With a population of almost 1.2 billion and growing, over-exploited natural resources, and inadequate or failing infrastructure, perhaps no nation faces a greater challenge in securing enough fresh water to meet the needs of its people than India.
Take a photographic journey from the crowded streets of Delhi, through the parched state of Rajasthan, and into the farmlands of north Gujarat to get a closer look at some of the many ways water affects the lives of millions of Indians every day.
Residents of Kusumpur Pahari, a slum in south New Delhi, fill containers with water from a municipal Delhi Jal Board tanker
Delhi's decrepit and inadequate water delivery and sewage systems cannot meet the daily needs of its 16 million citizens, and those who live on the fringes of the city or in slums often have little or no access to running water.
Harvesting bottle gourds at a farm settlement on the eastern bank of the Yamuna river, Delhi
This land rests in the floodplain of the polluted Yamuna river, and once the monsoon arrives in July it will almost certainly be largely underwater. A recent study conducted by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) found high levels of potentially hazardous heavy metals in vegetables grown in Yamuna basin.
Boys search for change or other items of value in the brackish waters of the Yamuna river
Delhi receives the bulk of its water from the Yamuna before it enters the city limits. But as it flows south through Delhi the river quickly becomes heavily polluted with industrial waste and untreated sewage. Nonetheless, the Yamuna is a sacred river for Hindus, and some court good luck by throwing coins into the water from the old railway bridge that spans it, in whose shadow these boys work.
Morning bathers at a ghat on Pushkar Lake, Rajasthan
Water is intimately bound up with Hindu ritual and practice and Pushkar is home to the most important temple to the creator god Brahma in India. Some 52 ghats—steps that lead down to a holy body of water—line Pushkar Lake.
"Save Lakes, Save Water, Save Udaipur"
Known as "The Venice of the East," Udaipur thrives on the tourism its cultural attractions draw, which include the famous Lake Palace that floats on Lake Pichola. However, in recent years Lake Pichola has dried up on several occasions due to poor monsoons, over-exploitation and environmental degradation. In the absence of strong governmental efforts to protect its waters, local environmental groups began their own campaigns to help save Lake Pichola.
Holi festival, Udaipur
During Holi—Hinduism's "festival of colors"—celebrants decorate one another using brightly colored powders and water to mark the onset of spring. In recent years some local governments and communities have advocated for "dry" Holi celebrations in order to conserve water.
Women filling water jugs, Kukarwada, Gujarat
Rural Indians have even less access to water than their urban counterparts. The 2011 Indian census found that only 31 percent of rural Indian households use a tap as their main source of drinking water, and 22 percent of the population must travel a half kilometer or more to get water.
A farmer stands next to an abandoned tube well, Gujarat
In parts of north Gujarat, farmers have been tapping groundwater to irrigate their crops at an unsustainable rate for decades. As water tables continue to fall farmers must invest in deeper wells and more powerful pumps to get water to the surface. Without energy subsidies provided by the government, agriculture in many areas would already be a losing proposition economically.
Farm laborers, Gujarat
In addition to creating economic complications, falling water tables have put many of north Gujarat's aquifers at risk of irreversible salinization. Permanent saltwater intrusion into local groundwater reserves could put an end to agriculture across the entire area. According to a government survey conducted in 2010, 58 percent of rural Indians are employed in agriculture.
Earth Institute researcher Ram Fishman conducts a survey with a farmer, Gujarat
Over the past year, the Columbia Water Center and Modi Research Group have conducted an innovative project in North Gujarat designed to help farmers conserve water, cut their energy use and employ sustainable farming techniques. In order to succeed, such efforts require working closely with community members as well as forming partnerships with local stakeholders and other organizations.
Earth Institute scientists Upmanu Lall and Vijay Modi attend a meeting on addressing water issues in India, New Delhi
To effect change on a large scale, scientific innovation must often be put into practice with the help of government and other institutional stakeholders. Communicating the issues and helping inform policy makers are important aspects of the development process.