What does behavioural science have to do with safe water interventions?

Over half of the world’s population lack safely managed sanitation services, while at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces (WHO, 2017). This causes diarrhoeal disease which is responsible for the death of around half a million children under the age of 5 each year (WHO, 2017). Without the adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions in place, risks of contamination are everywhere, and practices that pose a risk to health become highly prevalent. Examples include drinking faecally-contaminated water, storing water in contaminated containers, handling drinking water with dirty hands, or defecating near water sources.

In much of the developed world, the infrastructure is such that water and sanitation are no longer serious problems. Opening a tap provides instant and almost unlimited access to clean water; flushing is all we need to do to get rid of bodily waste. Where the infrastructure is poor or non-inexistent, however, there is a lot of ‘doing’ that needs to happen; water needs to be fetched, boiled (or otherwise treated) and adequately stored, often on a daily basis, if illness is to be avoided effectively. Even when water purifying technologies are available, preventative actions still need to be taken, such as cleaning or fixing the machinery as required, keeping the room clean, handwashing with soap before handling treated water, or using contamination-free cups and containers.

It is when people are expected to take frequent and careful action that trouble arises. Water and sanitation may not be of concern to you, but imagine if you had to continually light a fire and boil water before you can drink, or if you had to walk and queue every time you needed to use a shared toilet, or if you had to empty a septic tank every so often. Physical activity and eating habits are likely to be more familiar examples to many of us. To lead a healthy lifestyle, too, there is not yet a button or tap that we can press or open in order to keep us on the right track with little effort.

To understand why behaviour change is so difficult, the science of behaviour analysis provides a useful framework. Behaviours are followed by certain events – consequences – which are a key factor in the study of behaviour. Certain consequences have a strengthening or reinforcing effect on behaviour (they are the ‘reasons’ why people keep engaging in them). A problem arises when the consequences of certain healthy actions are delayed or not obvious, especially if they cannot be seen with the naked eye as in the case of faecally-contaminated water, or indeed COVID-19. How to ‘remind’ people of those invisible dangers, and how to reinforce their safe practices, are some of the questions asked in behaviour analytical interventions.

In this presentation, we will talk about the role of the Behaviour Analysis team in SAFEWATER (grant ref: EP/P032427/1; https://www.safewater-research.com/), a project that brings together researchers from different fields the with aim of developing, implementing and testing low-cost water treatment technologies for rural communities in Mexico and Colombia. Based at Ulster University (UU), the project is a partnership between academia and NGOs in Mexico (Cantaro Azul) and Colombia (Universidad de Medellín & Centro de Ciencia y Tecnología de Antioquia (CTA)) and Brasil (Universidade de São Paulo). Taking part in this presentation will be Samuel Ginja (UU), Ane Galdos (Cantaro Azul, Mexico & UU) and Catalina Herrera (CTA, Colombia & UU), who will talk about their work in studying and changing WASH behaviour within SAFEWATER and beyond, and their experience of working in remote rural areas in Latin America.

This online presentation will take place on Thursday the 12th of November at 4pm. Book your free tickets here…


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