water use efficiency

Necessitating India’s Water Use Efficiency

By: Staff Reporter
The first step in fixing a water budget in India is to have a system to monitor, regulate and curb wasteful uses of water. The proposed National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency as a body to enforce certification systems for water use efficiency can be seen as a welcome step in this direction.
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The oft-heard news reports on shortage of water suggest that freshwater – especially  potable water – often turns scarce. In our daily lives, indiscriminate usage of water or using it in a manner not best suited for efficiency is common. Advertisements and awareness campaigns point towards the need for preservation, but despite this, we routinely engage in poor practices – washing   cars with a hose instead of using a tub of water or using a shower instead of a bucket for taking a bath – methods that utilise water less efficiently and lead to greater wastage than it ought. That freshwater is a freely available resource can be an illusion as it is well understood that water is both essential and finite. The usage of water, therefore, requires its budgeting which in turn necessitates efficient usage. As our economies grow, increasing the demand for water, it is imperative that we look at approaches that ensure that water is used efficiently. Approaches that look at curtailing wastage and utilising freshwater more efficiently become especially pertinent in urban areas and in industries that can have more controlled systems of water supply and distribution. Control is also possible in regulating water utilised for irrigation. In this scenario, the need arises to manage freshwater resources through sustainable solutions.

The Concept of Water Use Efficiency

Water use efficiency can be defined as the ratio between effective water use and the actual withdrawal of water and helps measure the effectiveness of how water is used for various purposes (FAO, 2017). The concept falls in the purview of water conservation, taking into account measures such as better management of the sources of water supply, reducing excessive demand for water using technologies that help in saving water and so on. The Central Water Commission (CWC) in its Draft Guidelines for Developing Water Use Efficiency  defines water use efficiency as the socially beneficial reduction of water loss (CWC, undated).

In India, large amount of groundwater extraction is causing depletion of groundwater reserves. For example, Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) points out that there has been a decline of 61 per cent in groundwater levels in wells in India between 2007 and 2017. The CGWB, in its study presented to the Lok Sabha, attributed the fall in groundwater levels to high demand, the rise in urbanisation, population growth and industrial usage, apart from inadequate rainfall in some areas (Chatterjee, 2018).  It is imperative therefore to create strategies required to manage the availability and effective use of water resources through regulation, costs, maintenance and communication of the use of water resources (CWC, undated).

Water use efficiency strategies become all the more pertinent in the Indian context where monsoons account for a large amount of water availability. The well-documented temporal and spatial variability of monsoonal rainfall can potentially bring the economy to a standstill. A study published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal found that the monsoon months of June to September between 1871 and 2005 accounted for 80 per cent of the annual rainfall in India. The study also found that about half of the rainfall sub-divisions studied witnessed increasing annual rainfall, although the trend was reported statistically significant only for the sub-divisions of Haryana, Punjab and coastal Karnataka. Among the 15 sub-divisions reporting decreasing trends, only Chhattisgarh reported a significant decreasing trend. Very little change between sub-divisions was observed however, in the non-monsoon months (Kumar, Jain and Singh, 2010). Further, rainfall across the country is not uniform and many natural water bodies and reservoirs are utilised for water released during the monsoons to supply water for the dry months. A study by Mallya, Mishra, Niyogi, Tripathi and Govindaraju (2016) found that there was an increasing trend in the severity and frequency of droughts between 1972 and 2004 as compared to 1901-1935 and 1936-1971. The study also observed that droughts in India were becoming increasingly regional with a shift observed towards coastal south India, the Indo-Gangetic plains and central Maharashtra, which are areas important for agriculture in India.

Per capita availability of water in India is declining. As the per the Census, per  capita annual water availability stood at 1,820 cu m in 2001. By 2011 it had declined to 1,545 cu m and presently is projected to fall further to 1,341 cu m annual per capita availability by 2025 (MoWR, 2017).

Water Use Efficiency in Irrigation

Different water use efficiency strategies can be utilised for urban areas, for industries and for irrigation. Crop scientists evaluate water use efficiency in irrigation as the ratio between the volume of water consumed by the crop during evapo-transpiration against the volume extracted from the water source. Water accounting is carried out for water use efficiency in irrigation where measurements of water conveyance efficiency, water input efficiency, application efficiency, irrigation water use efficiency and crop water use efficiency are made.  The concept of water productivity applies for the ability of agricultural systems to convert water to food. For example, water productivity can be measured by dividing crop yield by the amounts of water used in the process of growing the crop (Sharma, Molden & Cook, 2015).

Working out water use efficiency, however, also requires an evaluation of water sources. Monitoring water extraction only for irrigation is difficult in India where much of the water used is extracted from groundwater. A study by Fishman, Devineni and Raman (2015) points out that excessive extraction of groundwater for irrigation in India can be reduced by two-thirds with the adoption of proven technologies such as sprinkler and drip irrigation. The authors, however, conclude that half of the reductions achieved could be lost due to an expansion in irrigated areas.

Water Use Efficiency in Urban Areas and Industry

In urban areas, population has expanded exponentially, increasing from 18 per cent as per the 1961 Census to 31.16 per cent in 2011, and is projected to reach 40 per cent by 2030 (UN, 2014) . A major issue in water use efficiency in urban India is wastage – not just in domestic use, but also in industrial utilisation, coupled with the problem of shortage of water supply due to controlled systems.

Urban areas and locations near industrial zones have systems that can keep water usage in check. After the 2003-04 water crisis in Chennai, the state government launched the New Veeranam project, which was to supply water to Chennai from the Veeranam tank; and, the Telegu Ganga project that was to utilise water from the Krishna river. The problem, however, was that the project remained  heavily dependent on rains. Desalination plants on the other hand, offered opportunities for a perennial supply of water, where initially private entities were unwilling to invest given the low returns on water. The Nemmeli desalination plant was set up in 2010 and reached its full capacity by 2013. Along with the Minjur plant, the two desalination plants supply about 200 million litres of water daily making up a quarter of Chennai’s water usage (Madhavan, 2014). By 2017 about 40 per cent of Chennai’s water supply was from sea water (John, 2017). Chennai is so heavily dependent on desalinated water that a disruption in supply caused by maintenance work at the Nemmeli plant made headlines (IENS, 2018).

Delhi’s groundwater levels are witnessing a steady decline. Records from 2000 onwards show 20 groundwater monitoring stations all around the city witnessing a steady decline . In a CGWB submission to the Supreme Court,  water levels have been reported to fall from 0.5 m to more than 2 m at many places. The CGWB warned that the situation could turn into a crisis if the depletion of groundwater is not checked (Choudhary, 2018).

Policy Solutions for Water Use
Efficiency in India

At the outset, with many water saving technologies jostling for space in the market, it seems that the challenges for developing a sustainable alternative through water treatment should be fairly easy.  However, sustainability  needs to be seen in the context of viability and technological solutions need to be coupled with low costs when it comes to water. Water treatment plants, therefore, are an advanced technological solution requiring large investments, well planned water budgeting and are usually only implemented at select locations. But apart from technologies, solutions requiring, for example, municipal water suppliers to meet a distribution system leakage standard to minimise water loss in distribution, as directed by the CWC, can also yield good results.

Water use efficiency was mentioned in the erstwhile Planning Commission’s Water Policy and Action Plan 2020 along with a stated goal of increasing awareness of water as a scarce resource, the consciousness of which could be promoted through incentives or disincentives, education and regulation. The then Planning Commission intended to include an integrated planning approach for river basin utilisation along with a policy approach looking into water use efficiency in the domestic, industrial and agricultural sectors. The document also stated that policy should look into water treatment and demand management and steps to increase the availability of water such as setting up desalinisation plants (Kathpalia and Kapoor, 2002).

Although the policy document mentions water use efficiency as an essential objective and makes many suggestions, implementation requires that a system to monitor it. In a bid to promote projects for the conservation of water resources, the government of India is planning to set up the National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency (NBWUE) for efficiency certification or labelling of irrigation, domestic and industrial water use. Pursuant to developing a water conservation strategy in India, the Standing Committee on Water Resources chaired by Hukum Singh also presented before the Lok Sabha the 13th Report on ‘Indigenous and Modern Forms of Water Conservation – Techniques and Practices’ on March 16, 2017. Apart from setting up the NBWUE as an authority for the regulation, control and promotion of the efficiency of water use in India the recommendations made by the Standing Committee also provides for guidelines for efficient use of water conservation.

The NBWUE is to be set up under the National Water Mission with a view to enforce a system of certification for water use efficiency for various sectors in India including drinking water supply, irrigation, power generation and industry. The NBWUE will measure water use efficiency on a volumetric basis in water supply and plans to adopt five benchmarking projects on irrigation in various parts of the country to demonstrate water use efficiency. This is important when irrigation can pose a logistical challenge to monitoring and regulation of water use efficiency. The NBWUE also aims to demonstrate the state-of-the-art technologies and empower water users associations in pricing and collection of water charges. Under the National Water Mission, states will also receive guidelines from the NBWUE for basin-wide use of water for drinking, irrigation and industrial purposes (Parsai, 2013). The NBWUE will mainly be a regulatory institution that will attempt to facilitate policy in developing a water use efficiency programme in India.

The Standing Committee  also proposed other complementary recommendations for ensuring water use efficiency in India in its report. These include the need to increase per capita availability of water by compiling data on dams and reservoirs under construction, reviewing the status of their execution and making time frames for their completion. The Committee recommended that steps should also be taken to improve indigenous water recharge or harvesting practices including instituting a panel of experts to study the efficiency and viability of traditional water recharge or harvesting structures in India. The committee was of the view that techniques with greater water use efficiency such as drip irrigation, for example, be promoted by central and state governments. Water budgeting is deemed by the committee as necessary for using water efficiently in India and for this purpose, the Committee recommends that appropriate guidelines be issued by the Centre to state governments. Also, states and union territories should prepare State Specific Action Plans for water conservation and set up Water Regulatory Authorities on the basis of the precedents set by Gujarat and Maharashtra. The Committee has also demanded a clear policy outcome over the proposed NBWUE to be set up by the government (GoI, 2017).


A regime to check water use efficiency in India is in the process of development and requires greater cohesion between various institutions of the government for forming  a comprehensive approach. The first step in fixing a water budget with the help of regulation and policy on water use efficiency in India is to have a system to monitor and regulate wasteful uses of water. In this the proposed NBWUE as a body to enforce systems of certification for water use efficiency can be seen as a welcome step. This can also enable policy to prevent wastage and access greater regulation over practices of water use, thus moving India a step forward towards sustainability in water use. It will also allow for investments in the water infrastructure to accrue greater returns which is important given the high costs of production of the water infrastructure as well as allow for better management of demand for water.


Chatterjee B., 2018, Groundwater depletion owing to exceptionally high demand in India, Hindustan Times, April 9.

Choudhary A., 2018, 90% of Delhi in critical zone as groundwater level dips, The Times of India, May 9.

CWC, undated. Draft Guidelines For Developing Water Use Efficiency In Urban, Rural, Industrial & Irrigation Sector, Available at: https://bit.ly/2JxzuO2

Fishman R., Devineni N., & Raman S., 2015. Can improved agricultural water use efficiency save India’s groundwater? Environmental Research Letters, 10: (8).

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 2017. Emerging practices from Agricultural Water Management in Africa and the Near East, Available at: https://bit.ly/2y8IBiZ

Government of India (GoI), 2017. Press Release: Thirteenth report of the Standing Committee on Water Resources on the subject “Indigenous and Modern forms of Water Conservation – Techniques and Practices”, Government of India.

IENS, 2018, Desal plant work to disrupt water supply to South Chennai tomorrow, The New Indian Express, April 17.

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Madhavan N., 2014. Quenching Chennai’s Thirst, Business Today, March 16.

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Ministry Of Water Resources (MoWR), 2017. Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 103 Answered On 02.02.2017 Shortage of Water. Available at: https://bit.ly/2lmKnE1

Parsai G., 2013. Centre to establish National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency, The Hindu, May 13.

Sharma, B. D. Molden & S. Cook, 2015. Water use efficiency in agriculture: Measurement, current situation and trends, in Drechsel P., Heffer P., Magen H, Mikkelsen R., Wichelns D., Managing Water and Fertilizer for Sustainable Agricultural Intensification, International Water Management Institute: Paris, 75-85.

Singh P., 2018. Water levels fall at treatment plants, Delhi stares at a dry phase, The Times of India, May 17.

United Nations, 2014. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.

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