India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world, from its deepest aquifers to its largest rivers. Groundwater levels are falling as farmers, new urban residents, and industries drain wells and aquifers. What water is available is often severely polluted, and the future may only be worse, with the national supply predicted to fall 50 percent below demand by 2030.
To help companies, government agencies, and other water users identify their most pressing challenges and carefully target water-risk management efforts, a group of companies, research organizations, and industry associations, including the World Resources Institute(WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), have created a new web platform. The India Water Tool 2.0 is the most comprehensive, publicly available online tool evaluating India’s water risks.
Drawing from 14 indicators, it links global water stress metrics from WRI and Columbia University with country-level datasets from Indian government ministries covering 632 districts. Version 2.0 builds upon the original India Water Tool, built by WBCSD in 2013. The rebuild presents a more holistic picture of India’s water-related risks, adding local-level granularity to improve credibility with Indian industry and government entities, and is much more compatible with global corporate water-risk reporting initiatives, including the Global Reporting Initiative.
The tool illustrates the depth and breadth of India’s water challenges, highlighting a few major trends.
Supply vs. Demand
The map below illustrates competition between companies, farms, and people for surface water in rivers, lakes, streams, and shallow groundwater. Red and dark-red areas are highly or extremely highly stressed, meaning that more than 40 percent of the annually available surface water is used every year. More than half of India faces high to extremely high water stress, affecting nearly 600 million people.
Note, in particular, the extremely high stress area blanketing the northwest, India’sbreadbasket. The states of Punjab and Haryana produce 50 percent of the national government’s rice supply and 85 percent of its wheat stocks. Both crops are highly water intensive.
Groundwater levels are declining across India. Of the 4,000 wells captured in the tool, 54 percent dropped over the past seven years, with 16 percent declining by more than 1 meter a year.
Farmers in arid areas, or areas with irregular rainfall, depend heavily on groundwater for irrigation. The government subsidizes the farmers’ electric pumps and places no limits on the volumes of groundwater they can extract, creating a widespread pattern of excessive water use and strained electrical grids.
Northwestern India again stands out as highly vulnerable. Of the 550 wells studied in the region, 58 percent have declining groundwater levels. Northeast India has groundwater challenges of its own. In Meghalaya, groundwater availability is low, creating tension withwater-intensive coal mining.
Poor Water Quality
The India Water Tool measures water quality against limits outlined by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Surface and groundwater quality are both below par in many areas.
Among the 632 groundwater quality districts measured by the tool, only 59 are above BIS limits. Whenever a particular pollutant concentration exceeds BIS limits, drinking water is considered unsafe. The yellow and red areas below indicate places where chlorine, fluoride, iron, arsenic, nitrate, and/or electrical conductivity exceed national standards.
These districts are extremely populous; 131 million people lived in districts where at least one pollutant exceeded national safety standards in 2011, and more than 20 million people lived in the eight districts where at least three pollutants exceeded safe limits. Bagalkot is the most polluted, with five of six groundwater quality indicators at unsafe levels (only arsenic falls below the government-recommended concentration level).
Proactive, Innovative Management Is Critical
The India Water Tool was designed to help companies, government agencies, and other stakeholders assess water risks, a critical first step toward reversing the damage already done to water supplies and protecting against chronic struggles.
Users can upload or enter hundreds of GPS-based locations into the easy-to-use interface. For each location, the tool will produce values quantifying water stress, groundwater depletion, current and projected groundwater availability, water quality, rainfall, and more. The tool can also create a map showing all the uploaded locations, which can either be kept private if the information is sensitive or exported as a communications product or visual for a corporate disclosure initiative.
Tools like the India Water Tool may only be the first step in a long process of risk reduction and mitigation, but they are an essential one. Only with ongoing efforts to improve data transparency and accessibility can India advance toward a sustainable water future.