Urban Water Scenario in India

Over the last few decades, India has witnessed a rapid increase in the urban population. It is estimated that 50% of the population in India will be in urban centres by the year 2050. The growing population invariably exerts tremendous pressure on the existing natural resources. In fact, a glance at the statistics provided in the ‘Global Environment Outlook’, United Nations Environment Program, 1996 Report reflects on the grim future of India in term of its natural resources. ‘Water Resources’ is one of the major future concerns for India as per the report and several other research papers.

Present policies and practices

Way back in 1983, a National Water Resource Council headed by the Prime Minister, with concerned Union Ministers, and Chief Ministers of all the states and Union Territories was set up. A National Water Policy was adopted in 1987 based on the Council’s recommendations. The policy aimed at optimum utilisation of water resources, with the objective of sustainable development in harmony with the environment. The highest priority in the National Water Policy was the provision of safe drinking water to every human being. Ensuring availability of irrigation facilities followed by water for industrial use was the next priority.

One of the most important aspects of managing water resources and ensuring effective implementation of the policy is the establishment of institutions. In India, there are several institutions that are responsible for supplying safe and sufficient drinking water.

At the Central level, some of the institutions and their responsibilities are:


Ministry of Water Resources - responsible for laying down policy guidelines and programs for development and regulation of country’s water resources.


The Planning Commission - responsible for allocation of financial resources for various programs and schemes for water resource development to states and the ministry.


Ministry of Agriculture - promotes irrigated agriculture.

4. The Central Pollution Control Board - deals with water quality monitoring and preparation and implementation of action plans to solve pollution problems.

The responsibility of urban water supply is fragmented between different agencies. Besides the Public Health Engineering departments at the state level, Water Supply and Sewerage or Drainage Boards at both city and state levels, as well as local governments, share the responsibilities. Multiplicity in responsibility sharing is one reason for non-accountability in performance.

Despite having an extensive National Water Policy and existence of various state and centred level institutions, water resource development and management has not been very satisfactory and pose a few questions:


Have the policy recommendations and institutions really been effective in providing safe drinking water to all?


Has it been instrumental in improving and maintaining the quality of water?

q Has it been effective in providing water for irrigation and industrial purposes?

Urban Water Scenario

The major issues concerning ‘Water Resources’ in India can be broadly classified into issues of water quantity (availability) and quality, for use in the domestic, industrial and service sectors. A look at the present scenario, with respect to these two aspects, gives an overview of the existing problems and provides a platform for improvement in terms of action at the policy and consumer level.

The per capita availability of freshwater in India is a little over 2000 cubic meters. However, there is a large spatial and temporal variation in the availability of freshwater. While some areas in Rajasthan get just around 100 millimetres of rainfall annually, some parts of Meghalaya get over 11,000 millimetres. This reflects on the per capita availability. For example, it is around 650 cubic metres in the western region, supplied by the rivers of Kutch and Saurastra and 18500 cubic metres in the East, supplied by the Brahmaputra. Temporal variations are with respect to the number of rainy days in a year. In India, most of the rainfall is received during the two major monsoons, South-West and North-East. In fact, the other seasons are relatively dry.

It is estimated that 85 percent of urban population has access to drinking water. However, only a small percentage of the people have access to safe drinking water. The main source of drinking water is the reservoirs that are located far away from the urban centres. To cite an example, Bangalore draws water from River Cauvery, which is around 100 Kms away from the city. Over the last couple of decades, there has been large exploitation of ground water for domestic purposes. Roads and pavements are made of concrete in most of the cities and thus, have prevented the possible recharging of groundwater aquifers during rains, leading to high run-offs and drastic decrease in the groundwater table.

Water Supply and Sanitation

As per the Ninth Plan Working Group document, the coverage of urban population for drinking water and sanitation could not be raised as planned due to a rapid rise in urban population and inadequate plan outlay, besides the marked shift in the priority from urban to rural sector.

The issue of adequate quantity, quality and the distance of the nearest available source is emerging to be the most contentious issue with regard to urban water supply. Per capita water supply grossly varies from 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) to 200 lpcd. As per the White Paper on Drinking water presented by the Maharashtra government, 78% of cities and towns in the state had water supply below normal. Water quality monitoring and surveillance is a rare phenomenon, except in the case of few privileged metropolitan cities. As the traditional water sources are all drying up, transporting water from far off places (100-400 Km) is becoming a common feature and is thus becoming an expensive affair.

Another serious problem is the lack of maintenance in water supply and sanitation, leading to contamination of ground water sources in most of the cities and towns today. The main cause of contamination of groundwater and surface water is the improper discharge of sewage. More than half of the cities have no sewage treatment facilities. In class-I cities, only five percent of the total wastewater is collected, of which only 25 percent is treated. Poor infrastructure facilities for proper collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of solid wastes also are further adding up to the problem.

Industries (large, medium and small-scale) located in the urban centres are not only large consumers of freshwater, but also contributors to the pollution of air, water and land. Lack of sufficient quantity of freshwater and high costs of supply (for example in Bangalore, the cost of one kilolitre of freshwater for Industries is around Rs.60) from the Public Water Supply System for industrial processes has triggered off unsustainable tapping of groundwater aquifers. Many industries today are ‘purchasing’ water from private suppliers since their aquifers have gone dry.

Another aspect of concern is the discharge of liquid effluents over land and surface water from industrial sources. While most of the large-scale industries have Effluent Treatment Plants (ETP), innumerable small and medium scale industries have not yet invested in the treatment of their factory effluents. This has led to the pollution of surface and ground water sources in urban centres. In Bangalore, many small-scale industries (tanneries, metal fabrication, etc) on the banks of the Vrishabhavathi river, discharge their untreated effluent into this river. While this is not only unaesthetic (as it gives out a foul smell), some people even irrigate vegetable gardens with this highly polluted water on the riverbanks. The contaminated vegetables are then sold in the city.

Some problems discussed here (on the availability and quality of freshwater) are common to most of the cities and towns in India. However, there could be locale-specific problems that are not included in the scope of this paper.

Areas of intervention

Some of the areas that need immediate intervention both at the policy and the consumer level are given below.

At the policy level

There are quite a few issues, which do not seem to have been addressed in the National Water Policy. Addressing some of these following issues would certainly ensure sustainability of water resource management.


Capacity building of water resource institutions


Financing and implementation of water conservation measures at the local level


Equity in distribution of water


Regulations addressing the sustainable use of groundwater


Appropriate locale-specific pricing of water

q Implementation of programs to ensure water quality

At the consumer level


Conjunctive use of Water Resources


Water Conservation


Rainwater Harvesting


Waste Water Recycling

q Ground Water Recharge Structures

This background paper has attempted to address some issues on water resources in India, both at the policy and consumer level. This we hope will provide a platform for research in policy of various water-use sectors. A research study to formulate Sustainable Water policies has been initiated at Development Alternatives in association with six other thematic network partners including Network for Preventive Environmental Management (NetPEM); Confederation of Indian Industries (CII); Indian Institute of Rural Management (IIRM); International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE); Lund, Technical Research Institute, Finland; International Institute for Infrastructural Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering, Delft. The focus of the study will be on addressing the sectoral issues in light of the rural, industrial and urban uses, along with the technological, socio-economic and environmental issues. q

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