May 28, 2021

Behaviour Change at the Heart of India's Water Woes

It has been 5 years since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals.  And whilst all of the Goals are important, SDG 6 (ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) is of primary importance - because the health, food security, and the state of livelihoods in the country, hinge on our ability to provide water and sanitation for all.


But according to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s SDG Index Report 2019, India ranks 115 out of 162 countries (score of 61.1 percent), in terms of SDGs performance; and scores just 56.6 percent in terms of its SDG 6 achievement – with much to achieve to meet the deadlines of 2030.


Of course, it is no easy task, given India’s massive and diverse population, which makes the implementation of Government policies difficult and complex. So what needs to be done to fast-track our progress in achieving targets by 2030?


Availability & Sustainable Management of Water


With the agricultural sector consuming as much as 80-85% of India’s total freshwater and 70 percent of India’s groundwater, there is a need to focus attention on this pivotal sector, where flood irrigation delivers only 35-40% water use efficiency, as opposed to micro-irrigation which has up to 90% efficiency.

According to one estimate, a mere 5-10% improvement in water efficiency in the farming sector would be enough to meet all the drinking water needs in the country.  But to date, much of the strategy to address the impending water crisis has focused on the ‘supply side’ – large infrastructure projects to harvest or tap into more and more water, to meet the needs of India’s swelling population.


However, there are large gains to be made in focusing efforts on the ‘demand side’ – working with the people to be more water-efficient and educating them on ways to consume less of this valuable resource. If we compare the water consumption of India to China with a slightly larger population and double the size of the economy, the latter uses 28% less water than India. Clearly something is going wrong here.


Simple technologies, like drip and micro-irrigation, can be the ‘game changer’ when it comes to water in the country if only adoption and uptake would increase.  Unfortunately, the coverage of drip (2.13%) and sprinkler (3.30%) methods of irrigation is very meagre compared to its total potential in India, (which is estimated to be 21.01 million hectares for drip and 50.22 million hectares of sprinkler irrigation), India has a long, long way to go.  

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However, it can be achieved.  Even in states like Punjab where farmers have access to abundant water for free, the education of farmers has proved the deciding factor - farmers in Bhatinda have invested in micro-irrigation, convinced of reaping returns in terms of improved yield, cost savings and improved profitability.  That, along with the environmental savings to be made in terms of the availability of groundwater to be handed over to the next generation, has motivated them to put their hand in their pocket and adopt a new method of irrigation.  


Investment is to be made in people, at the grassroots.  There is a need to build their capacity, generate awareness, handhold and guide them to change their behaviour and adopt a different way of doing things.


When it comes to sanitation, the nationwide Swachh Bharat campaign helped highlight the issue and promote toilet construction across the country.


In 2015, nearly half of India’s population of around 568 million people participated in open defecation, due to lack of access to toilets. However by 2019, the number of people without access to toilets reduced by an estimated 450 million people.


India has made rapid progress in building toilets, however, there is a need to ensure the sustained and consistent use of those toilets, along with hygiene practices, by the people.  As a country we need to shift our focus from building toilets to promoting behaviour change among the people supposed to use them - only then will we be well on our way to achieving our 2030 targets and declaring ourselves an open defecation free country. 

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Change is possible at a grassroots level.  In communities like Pimplegaon, Chandrapur, local women-led the drive to construct toilets, and when they found they were not being used, formed a ‘Good Morning’ Committee, to stand guard and prevent open defecation in the community every morning.  It took time and vigilance, but in time, it worked.  Pimplegaon is now an ODF declared village.

Additionally, solid and liquid waste management is a daunting task for India to address, and the Government is aiming to tackle it via the rollout of Swachh Bharat Mission – 2, across the country. The challenge is to make it successful in a decentralized manner across villages, and for that, continuous behaviour change communication is essential to ensure sustainability.




The importance of achieving India’s targets in SDG 6 cannot be understated.  Research shows that a lack of access to water and sanitation has an adverse impact on economic growth and job creation. 

If we as a nation are to continue in our path of progress, each and every person must become accountable for their own behaviour – playing an individual role in maintaining water sources and embracing sanitation - especially in rural areas.  But people need support and guidance in making the shift, and this is where we as a country should direct our efforts over the next 10 years

May 28, 2021

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