Lack of access to safe water is a burgeoning crisis

Ashraf Engineer

March 30, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

About a month ago, the Mexico City administration, which oversees the sprawling metropolis of 22 million people, warned that it was facing a severe water crisis. Blame it on unplanned urban development, crumbling infrastructure and climate change. The erratic rainfall and rising temperatures had stressed a water system that was already straining to cope with the demand. As a result, severe water cuts were imposed and many localities went without water for weeks at a time when the rainy season was months away. It was estimated that the city would run dry of all water in a couple of months. If this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar situation is playing itself out with uncomfortable regularity across India. In Mumbai, for example, water cuts have been enforced as sources are running low.

Across India, drinking water is the greatest concern with only 2% of households getting drinkable quality water and 65% using some kind of modern filtration mechanism, according to a survey by LocalCircles, a community social media platform. About 5% said the quality of piped water supplied by the civic body or panchayat was “very poor” and 15% said it was “poor”. Even worse, 5% said they don’t get piped water at all. At 1.3 billion citizens, expected to grow to 1.7 billion by 2050, India is finding that it is unable to supply its people with safe water.


India has 16% of the world’s population crammed into a landmass that’s one-third the size of the US. What’s worse, India has only 4% of the world’s fresh water. So you see the scale of the crisis we are facing.

How do Indians purify water at home for drinking or cooking? About 34% use a purifier; 31% an RO system; 1% use chlorination, alum and other minerals; 14% boil the water and 5% use clay vessels. About 7% of households get bottled water, found the LocalCircles survey.

This underscores the need for mandatory purity standards for potable water that must be enforced at all administration levels.

About 37.7 million Indians suffer from water-borne diseases every year; 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea alone and 73 million working days are lost due to such diseases, according to a study published in the BMC Public Health Journal. According to, a global civil society organisation, more than 6% of Indians lack any access to safe water.

A Unicef report, based on 2017 government data, said that only 50% of Indians have access to safe drinking water that is free from chemical contamination or dangerous levels of toxins.

Consider this: safe drinking water for households across India would avert 400,000 deaths caused by diaorrheal diseases and prevent approximately 14 million disability adjusted life years. This would mean cost savings of up to $101 billion, estimates the World Health Organization or WHO.

WHO points to the amount of time and effort that women would save if they were provided tap water. In 2018, women in India spent 45.5 minutes every day collecting water for their households. Collectively, homes without water connections spent 66.6 million hours each day collecting water.

India, of course, is not the only nation facing such a problem but, given our size and the stakes involved, perhaps nowhere else is action more required. There is a conspicuous lack of regulation, coupled with neglect and rampant corruption – all of which have led to millions being left thirsty.

This is manifesting itself also in the form inter-state disputes over access to river water. Sometimes, they also escalate to inter-country disputes such as between India and Pakistan over the water of the Indus river and with China over the Brahmaputra.

We all know that most of the surface water in India is polluted but the larger problem lies below the surface. Groundwater levels are falling and that too is not always safe.

In India, it’s a free-for-all when it comes to groundwater. India’s groundwater use is at roughly one-quarter of the global usage with the total surpassing that of China and the US combined. Farmers get free power or power subsidies, which means they pump up groundwater indiscriminately. The result: the water table has dropped a staggering 4 mt in some areas. This means that irrigation is affected too and there is an over-reliance on the monsoon.

Here are a few World Bank statistics that should give us pause:

  • 163 million Indians lack access to safe drinking water
  • 210 million lack access to improved sanitation
  • 21% of communicable diseases are linked to unsafe water
  • 500 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea every day in India
  • More than half of our rivers are highly polluted with numerous others at levels considered unsafe. The Yamuna, Ganga and Sabarmati are the dirtiest

Aside from industrial waste, it’s open use for rivers across India. From dumping human waste to bathing to washing clothes, they are used for a variety of tasks.

As I said, there is an overreliance on the rain, which can be unpredictable and it doesn’t always make an appearance where it’s needed the most. As a result, there are the extremes of drought and flooding that have a multiplier effect in the form of crop failures and farmer suicides.

The poor, as always, are the most affected.

All of this has a wide economic impact. In many instances, the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs can be attributed to lack of access to clean water.

The good news is that the waters of the Narmada and Chambal rivers are by and large clean and many projects have been taken up to transport water to areas that need it the most. However, what’s needed is long-term government commitment to improve water supply and quality across the country.

Teaching farmers modern techniques, such as drip irrigation, and rainwater harvesting could slow the damage to freshwater sources. India also needs modern sanitation practices that utilise water carefully.

What’s clear is that a crisis of this size cannot be solved through stop-gap solutions. The task before the country may be daunting but it is, quite literally, life or death. Thankfully, there may still be time.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.