Water scarcity: Policy intervention alone won’t help

From planning and goal-setting to using fresh starts, there are a range of behavioural levers and combinations that can be used to nudge city dwellers to conserve water.
From planning and goal-setting to using fresh starts, there are a range of behavioural levers and combinations that can be used to nudge city dwellers to conserve water.


  • India is falling short of this vital resource. The state has a role in augmenting supplies but we need a citizen-centric approach to the efficient use of water. Let’s leverage behavioural nudges and reset social norms for a sustainable solution to this crisis.

Images of water tankers and people hustling around with pots, buckets and cans have become a common sight. We have seen it often in regions like Marathwada in Maharashtra or Saurashtra in Gujarat.

Now, we see it in Delhi too; in March, it was in Bengaluru. With water levels in our centrally monitored reservoirs at a five-year low, districts across 16 states face extreme shortages, even as extended spells of heat waves become frequent along with erratic and less-than-normal monsoon rains.

Strict policing, severe fines, states taking other states to court for water—these highlight the desperation. There seems to be no sustainable solution. But the crisis has not been created in a day, and therefore requires a strategic multi-faceted response over the long term—from transboundary to regional and local solutions. 

Investments to enhance net water availability, better pricing, metering and regulations are some supply-side responses. A humongous resource-intensive need is for Indian cities to future-proof themselves against such crises.

Also read: ’50 million gallons shortage per day, tanker mafia not the only problem,’ Atishi on how to solve Delhi’s water scarcity

Equally important are demand-side interventions to inculcate an ethos of water conservation. Water is precious and should not be a cause of stress. To ensure as much, we need citizen-centric approaches. Citizens are the ones affected, but they must also be the ones who help solve the scarcity with efficient water use with minimal waste.

Think of nudges: Interventions that leverage behavioural insights can be low-cost or no-cost alternatives. We must nudge city folks to adopt water conservation behaviour and significantly reduce its use. Across the globe, these green 'nudges' are being employed as policy options for conservation and climate action.

What are the insights that could aid in nudging our city folks towards water conservation behaviour?

People tend to judge their own behaviour against what is considered the social norm and often change their behaviour to conform with it. There is a body of evidence that underscores the use of social comparisons for reducing water use and encouraging sustainability. “Three-fourths of our guests reuse the towels" (or some such) is almost a ubiquitous message found across all reputed hotels in the world. 

The message nudges hotel guests towards the desired behaviour, with the prevailing norm underlined for guests to see. Messaging that invokes social norms, such as from resident welfare associations of housing societies saying “80% of residents use buckets and mugs to bathe," or “use tumblers/turn off the tap while brushing/shaving," can potentially drive people to use less water.

Also read: Water level in reservoirs shrinks further to 27% of storage capacity

Turn nudges effective: The closer the nudge is to the action, the better the chance of the desired behaviour being adopted. So, a small sticker saying “close tap while brushing" on a bathroom vanity mirror is more effective in fostering conservation behaviour than a mass TV campaign or hoarding urging the same.

A study by the Centre for Excellence in Change, Chennai, showed the effectiveness of “stickers at consumption point" in water conservation. Or, for that matter, a small sticker on the flush button could potentially halve water usage. The idea is to make the message salient at the point of action or use.

Alterations in how choices are presented can also act as nudges. The classic example is reducing the size of the plate so that people take smaller helpings and thus eat less—a nudge towards healthy eating as well as reduced food waste. A low-flow shower-head can significantly reduce water consumed; a regular shower head has an estimated average flow rate of around 9 litres per minute, which is much too high. 

However, a much better option would be to simply use a bucket and mug with a low-flow tap. A low-waste water purifier is another such idea that can enhance use efficiency. Else, in many cases, almost 3 litres may be wasted forevery litre of water purified. Changes in the choice architecture can result in low water consumption.

Also read: A well-integrated action plan is needed to solve India's water crisis

Make it a people’s movement: From planning, goal-setting and smart metering to using fresh starts, there are a range of other behavioural levers and combinations that can be employed to nudge city dwellers to conserve water.

Yes, the government should do more. But there is a lot that the citizens must do too. The nature, scale and impact of this environmental—rather, existential—crisis necessitates that citizens play a highly active role in solving it. People need to acknowledge themselves as an instrument of change. 

Sustainable solutions require that the conservation tenets of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ are part of our everyday lives. Behavioural nudges can ensure that water conservation is adopted not just in times of scarcity, but it becomes a way of life.

The author is co- founder of Sambodhi, a social impact advisory.

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