What does being 'water stressed' mean for India and her neighbours?

India ranks 31 in the world’s most water-stressed countries projected for year 2020 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
India ranks 31 in the world’s most water-stressed countries projected for year 2020 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

worldwide ranking of water stressed nations by the World Resources Institute has India along with 3 of its neighbouring countries Pakistan, Afghanistan and China in the top 50 water stressed countries of 2040. Not only do we share a physical boundary with these nations, but our rivers too cross these political borders. Water resources of many a trans-boundary river between countries are shared with upstream and downstream users of different nationalities for varied purposes. This water sharing can and many a times is a cause for conflicts and strained relations, if not managed properly. If any of the water sharing neighbours face acute water stress--now or in the foreseeable future--the ripples are bound to affect all concerned players.

We focus on India and her neighbours to understand this interplay of water stress on the environment, economy, people and politics using simple infographics.

Understanding water risk


Countries were ranked on the basis of five indicators that are measures of water risk, including baseline water stress. A higher score by the country or river basin implies a greater risk to water stress. Baseline water stress is the ratio of the total water withdrawals to the total available renewable supply, annually. Countries that have a greater water demand than the water that is available to them will have a higher score and in turn be at a greater risk to water stress. This will result in greater competition amongst the water users (ie. the farmers, industries and people) for the limited water supplies. In the global rankings of water-stressed countries, India ranks 31 in the year 2020, and thus is at a greater risk than Nepal at 69, but is less vulnerable than Pakistan which is at 18th position. 

Water-stressed countries

A score of more than 4 as in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan indicates that the area currently faces "extremely high" levels of water stress, and that more than 80% of the water that is available is withdrawn annually. As the users are highly dependent on a limited amount of water, even a slight change in supply can increase their vulnerability. India and China fall in the ‘high stress’ category, while Nepal falls in the ‘medium-high stress’ range.

Projections have been carried out for 3 possible scenarios, BAU (Business as usual) which means continuing without major changes in policy or attitude; optimistic, where a change for the better is expected; and a pessimistic outlook where the present situation will worsen, for the years 2020, 2030, and 2040. India is the only country where the water stress is expected to reduce from 2020 to 2040, in all the 3 scenarios.

Water scarcity in sectors: Agriculture sector most vulnerable

Agriculture is an important sector of the economy of all these countries. An in depth analysis of water stress in the agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors shows that in all the countries barring Nepal, the stress on the agricultural sector will be the highest.  


For India, a further sector-wise break up shows the total annual water withdrawals for municipal, industrial and agricultural use as a percentage of the total annual available water. All 3 sectors are in the ‘high stress’ range, and will continue to remain more or less constant and in the same bracket till 2040. Increased food demand has exacerbated both surface and groundwater utilisation. Irrigation is still the largest consumptive water use sector in India, and the stress is higher in the agricultural sector, as compared to the other two. 

India's water stressed river basins


The World Resources Institute Report has mapped the water stress for the 100 largest river basins of the world, which also includes India’s 7 river basins. The Indus river basin falls in the ‘extremely high stress’ range both in terms of the area and the population. In the list of 100 most populous basins, the Sabarmati river basin with a score of more than 4, faces a grave risk of exposure to water stress.

Visible data, hidden issues

Huge data has been used to evaluate and calculate the water quantity related risk for countries and basins worldwide.These global rankings of water-quantity-related risks do not take into account the effect of governance regimes, water quality or investment. A single number cannot completely encompass the entire complex relationship of water and a particular area, and the basic assumptions behind the numbers cannot be homogeneous for the whole country or even an entire river basin.

For example India's varied topography and size are home to disparate climate zones and rainfall patterns. Thus a standard national score that averages the future water risk of a country or basin may disguise local level risks. Another important issue is that of the people who adapt to this evaluated risk. Within countries too, scarcity will have a skewered impact upon people based on economics, politics and gender. So the poor in Bangladesh, which is at a much lesser risk to water stress than India, may be more water insecure than the rich in India simply because the rich have more means to procure the resource. 

Keeping score can help 

Regional water insecurity not only hampers economic growth but can also cause great political instability. These scores can help stakeholders and policy makers take informed decisons by appreciating the risks and responding to the challenges faced due to water scarcity. A clearer understanding of the areas and rivers that will be hit the hardest by water stress can help future plans and investments to be scrutinised through a water lens for revision and better management. If these projections are an inkling of the dry days to come, it's high time we begin to address these issues to 'water-secure' our future.