Avoiding a water crisis, one nudge at a time

Professor Martine Visser grew up on a farm and has always loved being in nature, but also understood from early in her life that there would always be challenges with water shortages, where communities and farmers must share a common water resource for their livelihoods.

This motivated her initial decision to study geology, but she became increasingly interested in the interactions between humans, economic activity and the environment. She is acutely aware of the complexity of problems involving local and global commons and in particular, the biggest social dilemma we as a species have ever confronted: climate change.

This inspired her to enrol for a master’s in economics with a focus on environmental economics at UCT, after which she did a PhD in economics at Gothenburg University in Sweden, specialising in environmental and behavioural economics.

Now the director of the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town and holder of the Research Chair of the African Climate Development Initiative, Visser led the EPRU team in collaborating with the water demand management department in the City of Cape Town to introduce behavioural nudges to motivate water savings.

Funding for the first phase of the project was sourced through a grant from South Africa-Norway Research Co-operation on Climate Change, the Environment and Clean Energy, which covered the groundwork of conducting extensive focus groups to understand societal dynamics that were affecting water consumption. The ERPU then set out to design and roll out an intervention across 400 000 Cape Town households that was evaluated through a randomised control trial.

Following the success of the collaboration and nudge intervention, further funding was sought from the municipality and water research commission to enable a second phase of the project that aimed to institutionalise the learnings from the initial engagement, and to build capacity within the city to undertake similar initiatives in future. This turned out to be a particularly vital part of the project, as it was during this period that the water crisis was at its peak.

Visser’s close relationship with the city during the height of the crisis enabled the ERPU to provide strategic guidance and analysis of the drought interventions formulated by the city, such as personal letters sent to high consumption households, as well as to collaborate on the design of new interventions, such as the Cape Town Water Map.

Extensive, sustained tracking and in-depth analysis over thousands of Cape Town households tracked the affect of events taking place around the drought, such as changes to the tariffs, the introduction of water restrictions and PR campaigns, and the findings were shared with the city to enable decision-making on where to direct future efforts.

Visser oversaw all aspects of this extensive, multi-faceted research engagement. She was responsible for sourcing funding from multiple local and international sources for both phases of the project, obtaining buy-in from a variety of stakeholders inside and outside of government and ensuring that academic and municipal timelines and requirements were adhered to.

From a research perspective, she steered the design of the intervention, the methodology and analysis of data, and created policy guidelines from the findings to enable the city to apply the learnings at a wider scale in the future.

The behavioural interventions implemented for this project resulted in reductions in water usage of between 15% and 26%.

In 2017/2018, she also worked closely with associate professor Thinus Booysen from Stellenbosch University on a collaboration between the respective universities, the Western Cape Government and Shoprite involving behavioural nudges and the installation of smart water meters in 354 schools in Cape Town. This work was a flagship social engagement event for the EPRU research unit, and over 360 megalitres of water has already been saved in the year that it has been operational.

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