India: When Water Becomes a Luxury

After the striking picture of Amal Hussein in the cover of the New York Times and her unfortunate death, the world protested in harmony to bring light upon Yemen’s famine. In this context of national awareness, it felt right to bend another deadly issue in South-Asia and to interview an expert on the matter. Being a French historian, writer, and geographer, René-Eric Dagorn accepted to explain how the water situation in India got so dramatic despite being one of the ten biggest countries in water resources.


-Nowadays, how would you judge the water’s quality in India?


Dagorn: « India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat ». Here is the first sentence coming out of the NITI Aajog report (National Institution for Transforming India) published in June 2018. 600 millions of people currently live in places where water tends to disappear and 200 000 inhabitants die each year because of a lack of water quality.

Generally speaking, India is crushed by the contrast between the gross availability of freshwater and the tensed situations regarding drinkable water.


- In your opinion, what brought the situation to get as bad as it is?


Dagorn: The Ganges is a good example of how multiple uncoordinated actors resulted in contradictory and dangerous water spaces. Indeed, Ganges’ maps show how water’s quality keeps deteriorating itself: emissions of Garhmukteshwar’s paper pulp factories, tanneries in Kanpur, wastewaters in Patna…53% of waters going into the Ganges and its tributaries are rejected in without treatment.  


-How could the situation affect the environment or society on the long-term?


Dagorn: Drinkable water access’ difficulties create more and more violent social tensions.

In September 2016, an Indian Supreme Court’s decision caused riots in Karnataka (Bangalore): the State’s inhabitants refused to share the available drinkable water with the Tamil Nadu foreign State, even if it was to raise the Cauvery river’s flow crossing both States. NITI June 2018’s report suggests these conflicts could increase even more in the future.


-Which initiatives could be undertaken?


Dagorn: This is not the freshwater’s quantity that matters, but the societies’ accessibility to drinkable water. However, water results from a specific process: it is produced in technical (technosphere) and social spheres (environmental norms’ creation). Irrigated agriculture, green revolution, flood barriers’ constructions, urban and industrial rejections – all these sectors lack coordination and organization. The local awareness of action scales’ coordination is too limited, but this is a phenomenon we can see in the US as well with the Colorado pond: urban and agricultural actors fight instead of cooperating, and no efficient intervention and action scale had been found yet.


According to the UNICEF, 564 millions of Indians need to defecate outside due to a lack of access to restrooms and this is one more element showing the concern around the issue: water is not only about drinking, but also about hygiene and development. Thus, some national actions still need to be taken on the issue.


Sources:, India, Mattha Busby, June 2018,, Bharat Punjabi, September 2018, “The paradox of India’s water problems”