Lorenzo, P, 2018. Behavioral responses to information on contaminated drinking water: randomised evidence from the Ecuadorian Amazon, 3ie Grantee Final Report. New Delhi: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)
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This study evaluates a rapidly implemented and relatively inexpensive programme to increase transparency on water quality that can improve water treatment, management and storage at the household level in Ecuador. The study evaluated whether the treatment group would adjust their behaviour to reduce exposure to contaminated water in the face of better and credible information. They assessed outcomes on share of respondents that boiled, chlorinated, and/or cleaned the rainwater harvesting system.
In the Ecuadorian Amazon, there is strong evidence of severe oil-related and other water pollution impacts on the health of populations living in the areas surrounding oil extraction. There is a need to find alternative ways to minimise the health effects of the environmental impacts of oil extraction. One rapid and cost-effective approach would be to bring about a set of behavioural changes that limit communities’ exposure to toxicity. This study evaluates one such rapid intervention.
The key evaluation question is whether the treatment group would adjust their behaviour to reduce exposure to contaminated water in the face of better and credible information.
One of the key features of the intervention was providing credible information (transparency) on water contamination and health hazards in the context of oil spills. The workshops on water treatment, handling and storage, were preceded by the collection and testing of water samples, and included sharing of credible scientific results with the treatment group. The intervention therefore provided information on water quality from several sources at the level of the specific community. This was followed up by the distribution of a report concerning water quality, and a short video to communicate the rationale and practicalities of improved water management practices. Another feature of the intervention was the ‘guided participation’ process that concluded each workshop.
Theory of change
The intervention was predicated on the premises that access to water quality data, information on the effects of polluted water on human health and social pressure (among other factors), would lead to behavioural changes. Therefore, the hypothesis was that information on drinking water quality, coupled with information on the health risks associated with consumption of contaminated water, will inform and shape individual preferences, cognition and behaviour, which would then lead to the choice of treating water. The expected outputs of the intervention were boiling water, using chlorine, and/or cleaning the rainwater harvesting systems regularly.
Of the 60 communities included in the sample, 31 communities were randomly selected to receive the full treatment, while the remaining 29 communities received only information regarding their water quality. Water testing to detect coliforms and E. coli was carried out taking three samples from three sources within treatment community and the results suggested widespread biological contamination.
The results show little impact on behavioural changes in the treatment group, except for boiling water in the last 12 months in modest absolute terms. The reasons for the lack of impact were insufficient intensity and duration of the intervention, along with structural barriers to behavioural change. One of the key learnings of the study is that providing ‘scientific facts’ (transparency) alone is not sufficient to induce choices that result in improved health and safety outcomes.