Enhancing Water Storage Capacity: Need of the Hour in India


India is currently experiencing a serious water-deficit crisis. In the years to come, the deficit will increase further. The issue is that demand is infrequently met by the erratic, regional, and temporal distribution of precipitation. The only way water supply can keep up with demand, whether it be for human needs or natural processes, is through storage. The twin issues of enhancing storage capacity and sustainable use of Indian rivers have recently been raised following India's decision to notify Pakistan, requesting a modification to the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960. In this context, existing total water storage capacity of India demands closer examination.

India is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. It has 18% of the world's population but only has 4% of the world's water resources (The World Bank 2022). The "Composite Water Management Index" report published by NITI Aayog in 2018 depicts that India is experiencing its worst water crisis with nearly 600 million people facing huge water crisis (NITI Aayog 2019). Additionally, the report highlights “India's low ranking, at 120th out of 122 countries, on the water quality index, with 70% of the water being contaminated” (Ibid.). As the per capita availability of water concerns, the international norms define a country as "water stressed" when its water availability is below 1700 cubic meters per capita per year, and as "water scarce" when it falls below 1000 cubic meters per capita per year (India Wris 2021). In India, “the availability of surface water in 1991 and 2001 was 2309 cubic meters and 1902 cubic meters respectively. However, projections indicate that the per capita surface water availability is expected to decline to 1401 cubic meters and 1191 cubic meters by 2025 and 2050 respectively. The per capita water availability in India in 2010 was 1588 cubic meters, compared to 5200 cubic meters in 1951” (Ibid.).

At the time of independence, India had 15.6 BCM of live storage capacity (Ministry of Water Resources 2012). Presently, Central Water Commission (CWC) is monitoring “140 reservoirs having a live storage capacity of 175.957 BCM which is about 68.25 per cent of the live storage capacity of 257.812 BCM estimated to have been created in the country” (Central Water Commission 2021).

In order to meet the biggest challenge—managing water sustainably—existing water systems must be strengthened, and new water storage infrastructure must be developed. Adequate legislation and resources are required for this. Additionally, water use must be optimised through merging several societal uses, such as flood control, energy production, making drinking water available and sanitization. Much of the population is more severely impacted by both water scarcity and natural calamities like flash floods. These worries can be lessened with the storage of water. To address this issue, planned actions are necessary. In order to retain water storage at its highest level, there are a few issues that must be resolved. The major one of these is the rapid increase in population. The world's population is projected to reach “9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100” (United Nations 2022). According to the United Nations, India will surpass China as the most populous nation in 2023 (Das 2022). The rapidly increasing population flags the requirement for sustainable water management and storage of water.

Climate change is also making things worse. Water, food, and energy demands will continue to rise, placing a strain on natural resources. The distribution of water may become more erratic, and natural calamities like droughts and flash floods may make things worse. Floods and droughts are a result of inadequate water storage facilities. During June–September 2022, “India witnessed a series of severe floods which led to the loss of 1,282 lives and US$ 3.1 billion in economic damage” (EM-DAT Report 2021). However, the Central Water Commission is constantly working to modernise and update the flood forecasting services. It takes several processes to forecast a flood which include data observation, data collection, transmission, compilation, analysis, forecast formulation, and forecast dissemination, but it takes more work to update and modernise forecasting services. Infrastructure for water storage is essential for preventing water disasters, particularly in developing nations like India.

Further, energy sources are very limited. In addition to nuclear energy and various renewables such as wind and solar, there is a need for backup hydropower development. Currently, 16 per cent of the world's electricity comes from hydropower. In India, there are 56 pumped storage plants with a total installed capacity of 94,000 MW. In addition, 6,782 MW of predicted hydro-potential comes from 1,512 small, mini, and micro projects. What India has harnessed so far is far below its hydro-potential of about 2, 50, 000 MW (NHPC). Making use of the untapped hydropower potential will save enormous fossil fuel energy, significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance India’s overall water resource management.

In addition, making safe water available for drinking and sanitation has also become a major concern in India. Although India has made great strides toward ensuring that everyone has access to sanitary facilities and safe drinking water (UN SDG 6) more efforts are still required: “nearly 200,000 Indians die each year because of lack of access to safe drinking water, 60% of India’s wastewater is released untreated, and 40% of the water supply is lost to leaks or theft while 40% of India’s population does not have an improved drinking water source available” (The International Energy Agency 2021). Consequently, this objective would be accomplished with the aid of investments in sustainable water storage facilities in developing nations like India.

Further, infrastructure such as large dams and reservoirs for water storage often serve multiple purposes, including hydroelectricity generation and flood management. The 1960s and 1970s saw a peak in the building of huge dams; today, there are close to 60,000 of these structures worldwide (ICOLD 2020). The role of these dams and reservoirs has already been recognised in several declarations: “World Summit on Sustainable Development” (2002), “the Beijing Declaration on Hydropower and Sustainable Development” (2004), “The World declaration Dams and Hydropower for African Sustainable Development” (2008), and “the Ministerial Declarations of the Fifth and Sixth World Water Fora” (2009/2012) (ICOLD 2012). Though the importance of having large dams and reservoirs remains important, the issue of dam failure also remains critical.

Considering the dam-aging phenomenon in India, it has been reported that over 1,115 large dams would become 50 years old in 2025, while some of these would mark 150 years of service (UNU-INWEH Report 2021) in 2050. One of the key concerns here is reservoir sedimentation resulting from dams impeding the flow of rivers (Perera 2023). This risk hampers storage capacity and dam infrastructure over time. It is said that “the region where 60 per cent of the world’s population lives, water storage is crucial in sustaining water and food security” and Asia will “face a more challenging future if it loses 23 per cent of its water storage in large dams due to sedimentation” (Ibid.).

A greater effort is required to maintain the current water storage system while the dams are aging, and the adverse effects of climate change are kicking in to complicate matters. Modern engineering and monitoring techniques can increase the safety of buildings against powerful earthquakes and floods. As hydrological patterns alter due to climate change, reservoir regulation is also projected to become increasingly challenging. In order to hold more floodwater, reservoir control system must be improved while taking into account the needs of both upstream and downstream areas. Additionally, prudent management of hydro resources with the most up-to-date forecasting technologies and real-time data collection is the need of the hour.

In conclusion, raising right infrastructure for water storage is a necessary tool for society to avert the impending water crisis India is going to face. Investments in water storage can minimise the issue of water scarcity. It is pertinent to take an integrated approach that incorporates large, medium, and small reservoirs. This would lead to sustainable development and would mitigate adverse environmental impacts.

Mr. Pintu Kumar Mahla is a Research Intern at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.