Rejuvenating Rural Water Supply in India

Since the 1950’s national and state governments in India have invested more than US$40 billion to expand water services to rural communities.  By 2009 they had almost reached universal coverage for more than 850 million people in 1.6 million habitations¹, but service delivery has been slipping. Now more than 500,000 habitations get less than 40 liters of water per person per day, which was the government standard for adequate service prior to 2009.  

Resource Strain

Competing demands from agriculture, businesses, and communities are also putting a strain on rural resources. Population growth and massive exploitation of ground water for irrigation has lowered per capita water availability from what once was 5000 m3/year to about 1800 m3/year, with water tables dropping to below 1,000 feet in many regions.

Service delivery has primarily been driven by State Public Health Engineering Departments who invested in borewells, handpumps, and piped water systems, often without adequate provision for operational management and capital maintenance.  In consequence, facilities have deteriorated rapidly and are delivering lower standards of service in terms of quantity, quality, and reliability.

State governments have also reported that as many as 11 percent of habitations are affected by chemical contamination including arsenic and fluorides which can cause crippling diseases like arsenical dermatitis and skeletal and dental fluorosis.  Bacterial contamination of drinking water due to poor sanitation and hygiene is even more prevalent and diarrheal diseases are killing hundreds of children every day.

Government Response

To respond to a growing population and rising demand for higher quality services, such as piped water supply with household connections, the government is expanding its financial and technical support to help local governments and communities better plan, implement, operate, maintain, and manage drinking water supplies.

In 2009, the government launched a new National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) to transform the rural water sector from one focused mostly on creating infrastructure, to one that provides improved and sustainable services. NRDWP provides financing to ensure water security in terms of source sustainability, water quality and operation and maintenance, and provides recommendations for institutional arrangements to support local governments and communities.

Strategic Plan

In 2010, the government embarked on a national consultation process with stakeholders from every state to get ideas and consensus which resulted in a Strategic Plan for 2010 – 2022. The Strategic Plan provides further guidance to states to operationalize the NRDWP and ensure that all citizens living in rural areas have access to safe, clean water for drinking, cooking, and other domestic needs with the intention of eventually providing piped water to every rural household.

The Strategic Plan mandates that each village prepare a Drinking Water Security Plan. The plans should include water harvesting and groundwater recharge measures, as well as conjunctive use of groundwater, surface water, and rainwater sources.  Water safety measures should also be included to show how water quality will be managed through protection of sources, improved water treatment, protection of distribution systems, and prevention of contamination in households, with verification through rigorous water quality testing against national standards.

Village plans should also introduce standardized operating procedures and a budget, and provisions to replace aging facilities and expand services to meet new demand.  To educate consumers on tips for water conservation and proper storage and handling of water, plans should also include a strategy for effective communication programs.

Although local government and communities are at the center of the new approach, it is recognized that they need support. To this end, the government in its Strategic Plan has outlined supporting roles and responsibilities as well as financing of village plans and mechanisms for monitoring, reporting, and auditing of progress and performance. 

Some of the key institutions are Block Resource Centers, which can provide technical support, District Water and Sanitation Missions to lead on the planning function, facilitate financing, and ensure convergence with different development programs, and District laboratories for sampling and analysis to check drinking water quality.

For more information contact, Nicholas Pilgrim or C.Ajith Kumar at wspsa@

A Handbook for Gram Panchayats to Help Them Plan, Implement, Operate, Maintain and Manage Drinking Water Supply
Water Safety Plans for Rural Water Supply in India: Policy Issues and Institutional Arrangements

Village Water Safety Planning Training Manual and Planning Templates:
Climate Risk Screening of the WSP Portfolio in India: Identifying Key Risk Areas and Potential Opportunities


[1 ]In India, a habitation is the unit used to measure coverage and comprises a community of households; typically several habitations make up a village.