Behavioural Start to Water Quality Series

This year, the Oxford Water Network is organizing a seminar series on water quality, led by Dr Katrina Charles. The series focuses on the interdisciplinary challenge of achieving safe water quality. Some might think of water quality as a technical subject, focused on how to measure or treat dangerous chemicals or pathogens. Actually, water quality research is much broader and has political, environmental, and behavioural aspects that must be considered. All of which will be taken into account throughout the series this year.

People’s behaviour and water quality in households was the focus of the first talk in the series, given by Dr Robert Dreilbelbis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Because expanding piped water access is expensive and progress is slow, intermediate options for pathogen treatment for household water use have been explored. While these options include filtration, solar disinfection, and purifiers, the most widely used option is simply boiling the water at the point of use. But the bigger issue is not how to clean the water, it’s how to get people to make the effort to clean it. This is where Dr Dreilbelbis’s research comes in.

Very few households that need to improve their water quality make an effort to do so, and previous work on ‘education’ around these issues has not produced significant behavioural change. Dr Dreilbelbis thus wanted to explore how changing a household’s understanding of the threat from their water could impact behavioural change by examining three options of outreach: firstly, just using standard educational messaging; secondly, using education plus laboratory confirmed results for their household water; and thirdly, using education plus providing test kits and training so households could evaluate their own water quality. Behavioural modelling indicates people are most likely to make changes when they feel there is a high threat and they have the agency to take impactful action. This project in rural India found that demonstrating that there was a real threat through either laboratory or at home testing did lead more participants (28-38%) to change their behaviours and use adequate water purification methods. Given the low costs of test kits and how that allows households to participate in the tests themselves, this seems like an effective way forward to improve water quality in households. However, more research is needed to demonstrate what is needed to sustain those changes.