Why understanding the behavioural dimensions of adapting to water insecurity is so important


By Declan Conway and Kate Gannon

Originally published on the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute website.

Achieving water security is a major challenge to address as we tackle climate change. This is part of the adaptation agenda, and in many water-stressed parts of the world there need to be improvements in decision-making around water resources to make adaptation more effective and equitable in policy and practice.

The Grantham Research Institute is involved in a new project called ‘BASIN’ that aims to draw insights from behavioural and psychological sciences to improve decision-making in this area. Recognising that barriers and opportunities exist at multiple scales, the project will examine adaptation behaviours and practices from the individual level to the more systemic, organisational and political levels. Such a focus on behaviour, particularly in sub-Saharan African contexts where water insecurity is still widespread, is long overdue.

What is meant by water security?

Access to water still varies dramatically around the world, from simply turning on a nearby tap to needing to walk, queue for and carry water, sometimes over long distances, and often drawing from unreliable or unsafe supplies that can cause serious illness. Water can also pose a threat through flooding, one of the most damaging and deadly climate-related hazards globally. All these aspects are encompassed in the concept of water security, which recognises the need for a reliable supply of safe water and an acceptable level of protection against water-related hazards.

Globally, millions of people experience water insecurity. For example, 771 million people lack basic safe and reliable drinking water. While concentrated development efforts to improve water security have led to sub-Saharan Africa seeing the biggest increase in availability of improved drinking water, the region is still vastly off-track to meet the Sustainable Development Goal on water, with only 37% of the region’s population expected to enjoy safely managed drinking water by 2030 at current rates of progress. The human suffering these figures represent underscores the need to urgently accelerate progress towards water security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Climate change threatens progress on water security

Water insecurity is a major pathway through which climate change impacts humanity; strengthening water security, meanwhile, builds resilience so climate change impacts can be better tackled, many of which

are likely to manifest through effects on the hydrological cycle and in turn on water security and supplies. Climate change is occurring as a complex mix of slow-onset trends including warming, places becoming on average wetter or drier, changes in rainfall variability, and changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Demand for water and future water security will be determined by a range of influences, both related to climate change (e.g. a need for increased irrigation) and not (e.g. population growth and urbanisation).

While water management systems already have strategies to deal with a certain level of variability and uncertainty (e.g. storage reservoirs, water demand management and flood early warning systems), it is questionable whether these will be sufficient to cope with the pace of water resource change under climate change. There are profound interconnections between physical (hydrological) and social systems around water resources, and human activities both shape and are shaped by water systems. Water insecurity also reflects and reproduces socioeconomic inequalities globally. A focus on technical and engineering solutions alone will therefore be insufficient to address the challenge of achieving water-secure futures for all: the deep and complex drivers of water [in]security must be factored in, which is where giving attention to human behaviour becomes relevant.

A focus on the behavioural dimensions of adaptation for water security is overdue

Adaptation to climate change is fundamentally about behaviour change. While behavioural and psychological sciences have made important contributions in understanding behaviour change, current insights have limited application in sub-Saharan Africa as they draw primarily from Western societies.Additionally, these approaches have seen limited application in water research. This forms the premise for the BASIN project, which aims to explore the contribution behavioural and psychological sciences can make to enhancing equitable and climate resilient water security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Behavioural and psychological science has made substantial gains in understanding how to encourage prosocial (voluntary actions that benefit others) and pro-environmental behaviour. Sub-fields such as environmental psychology and psychology for sustainability have highlighted the importance of, among other things: understanding and overcoming cognitive biases; the need to provide nuanced information to address a lack of concern or action; the role of framing to increase personal relevance; and the role of emotion and potential of positive emotions to motivate positive behaviour change. Recognising the potential of behavioural interventions, the UK and US governments established behavioural insights teams around 2010.

In reviewing research for the design of BASIN, we identified several areas of water research that feature behavioural and psychological approaches: notably, in water conservation, water quality (including drinking and bottled water), climate change impacts and mental health (often related to flood- and drought-associated stress). But behavioural approaches are sometimes agnostic in relation to politics, power and gender, so consideration of root causes or barriers to action is often absent in behaviour-focused water sector interventions. While these factors form a strong presence in water governance research that aims to address water insecurity, that research lacks consideration of behavioural and psychological factors.

Bridging these gaps offers fertile ground for BASIN. For example, approaches such as political economy analysis that examines how formal and informal institutions interact to establish the ‘rules of the game’ and so shape behaviour could make greater space for individuals in these processes. Earlier work in Malawi and Tanzania has shown the importance of national leadership and funding from international donors in driving climate change adaptation policy and institutional frameworks, and the degree of attention given to the issue. By considering how individual roles propagate ideas and resource allocation decisions we can promote action to address barriers to action at the institutional level.

Our project case studies will consider behavioural factors across individual and organisational levels, for example:
Strengthening resilience to climate extremes, including local flood adaptation and behaviour in marginalised communities. This will draw on concepts about how threats are perceived (including how they are communicated), and factors influencing behaviour, by taking into account whether available measures are effective and affordable to implement. This recognises that to understand behavioural responses established factors such as risk perception, income and gender need to be complemented by perceived effectiveness and costs of methods, alongside factors such as fatalism, denial and wishful thinking.

Using organisational theories to examine how multi-level governance can enhance climate resilience at the level of the river basin and national organisations. Organisations provide direct (extrinsic) motivational influences, as they impact staff motivation and decision-making through various avenues like policies, infrastructure, leadership and informal relationships. But climate change also requires intrinsic motivation: the agency, motivation and capacity of staff to implement new approaches. Yet bureaucratic institutions, such as governments, can be hierarchical, which may result in failure to motivate staff to be proactive. Institutional inertia can also result from the influence of leaders who affect the perceptions of organisation staff. Adaptation requires both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to enhance adaptive capacity and drive adaptive action.

Access and inclusion are crucial to achieving water security for all

We cannot make progress on water security without addressing its physical and human dimensions together; water needs to be present in safe amounts and quality, and reliably accessible by all. Accessibility requires effective provision, allocation, management and pricing of water resources – all of which are strongly influenced by social and political values. The BASIN project frames water security in an actively inclusive way – integrating gender, equality and inclusion – through political analysis and by considering how people’s diverse identities shape risk perceptions, behavioural preferences and barriers to behaviour change. BASIN will examine how institutional practices (re)produce inequality, and how more inclusive water security and equitable adaptation can be supported.

Next steps

In a world where access to water remains highly unequal, making progress on water security that is inclusive could benefit from greater behavioural and psychological research application while recognising the importance of failures in governance, which often lie at the root of water insecurity.

Over the coming three years BASIN will apply and test insights through case studies where our NGO partners are addressing cases of critical climate-water challenges in Burkina Faso, Malawi and Tanzania. All three countries have experienced damaging major flood and drought events since the mid-2000s and climate variability is projected to increase, with higher frequency and intensity of extremes.

Photo by Jade Zhao