India is expected to be the most severely affected nation with global water scarcity projected to increase from 933 million in 2016 to 1.7-2.4 billion people in 2050. Ranked 13th amongst the most water-stressed nations in 2019, with just 4% of the world’s water reserves and 18% of the global population, India must prioritize water conservation, evaluation and management.
A systematic, consistent, national-level dataset on water bodies to improve water management and increase resilience, has long been awaited. The National Water Body Census 2023 is a crucial milestone in creating such a database. Undertaken by the Ministry of Jal Shakti, the water census surveyed and disaggregated 2.4 million water bodies (Figure 1).
This blog explores the census data, related to urban water bodies, highlighting the existing water challenges across Indian cities and ways to strengthen the urban context.
Currently, 35% of the Indian population resides in urban areas. This is projected to reach 43.2% by 2035. Rising urban population and depletion of existing water resources, further exacerbated by climate change, impacts the availability of essential services, quality of life in urban areas, (Figure 2) natural habitats and native biodiversity.
Surface water bodies such as ponds, tanks, lakes, reservoirs, percolation tanks, etc., play a significant role in mitigating both current and future water-stress incidents. They serve as storage reservoirs that can be accessed during water-scarce periods, to recharge groundwater and facilitate flood control by absorbing stormwater run-off.
The census studies such water bodies by categorizing them based on storage capacity (Figure 3A), uses (Figure 3B) and other aspects (Figure 3C).
However, the census falls short of recognizing the co-benefits of urban water bodies beyond water storage, such as their role in microclimatic control, ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation. The data also shows inconsistencies in the number of water bodies reported in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh and contradicts the findings from other reports/agencies. In Karnataka, the census reported 27,000 water bodies (urban and rural), which does not match the findings of state nodal agencies.
Furthermore, encroachment of water bodies in India’s urban regions has been reported in various primary and secondary documents and maps. WRI India’s publication ‘Urban Blue-Green Conundrum’ has also reported findings (Figure 5) in this context. The census shows this as zero for states like Karnataka and West Bengal when many other sources have established otherwise.
The census data is primarily aggregated and presented at a state level and classified into broader categories. It does not present detailed local-level information, nor does it touch upon the quality of urban water bodies.
Consistent, transparent data with timely updates can help city leaders make informed decisions toward strengthening urban water resilience. Here are three key suggestions for the next Water Body Census –
While data can effectively guide strategies to promote sustainable water management, connecting residents with local water bodies and bringing back traditional cultural practices can further improve their long-term usage and maintenance. Moreover, urban water bodies can act as powerful catalysts for behavior change by inspiring environmental consciousness, promoting community engagement and encouraging sustainable practices that benefit individuals as well as the broader ecosystem.
Vaibhav Shrivastava is a Senior Project Associate, Urban Water Resilience Practice at World Resources Institute.
All views expressed by the authors are personal.