Acute Drinking Water Crisis in India: The National Project on Aquifer Management and the SkyTEM

Drinking water essentially refers to clean, uncontaminated water which can be consumed with minimal risk of contracting water-borne diseases and for other purposes such as cooking and washing. Clean water supply for drinking and other purposes is a major scarcity in our country. While the condition of the urban areas can be termed as passably good, it is the rural areas of our country that bear the brunt of water scarcity. The women and children of the rural population are the most affected by the dearth of clean water in our country. While the children easily succumb to water borne diseases, contaminated water creates a host of other medical problems among the adults. The contamination of water may range from suspended solids to fluorides and arsenic. Reduction and containment of medical problems created by the unknowing use of contaminated water, has been a major public health issue in our country. The government’s efforts have, so far, been able to solve only a small part of this problem.

Major sources of water in India

The monsoon season is one of the primary sources of natural rainwater. The melting of the Himalayan snowcaps, which feed a majority of the 24 primary rivers in India, is another source of water in our country. However, conserving rainwater for drinking purposes is not a feasible solution to the prevalent water crisis, whereas, given the high rate of pollution, the lower courses of most of the rivers are heavily contaminated. The government at one point was seriously mulling over the concept of privatization of water prospecting and water distribution. However, such a move on the part of the government would have been highly unconstitutional because while the urban population might have been able to pay for the water, it would have been an impossible proposition for the rural poor. The concept of privatization of water supply did not go well with the urban population either, as evident from the fact that such efforts of the government in Mumbai were effectively thwarted by the citizens.

Financial aids on part of the government to ensure clean drinking water supply

On February 28, 2013, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram approved a grant of Rs. 15,260 crore to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation to refurbish the entire drinking water supply system of the country. Underlining the existence of 2,000 arsenic- and 12,000 fluoride-contaminated rural areas, he added, “I propose to provide Rs. 1,400 crore towards setting up water treatment plants”. The 2013-2014 budget plans include a grant of Rs 11,000 crore for the National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) – a pilot program of the government envisaged for delivering adequate clean water to rural areas through a system of pipes and hand pumps. The budget plans are also inclusive of a financial aid of Rs. 4,260 crore to the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, with a special reservation of Rs. 426 crore for Sikkim and other northeastern states. It needs to be mentioned here that the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan is currently functional throughout the country.

Search for alternative sources of drinking water: The National Project on Aquifer Management and the SkyTEM

Geological researches have proven beyond doubt that the country has enough water, only the distributions of the available water are disarrayed. In what seems to be a breakthrough in alleviating the drinking water problems of our country, the Ministry of Water Resources has envisaged a flagship project with a budget of Rs. 41 crore, which involves locating and identifying artesian water basins all over the country. The artesian water basins, more commonly known as aquifers, are water tables existing at a depth of 200 to 500 metres below the surface of the earth. While the aquifers primarily feed the natural springs and wells, the said water reserves can prove to be a sustainable source of clear, uncontaminated potable water. The flagship project of the government–Phase I of the mammoth National Project on Aquifer Management–proposes to accurately map the artesian water basins all over the country, which can be converted into feasible sources of clean water supply. An integral part of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Five Year Plans, the project will be executed in concurrence with the Central Ground Water Board and National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI, Hyderabad), covering a proposed area of 21 million square kilometres, with the World Bank pitching in the finances.

The project has been inaugurated with implementation of aquifer mapping operations in Dausa near Jaipur. Other than Dausa, five more areas have been demarcated depending on the basis of ground clay (soil type) and the landscape contour (topography). The soil type of Dausa is rocky and hard, with alluvial soil. As informed by Shakeel Ahmed, Chief Scientist, NGRI, “The other places include Chandrabhaga in Nagpur (Deccan basaltic traps), Tumkur in Karnataka (granite), Cuddalore in Tamilnadu (coastal area), Ramgadh in Jaisalmer (desert environment) and Patna (alluvial soil)”. The ethereal technology that is proposed to be implemented to spot the aquifers is known as SkyTEM, borrowed from Denmark. A customised Eurocopter fitted with a long probing device (30 m) made from fiber optics, attached to a frame with considerable surface area (300 square metres), is being used for the purpose. The Eurocopter will be hovering over the designated areas, maintaining a low altitude (3,500 m) and a low cruise speed (60 to 80 km/hour). The low flying speed of the chopper will ensure minimum play of the frame attached to the probe.

As mentioned by Ahmed, “Through the loop, which is made of fiber optics, electromagnetic currents are sent to the ground and the magnetic field thus generated is measured. This allows us to see the distribution of water, how much it is and at what depth”. He also stressed on the customised nature of the Eurocopter, which is enabled to carry half a tonne of weight, and that such modifications will be especially advantageous in the coastal and arid areas. As per the statement of the SkyTEM senior field manager Lars Jensen, currently stationed in Jaipur, SkyTEM has already been used successfully in Denmark. He added, “We have also used it in Australia, Malaysia, Antarctica, South Africa and America. We will finish mapping Jaipur within two weeks and cover an area of some 600 square kilometers”. The resultant matrix generated by the SkyTEM mapping of aquifers will enable the scientists to arrive at three-dimensional model of the aquifers, which will be applied as a reference frame to the rest of the country. This will also ascertain the quantity of water that can be possibly drawn from the said aquifers. While the mapping of the demarcated areas is scheduled to be completed by May, 2014, the state and community bodies will be vested with the responsibility of tapping these potential water reserves.


Water is an essential natural resource without which no life form can possibly survive. With our country already in the midst of a water crisis, we need to be more responsible as far as preservation of water is concerned. As surmised by National Geographic, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be compelled to live in habitats affected by water crisis. Under these circumstances, the National Project on Aquifer Management is a commendable move on part of the government. In a country where water crisis is an endemic problem, departure from relying on standard sources of water and prospecting for alternative sources of clean drinking water was a much-needed step. The successful mapping of aquifers using the SkyTEM technology and tapping them as potential clean-water reserves will hopefully prove to be bliss for the rural population of India, presently so acutely afflicted by drinking-water scarcity.