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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

July 2019: Water scarcity is a global challenge requiring local solutions. New evidence supports a shift towards localised small scale programmes to combat water scarcity and argues against large-scale infrastructure projects to address the water crisis in countries such as in India.


Inadequate access to water and sanitation contributes to the death of 780,000 people each year. The water crises has become a perennial global phenomenon with nearly half the human population inhabiting places unable to fully meet their drinking, cooking, and sanitation needs. The increasing effects of water stress can be seen in India where water reserves for Chennai have run dry and all major cities, including the capital New Delhi, may run out of water by the end of 2020. The developments are exasperated by erratic rain patterns, less intense monsoon seasons, groundwater depletion for water-intense crop irrigation, rising temperatures during summer, and unregulated urban development replacing natural habitats that serve as sponges for monsoon rains and replenish groundwater.

Implications & Opportunities

The water crisis is driving social inequality with families from lower economic backgrounds unable to afford water from private water tankers or the drilling of new boreholes to access groundwater. Governments of water scarce countries frequently initiate major infrastructure projects such as desalination plants, linking rivers, or constructing mega-dams. However, small-scale nature-based efforts show the highest efficiency rates in combatting water scarcity and groundwater depletion. ‘Green’ infrastructure such as multiple small, but strategically placed, earthen damns can capture the monsoon rains and recharge aquifers. Community based tree-planting or land-sculpting programmes have shown the highest short and long-term efficiency rates in increasing groundwater levels, soil fertility and agricultural income, and lowest environmental impact. Wide scale application of localised programmes could ensure water security, increase resilience against natural disasters and climate change, and reduce poverty.


The study predominantly focuses on water scarcity in India with limited transferability to other countries and should be seen within the context of India’s geographic cultural, ecological, and political context.


Chakraborti, R. K., Kaur, J., & Kaur, H. (2019). Water Shortage Challenges and a Way Forward in India. Journal - American Water Works Association, 111(5), 42–49. doi:10.1002/awwa.1289 

The New York Times. (2019). India’s terrifying water crisis. Retrieved from!?&_suid=1563282953671009696169635377716