World Water Day 2022: Three CEGA Projects Improving Access to Water through Community-Driven Interventions
Alix Schoback is CEGA’s Communications Intern. In this post, she details three CEGA projects that have improved community access to clean, safe water and sanitation in recognition of World Water Day 2022.
Every year, World Water Day is an opportunity to celebrate water and draw attention to the two billion people globally who live without access to safe water. One goal of this day of recognition is to inspire action toward achieving the UN’s sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): water and sanitation for all by 2030.
Access to water and sanitation intersects many of CEGA’s research sectors — including our Agriculture, Health & Psychology, and Technology sectors. At CEGA, we support research that addresses complex health, economic, and social challenges and has the potential to improve lives, especially for the most vulnerable people.
Below, we highlight three CEGA-supported projects that increase access to safe water and facilitate adaptation to extreme weather events, and ask researchers how local communities — those acutely impacted by limited access to safe water and sanitation and/or most vulnerable to flooding — shaped their research design.
Improving chlorination practices using the Safe Water Optimization Tool
Imran Ali, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies and grant recipient of the Development Impact Lab (DIL), co-managed by CEGA, was first motivated to develop the Safe Water Observation Tool (SWOT) while working in settlements of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in South Sudan. As an engineer working with Doctors Without Borders, Ali was tasked with managing water and sanitation infrastructure, in the face of Hepatitis E and diarrheal disease outbreaks exacerbated by rainy season floods. Ali soon realized that existing chlorination levels, based on standards for conventional water systems, were inadequate — allowing waterborne illnesses to spread through recontamination. Guidelines failed to account for lag time between water distribution and consumption, during which chlorination declined — spurring water recontamination, especially in refugee and IDP settlements.
In response, Ali developed the Safe Water Optimization Tool (SWOT) — an open-source tool that estimates point-of-consumption chlorination targets by applying machine learning to water quality data. SWOT accurately predicts instances of low chlorination, generating crucial data to improve health conditions for refugees and IDPs.
Essential to the success of SWOT are water system operators, who visit refugees and IDPs in their homes in order to collect water quality data for analysis. By design, these aid workers are engaged with populations in need and responsive to their challenges.
According to Ali, working alongside those directly impacted by the research has informed several iterations: “We have learned a lot from being close to people and understanding the challenges they face and their preferences. For instance, we learned that chlorine taste and odor is a concern for many people so we are creating processes in the SWOT that can help accommodate these preferences.”
Ali learned first-hand that community engagement is crucial to limiting water recontamination and illness. As an open source tool, SWOT can be used by local, community-based organizations and users are supported as they implement forecasts into existing water quality infrastructure, maximizing scalability.
Tackling extreme weather with Swarna-Sub1 in India
As climate change exacerbates the likelihood of heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather patterns, smallholder farmers increasingly face lower crop yields, to the detriment of their incomes and quality of life. Scientists have developed drought and flood-tolerant crops — but in the face of climate risks, farmers hesitate to invest in improved seeds and other technology, due to perceived lower payoff.
With funding from the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative, co-led by CEGA and J-PAL, affiliated professors Alain de Janvry and Elisabeth Sadoulet evaluated the effect of Swarna-Sub1, a flood-tolerant rice variety, on both rice yields and farmer behavior in Odisha, India. They found that Swarna-Sub 1 effectively doubled farmers’ yields, and that marginalized farmers whose land had been pushed to flood-prone plains disproportionately benefited from the technology. Since their initial evaluation, de Janvry and Sadoulet have expanded this research to examine how community engagement can further crop yield and income stability in instances of water excess and scarcity.
Coauthor Kyle Emerick (Tufts University) explained the impact of engaging local stakeholders: “Local communities can also play a role in effectively disseminating information [about improved seeds]. In fact, flood-tolerant rice is adopted more when local agrodealers are given an opportunity to learn about it with information and seeds for testing. Providing these same services directly to select farmers is less impactful.”
This finding holds true among agriculture technology adoption more broadly and suggests that working within existing social structures is a powerful way to support smallholder farmers and improve resilience to climate change. The success of this research in doubling farmers’ expected gains has led to the Government of India investing heavily in the scaling of improved rice varieties in an effort to reach ten million farmers.
Understanding water rights in Kenya
Through a randomized evaluation in Kenya, CEGA Faculty Co-Director Edward Miguel and coauthors assessed the health impacts of spring water protection — where a naturally occurring spring is run through a pipe to prevent contamination — given communal resource governance. Researchers found that spring protection significantly decreased E. coli levels, in both source water and water consumed at the household level. Moreover, water protection also generated spillover effects for water consumption at the household level.
While property rights institutions are widely considered critical for economic growth, many communities govern water communally, as a result of social norms and formal laws. Because Kenyan customs require public access to water sources on private lands, land owners do not have strong incentives to improve water sources. Accordingly, Miguel and coauthors simulated gains to public health under private property rights in their evaluation. As compared to existing communal governance structures, they found that the imposition of private property rights would result in limited additional improvements to health outcomes. However, private property rights might have greater impacts in areas with increased water scarcity or higher incomes.
Unique natural resource governance structures may be necessary in different community circumstances and policymakers would benefit from carefully considering informal governance systems when looking to improve access to clean water.