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With taps going dry, South African researchers “nudge” people to conserve water

Turn on the water tap in Cape Town, South Africa in March, and nothing will come out. For the Environment for Development researchers at the University of Cape Town, there’s nothing faraway about their work to help the city conserve water during this drought emergency. 

That was the message from Professor Martine Visser during the third keynote speech at the EfD Annual Meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 26-30, 2017.The dams that supply Cape Town are far below normal after three years of drought, explained Visser, and the city is desperately trying to get the message out about water conservation. In addition to the traditional approaches – water restrictions, fines, and price increases – Visser and her team have worked with city water managers on a strategy called “behavioral nudges,” using tariff information, social comparisons, and social recognition to encourage conservation.

Noting that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics has been awarded for “behavioral economics,” Visser explained that prices aren’t the only way to discourage waste of scarce resources. Social norms and social recognition are inexpensive and they aren’t punitive. Her research asks how much impact “green nudges” can have on utility use. In Cape Town city buildings, for instance, University of Cape Town researchers previously found that inter-floor competitions and floor advocates reduced energy consumption by 9-14%.

Could the same logic work now during the emergency? It did one and half years ago, when the first signs of drought appeared. In particular, green nudges reduced consumption by 1%, continuing to have this effect even 15 months after it had been rolled out, not counting the savings due to price changes and mandatory restrictions that were rolled out over this period as the drought escalated. Visser believes that using specific targeted nudges now at the height of the drought could lead to critical reductions in water usage.  

The taps are still projected to run dry, and the city is urgently working on bringing in water supplies, but the University of Cape Town team has demonstrated a tool that shows promising long-term results. Visser’s take home message was that while the government should engage in strategic long-term investment in infrastructure, it should escalate price increases and behavioral interventions in the short run to bring consumption down radically before it is too late.

By: Cyndi Berck


News | 29 October 2017