Addressing our water challenges

India's water scarcity crisis is evident in alarming statistics

As we navigate the complex challenges posed by climate change and strive to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one critical issue takes centre stage: water. In 2023, the global discourse surrounding water management has intensified, highlighting its inseparable connection to environmental sustainability, economic growth, and the well-being of communities worldwide. The UN World Water Development Report 2023 warns of an imminent global water crisis that will worsen in the coming decades if international cooperation is not mobilised to address the issue.

As countries grapple with water scarcity, pollution, and unequal access to clean water, it becomes imperative to examine the current state of water resources, explore innovative approaches to conservation, and foster collective action to ensure a water-secure future. In this context, India stands as a vivid example, where the urgency to address water-related issues is paramount. With a mere four per cent share of the world’s fresh water resources and a staggering 17.7 per cent of the global population, India faces an urgent need to address its water crisis.

India’s water scarcity crisis is evident in alarming statistics. As per a recent report, approximately three out of four rural homes do not have piped water, with the situation being exacerbated by climate change, population growth, and inefficient water management practices. With the annual per capita water availability dipping to 1,486 cubic metres, India’s commitment to water conservation remains more steadfast than ever.Already, around 600 million people in the country are facing severe water shortages, leading to dire consequences for livelihoods, agriculture, and overall socio-economic development. Recognising the enormity of the water challenge, community engagement has emerged as a crucial strategy for achieving water security in India. Efforts range from state-led initiatives to grassroots community-driven projects. Throughout my professional career, I have been deeply committed to the cause of water conservation. During my time as CEO of NITI Aayog, I have had the privilege of leading transformative initiatives such as the development of the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), which evaluates states’ water management performance based on 28 indicators and highlights the crucial role of civic involvement. I have seen the impact of engaging communities first-hand, with people-led initiatives showing promising results in water conservation, restoration of water bodies, and the adoption of sustainable water practices in the long-term.

While community engagement is pivotal, the corporate sector also holds significant potential for contributing to water management. One notable example is ITC’s integrated water management approach, which extends to large-scale river basin regeneration projects across multiple states in India. ITC’s initiatives have positively impacted over three lakh people and generated employment opportunities, reducing distress migration.

Innovative policy reforms are necessary to create an enabling environment for sustainable water management practices. One crucial aspect is the regulation of groundwater extraction, as exemplified by Maharashtra’s legislation controlling well registration and construction. By implementing similar measures nationwide, India can effectively manage its groundwater resources and prevent excessive depletion.

India’s G20 presidency is playing a crucial role in highlighting the pressing need to address environmental degradation and combat climate change. Through multilateral deliberations on integrated water resource management, promoting a sustainable and climate-resilient blue economy, as well as creating sustainable patterns of production and consumption, the presidency is driving international cooperation and fostering collective action towards a greener, bluer, and more sustainable future for all.

India, and the world, stand at a critical juncture in its water management journey. By prioritising community engagement, leveraging corporate social responsibility, boosting international cooperation, and implementing effective water management strategies, we can overcome our water challenges, drive economic growth, and improve the well-being of all citizens. The time to act is now, and success hinges on the synergy of efforts from the state, corporations, and the community. Together, we can secure India’s water resources and pave the way for a water-secure India for generations to come.

Kant is G20 Sherpa and former CEO, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal.