India is the 13th most water-stressed country in the world, and in recent years, cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru and Shimla have faced acute water shortage. A vast area of the country has experienced drought, pushing women and children to run after water tankers to meet the bare minimum needs.

This year, again, Indian cities and villages including Bengaluru, Chennai, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kolkata and Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh are bracing for another spell of water shortage as the summer approaches. And this time, the impact would be worse as the country is battling COVID-19.

While the governments have started preparing themselves for the task, some signs indicate impending water scarcity: 9% of the area of the country was already reeling under drought-like conditions as on April 17, 2020.

The water level in the country’s 123 major reservoirs has started depleting. Against the total live storage capacity of 171 billion cubic metre (BCM), water available in these reservoirs was at 57% of the total live capacity at the start of March 2020. It fell to 50% at the start of April 2020 and currently, it is at 43% (as of April 23, 2020).

Although no verifiable data are available, some early reports suggest that increased handwashing several times a day--one of the ways to prevent COVID-19 infection--has increased household demand for water in some places.

Handwashing a luxury for rural India

By conservative estimates, a proper 20 second-hand wash requires at least two litres of water. So, to wash hands at least five times, a day a family of four would need at least 40 litres of water daily. This is the per capita per day quantity that is provided to the rural population of the country for basic minimum needs including drinking and cooking, as per government data.

About 81% rural habitations of the country that are home to 77% of the population are provided with 40 litres or more per capita per day (LPCD) potable water; 16% of rural habitations with 20% of the population are provided with less than 40 LPCD potable water; 3% rural habitations with 4% population have access to only non-potable water sources, as per data presented by India’s water ministry in parliament in December 2019.

In rural India, only 49% of households had exclusive access to a primary source of drinking water on their premises, as per a 2018 report by the National Sample Survey. The ratio was 58% of the urban population.

The rest of the population has to go out of their homes to fetch water, making it difficult to maintain physical distancing.

The Narendra Modi government, in its second term, has vowed to take piped drinking water to every rural household--at the rate of 55 litres of water per person per day by 2024, under the Jal Jeevan Mission.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)