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Special Content

Issue no 08, 20- 26 May 2023

India Conducts First Census of Water Bodies

A Goldmine of Information for Sustainable Resource Management


BS Purkyastha

India, accounts for 18% of the world's population but has only 4% of its fresh water resources. More than 80% of the water in the country is used for agriculture, while the remainder is allocated for domestic and industrial purposes. With climate change affecting monsoon patterns, the health of the country's water bodies is crucial, not just for agriculture, but also for ensuring drinking water for the entire population. These water bodies play a vital role in maintaining water balance, mitigating floods, supporting biodiversity, food security, and livelihoods. However, India is gradually progressing from being a water-abundant country to one facing water scarcity due to population pressure and urbanisation. Haphazard urbanisation has led to the depletion of water bodies. Our cities and towns harbour less than three percent of the country's reservoirs, even as scarcity of drinking water plagues several cities, especially those in slums. The country's water resources have become extremely polluted, with 70% of surface water being deemed "unfit" for human consumption. The Government has stated that per capita availability of water in the country is projected to fall from 1,486 cubic meters in 2021 to 1,367 cubic meters by 2031, citing data from a report compiled by the Central Water Commission (CWC). In 1951, per capita availability was over 5,000 cubic meters according to the census. A sound and reliable database on water bodies is thus a prerequisite for effective planning and policy-making to prevent pollution and further conservation and restoration of water bodies. The enumeration, preservation, conservation, and renovation of these bodies are becoming increasingly important for economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Need for a Census

The Department of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation (DoWR, RD & GR) under the Ministry of Jal Shakti (MoJS), Government of India (GoI), has been conducting a census of minor irrigation structures quinquennially under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme "Irrigation Census" with 100% Central Assistance to States/UTs. For the first time in the country's history, the Ministry of Jal Shakti conducted the first-ever census of water bodies across the nation in 2018-19. The census provided a comprehensive inventory of India's water resources, including natural and man-made water bodies such as ponds, tanks, lakes, and more. It also collected data on the encroachment of water bodies and highlighted disparities between rural and urban areas, varying levels of encroachment, and revealed crucial insights into the country's water resources. The Ministry of Jal Shakti conducted the census to identify water stress areas, plan for water conservation, prevent encroachments, and design policies on judicious water use and conservation. The census was conducted in convergence with the 6th Minor Irrigation Census. The information obtained from both the MI Census and water body census will be highly useful in implementing the Atal Bhujal Yojana. Under this scheme, the data can be used for assessing Gram Panchayat-wise water budgets, preparing realistic water security plans, and planning various supply/demand side measures through convergence of ongoing schemes. Block/Gram Panchayat level data related to MI structures and water bodies will help scheme personnel convince the community of the actual groundwater conditions at the local level.


Ponds, Tanks, Reservoirs, Lakes & More: All natural or man-made water units bounded on all sides by some or no masonry work and used for storing water for irrigation or other purposes, such as industrial, pisciculture, drinking, and ground-water recharge, qualify for this census. Water bodies refer to structures where water from ice-melts, streams, Springs, rain or drainage from residential or other areas is accumulated. Storage of water diverted from a stream, nala or river is also included. However, oceans, rivers, waterfalls, swimming pools, covered water tanks made by individuals, factories, and temporary water bodies are excluded from this census. The census collected information on all important aspects of the water bodies, including their type, condition, status of encroachments, use, storage capacity, and status of filling up of storage, etc. It covered all the water bodies located in rural as well as urban areas, whether inuse or not in-use. The census also took into account all types of uses of water bodies like irrigation, industry, pisciculture, domestic/drinking, recreation, religious, and ground water recharge, etc. During the first census of water bodies, 24,24,540 water bodies have been enumerated in the country, out of which 59.5% (14,42,993) are ponds, 15.7% (3,81,805) are tanks, 12.1% (2,92,280) are reservoirs, whereas the remaining 12.7% (3,07,462) are water conservation schemes, check dams, percolation tanks, lakes, and other water bodies.


Regional Variations: The leading states with respect to various types of water bodies are different, which can be attributed to varying topography in different states. Maharashtra leads all states and UTs in building water bodies under water conservation schemes, with almost 93% of its water bodies in the form of check dams, indicating that the rural parts of the state rely on water conservation schemes more than any other state in the country, according to the census. Out of 97,062 water bodies in Maharashtra, 96,343 are located in rural areas and only 719 in urban areas West Bengal has the highest number of ponds and reservoirs, while Andhra Pradesh has the highest number of tanks and Tamil Nadu has the highest number of lakes. South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal has the highest number (0.35 million) of water bodies in the country, followed by Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh (50,537) and Howrah in West Bengal (37,301). West Bengal tops the list with the largest number of water bodies owned by private individuals, followed by Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Jharkhand. Most privately-owned water bodies are either owned by individuals or farmers, followed by a group of individuals and other private bodies. Among all water bodies, 9.6% are located in tribal areas, 8.8% in floodprone areas, 7.2% under the Drought Prone Area Programme (DPAP), 2.0% in Naxal-affected areas, 0.7% under the Desert Development Programme (DDP), and the remaining 71.7% of water bodies are located in other areas. While 78% of water bodies are man-made, 22% are natural. Almost half of the total man-made water bodies (47.9%) have an original cost of construction up to Rs. 50,000. In both rural and urban areas, more than 45% of man-made water bodies have an original construction cost of up to Rs. 50,000. The number of water bodies under each cost class of construction is almost the same for both rural and urban areas, and water bodies with a construction cost exceeding Rs. 50 lakh are almost negligible.


Water Spread Area: Information on water spread area was reported for 23,37,638 water bodies. Of these water bodies, 72.4% (16,93,690) have a water spread area of less than 0.5 hectare, 13.4% (3,12,698) have a water spread area between 0.5-1 hectare, 11.1% (2,58,476) have a water spread area between 1-5 hectares, and the remaining 3.1% (72,774) of water bodies have a water spread area of more than 5 hectares. A similar distribution of water bodies according to water spread area has been observed in urban and rural areas. Of all public-owned water bodies, the maximum number of water bodies are owned by Panchayats, followed by State Irrigation/State WRD. Of all privatelyowned water bodies, the maximum number of water bodies are in the hands of individual owners/farmers, followed by groups of individuals and other private bodies. States can adopt strategies to bring public water bodies to productive use by placing them under the control of Panchayats, Municipal Bodies, and Cooperative Societies.


Encroachment of Water Bodies : The Census has, for the first time, collected information on water body encroachment. It reports that 1.6% (38,496) of enumerated water bodies are encroached, with 95.4% of these encroachments occurring in rural areas and the remaining 4.6% in urban areas. Out of all water bodies whose encroachment areas can be assessed (i.e., 24,516 water bodies), 62.8% have less than 25% encroached area, while 11.8% have more than 75% area under encroachment. Ponds are the most encroached water bodies, followed by tanks. Of all encroached water bodies, 67.6% (26,005) are ponds, 21% (8,082) are tanks, 4.5% (1,745) are water conservation schemes/check dams/ percolation tanks, and the remaining 6.9% are lakes, reservoirs, and other water bodies. Water User Associations (WUAs) have been helpful in preventing encroachments by being vigilant and alert to illegal encroachers. Out of the 13,64,349 water bodies not owned by individual owners, WUAs have been formed in 3.1% (42,237) of cases. States can adopt strategies to prevent encroachment of water bodies, such as involving local communities, developing legal frameworks, and promoting awareness campaigns.


Usage Trends : Among the 24,24,540 water bodies, 83.7% (20,30,040) are 'in-use', while the remaining 16.3% (3,94,500) are not functional due to drying up, construction, siltation, destruction beyond repair, salinity, industrial effluents, etc. Of the 'inuse' water bodies, 58.2% (11,81,077) are ponds, 15.6% (3,15,974) are tanks, 14.2% (2,89,163) are reservoirs, 9.3% (1,88,915) are water conservation schemes/check dams/percolation tanks, 0.5% (9,558) are lakes, and 2.2% (45,353) are other water bodies. Major water bodies that are reported to be used are for Pisciculture (55.5%) followed by irrigation (16.5%), ground water recharge (12.1%), domestic/ drinking (10.1%), and remaining for religious, recreation, industrial, and other purposes. Of the 19,75,205 'in-use' water bodies located in rural areas, 55.9% (11,04,027) are used for pisciculture, 16.8% (3,31,408) are used for irrigation, 12.1% (2,39,282) are used for ground water recharge, 9.9% (1,94,885) are used for domestic/ drinking, and remaining for recreation, industrial, religious, and other purposes. Of the 54,835 'in-use' water bodies located in urban areas, 41.6% (22,803) are used for pisciculture, 18.8% (10,312) are used for domestic/ drinking, 12.1% (6,642) are used for industrial purposes, 10.3% (5,636) are used for ground water recharge, and remaining for irrigation, religious, recreation, and other purposes. Of all ‘in-use’ water bodies, 88.6% (17,98,349) benefit one city/town/ village, 10.6% (2,15,516) benefit 2 to 5 cities/towns/villages, whereas the remaining 0.8% (16,175) benefit more than 5 cities/towns/villages. 90.1% (18,29,218) water bodies fulfill the requirements of 100 people, 8.2% (1,66,569) benefit 101 to 500 people, and the rest 1.7% (34,253) water bodies fulfill the requirement of more than 500 people.


Storage Capacity, Status of Filling & Depth: The information on the storage capacity of water bodies was collected for 24,24,540 water bodies. Among these, 50% (12,12,283) of water bodies have a storage capacity between 1,000 to 10,000 cubic meters, 37.3% (9,05,297) have a storage capacity between 0 to 1,000 cubic meters, and the remaining 12.7% (3,06,960) have a storage capacity of more than 10,000 cubic meters. It is worth noting that almost half of the total water bodies have a storage capacity between 1,000 to 10,000 cubic meters. The information on the "filled-up storage capacity" and "status of filling" was collected only for 21,39,439 water bodies, which include ponds, tanks, lakes, and reservoirs. Among these water bodies, 41.4% (8,86,197) had fully filledup storage capacity, 28.5% (6,08,879) had storage capacity filled up to threefourth level, 16.4% (3,50,948) had storage capacity filled up to half level, whereas the remaining 13.7% (2,93,415) had lesser storage capacity. Based on around 50% filling up of storage during the last five years, 48% (10,26,759) of water bodies are found to be filled up every year, 31% (6,62,415) are usually filled up, 15.9% (3,39,941) are rarely filled up, and 5.1% (1,10,324) of water bodies are never filled up. Out of all the water bodies, information on the maximum depth of water bodies when fully filled up was reported for 22,18,733 water bodies. Among them, 94.7% (21,01,271) of water bodies have a maximum depth up to 5 meters, 3.2% (71,230) have a maximum depth between 5 to 10 meters, whereas a few water bodies have a depth of more than 10 meters.

Repair & Renovation: Proper repair and upkeep of water bodies is required to ensure their optimum utilisation. However, the majority of water bodies (45.2%) have never been repaired, 15.7% of water bodies were repaired before 2009, and only 3.6% were repaired after 2018. Among all the water bodies that underwent repair, 62.9% had a cost of last repair/renovation up to Rs. 50,000, and 21.7% had a cost of last repair between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1 lakh. Only 24,486 water bodies were under repair/renovation during the reference year of the census. Out of all these 24,486 water bodies, 48.3% (11,834) were ponds, 33.5% (8,202) were tanks, 11% (2,686) were water conservation schemes/check dams/percolation tanks, while the rest 7.2% were lakes, reservoirs, and other water bodies. Only 9.5% (2,29,889) water bodies are included in the State Irrigation Plan (SIP)/District Irrigation Plan (DIP). Among these water bodies, the share of ponds (37.6%) is the highest, followed by water conservation schemes/check dams (34.8%) and tanks (23.7%). This census of 24,24,540 water bodies across the length and breadth of the country has been a humongous exercise, revealing a goldmine of information on India's water resources. It is now for the policy makers to quickly and effectively utilise this information to structure an allencompassing policy framework that protects the nation's water resources while harnessing them optimally to improve the lives and livelihoods of its citizens.

Key findings of the Census:

·         24,24,540 water bodies have been enumerated in the country, of which 97.1% (23,55,055) are in rural areas, and only 2.9% (69,485) are in urban areas

·         The top 5 states in terms of the number of water bodies are West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Assam, which constitute around 63% of the total water bodies in the country.

·         The top 5 states in terms of the number of water bodies in urban areas are West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Tripura, whereas in rural areas, the top 5 states are West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Assam.

·         59.5% of water bodies are ponds, followed by tanks (15.7%), reservoirs (12.1%), water conservation schemes/percolation tanks/check dams (9.3%), lakes (0.9%), and others (2.5%).

·         55.2% of water bodies are privately owned, whereas 44.8% of water bodies are in the public domain

·         The top 5 states that lead in privately owned water bodies are West Bengal, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Jharkhand

·         Among all "in use" water bodies, the major water bodies are reported to be used in pisciculture, followed by irrigation

·         The top 5 states wherein the major use of water bodies is in pisciculture are West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh.

·         The top 5 states wherein the major use of water bodies is in irrigation are Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, and Gujarat.


(The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at ideainks2020@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.