats up, both sea surface and water in depth, thus creating  ideal conditions for a cyclone to survive and thrive in its long journey. Recent increase in severity of tropical cyclones in Bay of Bengal region is because of the increase in the Sub Surface Temperature since 1960. It also needs to be noted that the Indian Ocean experiences  the  maximum warming among the tropical oceans.
    • Exacerbation of Inequality– The reduced income in agricultural sector due to climate change will result into dissatisfaction among the poor. It will  call for more govt support , which will  have an impact on public budget.
    • Energy– need for additional energy will be felt to counter the impact of climate change with lesser availability of conventional energy sources hence need to invest in non-polluting cleaner technologies like renewables.
    • Migration- India receives immigrants; both legal and illegal; from a number of countries. Under climate change conditions, it may be flooded with many more. Arrival of new immigrants may result into social tensions.
  • Adaptive capacity in India varies by state, geographical region, and socioeconomic status- Studies point to influential factors such as water availability, food security, human and social capital, and the ability of government (state and national levels) to buffer its people during tough times. Where adaptive capacity is low, the potential is greater for impacts to result in displaced people; deaths and damage from heat, floods, and storms; and conflicts over natural resources and assets.


There is no doubt that water is life and with the rise in population, climate change and pollution it is going to get scarcer every day. Lesser quantity of water will affect food  security and social harmony. It will also result into mass migration, further exacerbating social tensions. Thus there is a need to conserve the water that we have, because quantity of water is finite. Also we need to think in terms leveraging technology to economise the quantity of water and building necessary infrastructure to improve the storage capacity. It needs to be noted that poor management with consequent outcome may be an important adverse factor in working out of the national power and that will definitely impact the national security matrix. Therefore it is important that these issues are discussed, debated and addressed at every level of the society, industry and the governance mechanism because it is the concern of each one of us.



  1. “Water Resources in India” available on
  2. Special Report of 2009 by National Intelligence Council of US, “India: Impact of Climate Change to 2030
  3. “India Water Facts” available on
  4. “A SANDRP Report” available on


3 thoughts on “Some Random Thoughts on Water Security of India Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

  • May 7, 2021 at 8:56 am

    During my discussion a number of people asked me the efficacy of the river linking project. There questions were based on apprehensions expressed by environmentalists about the ill effects such a system will bring in its wake.
    Firstly river linking is not a mindless exercise to connect rivers like electric grid . In fact the envisaged concept entails inter basin transfers. Thus these would be amounting to transfer from one basin to adjacent basin only.
    Secondly there are a large number of examples in India itself where such an exercise has been done with fair amount of success. Mentioning of two example would suffice. First is Mulla Periyar Dam which was built during last century to transfer a West flowing river to East flowing Vaigai. No body is complaining in fact benefits which are accruing to Madurai farmers is confirming its efficacy. Second example is Sutlej- Beas link which has been fairly successful too. This fears of environmentalists are not well founded and the proposed building Inter basin transfers definitely bring relief to transferring basin from floods and to the transferred basin much needed relief from water shortage in lean period. Work on the the first river linking; Ken- Betwa has commenced to bring relief to Bundelkhand.

  • May 4, 2021 at 7:36 am

    River linking has to be planned and executed with caution. While it is the need of the hour to share the abundance of North Indian rivers in the lean period with the shortage of South Indian River, but it is also necessary to consider that such inter connections do not damage the marine life of with river system and the silt problem of the North Indian rivers does not impact the inter connection or the reservoirs built for the purpose. Such linking may also become a political issue between the concerned state. Therefore there is a need to tread on this path with caution. To my mind a better arrangement would be to go for river linking within the closer proximity preferably in the same state first. Study the environment impact and then proceed further. Probably GoI committed to this project is proceeding in these lines only. The first linkage approved and now under execution is Ken Betwa. This linkage will definitely help the parched Bundelkhand region of UP and MP and that is why both the states are on board. Next linkages like. Krishna Godavari or Krishna Mahanadi be considered thereafter.

  • May 3, 2021 at 8:01 pm

    Erudite article with convincing data backup a hallmark of Gen Chaturvedi’s articles!
    Read with great interest! Look forward to the next section on ground water depletion and contamination.

    River linking aspect also needs a more detailed examination. Gen Chaturvedi has already done an interview on Bharat Shakti on River water sharing between India and Bangladesh!!

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