A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change

New research by Oxford DPhil applies cultural theory of risk to waterpoint management in rural Kenya.

On May 24, Johanna Koehler, a doctoral student at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, had the honour of presenting her DPhil work at this year’s Mary Douglas Seminar at University College London’s Department of Anthropology.

This annual seminar brings together the scholars from across the world working on cultural theory and provides the opportunity to discuss four pieces of research in depth over the course of two days. This event is held in memory of Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007), an innovative social theorist particularly remembered for her contributions to the anthropological analysis of cosmology, consumption and the analysis of risk perception.

This year’s seminar explored “How can rival institutions cohabit? Plurality and settlement in social relations, policy making and the state”.

Johanna presented parts of her doctoral research which applied Mary Douglas’ cultural theory of risk to waterpoint management in rural Kenya, the findings of which can be found in a paper co-published with Steve Rayner, Jacob Katuva, Patrick Thomson and Rob Hope in the May issue of Global Environmental Change.

The following is a brief based on this research.

A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change

Rural water sustainability is a global challenge as policy often separates communities from the state and markets. This study explores institutional relationships combining government, communities and the market in a pluralist arrangement. Testing this approach in rural Kenya, results indicate pluralism may produce more sustainable outcomes and create value in operational and financial performance.

Key Contributions
Global progress towards the goal of universal, safely managed drinking water services will be shaped by the dynamic relationship between water risks, values and institutions. The contribution of this work is a theoretical and empirical case to consider pluralist institutional arrangements that enable risks and responsibilities to be re-conceptualised and re-allocated between the state, market and communities to create value for rural water users. Risks are reduced through networking different management cultures at scale in a pluralist arrangement in the form of a professional maintenance service provider. This research draws on Mary Douglas’ cultural theory of risk, which argues that there are four cultures along the grid (social regulation) and group (collective representation) axes (Fig. 1).

These apply to waterpoint management as follows:

  • Community-managed waterpoints are most common in the rural water sector – promoted since the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, 1981-1990.
  • The individualist culture includes privately owned waterpoints, whose owners sometimes engage in entrepreneurial activities. It also comprises self-supply approaches.
  • The bureaucratic culture is composed of waterpoints managed by schools, clinics and religious institutions.
  • The fatalist culture includes user groups around waterpoints with a long-term management failure, whose members have turned to alternative sources.

Individually, each culture often struggles to establish a reliable and cost-effective maintenance arrangement. A key insight is that pooling individual waterpoint risks at scale in a pluralist maintenance service provider can allow the local waterpoints to retain their management structure.

Fig. 1. Reframing cultural theory for waterpoint management (Koehler et al., 2018)

Policy Recommendations

  1. Performance-based contracts link communities with a maintenance service provider operating at scale and reducing downtimes to less than three days. Mobile monitoring and payments can increase accountability in rural water services.
  2. Water legislation for rural water services should take pluralist arrangements into account, which support market approaches in addition to community management and ensure local government support and coordination of rural water sector activities.
  3. Pluralist arrangements provide the potential to link informal rural water institutions with formal water regulation. Since fatalists may be excluded from the pluralist arrangement, oversight and social protection schemes are important to ensure no one is left behind.

Fig. 2. A pluralist institutional network to recognise cooperative management cultures (Koehler et al., 2018)

The cultural theory framework is empirically tested drawing on a longitudinal study of 3,500 households in coastal Kenya, an area that typifies the challenges faced across Africa in providing rural communities with safely managed water.

If you would like to learn more or cite this research, please refer to the journal article:

Koehler, J., Rayner, S., Katuva, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2018). A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change. Global Environmental Change 50, 268-277.

Contact: Johanna Koehler, University of Oxford, johanna.koehler@ouce.ox.ac.uk

The corresponding author is a DPhil scholar supported by the Oxford University Clarendon Fund. This research was also supported with funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council for the ‘Mobile payment systems to reduce rural water risks in Africa’ project, the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the UK Department for International Development for the UPGro programme on ‘Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development’ and the UK Department for International Development for the ‘REACH: Improving water security for the poor’ programme.

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