Woman working to construct a terrace at a Irish Potato farm and cooperative in Ngororero, Rwanda
Irish Potato farm and cooperative in Ngororero, Rwanda constructs terraces to prevent erosion, improve soil & water fertility & facilitate crop production. | Credit: USAID Global Waters

Using Behavior Change to Create Water—and Climate—Solutions

By Alison Howard

USAID’s 2022-2023 Climate Strategy makes it clear that meeting Agency climate goals will require a wide range of people to adopt new behaviors. Successful climate behavior change programming goes beyond raising awareness about the climate crisis; programs will need to take a holistic approach by also providing people with the tools to help them change their behaviors. USAID uses evidence from the latest research on behavior change to inform human-centered climate solutions across sectors—including in water security, sanitation, and hygiene (WSSH). 

WSSH programming presents a high-impact opportunity to improve human well-being while fighting the climate crisis. A key takeaway from the 2022 brief, Climate-Resilient, Low-Emissions Water Security and Sanitation in USAID's Water and Development Technical Series is that water solutions are climate solutions. 

Climate-fueled droughts, floods, and storms add stress to water systems, disproportionately affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. Today, 3.6 billion people live in areas that lack secure access to water for at least one month every year. Estimates suggest this number could be more than 5 billion by 2050. 

The challenges are not only limited to water. The sanitation sector is estimated to contribute at least 10 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and ineffective wastewater treatment releases especially potent methane and nitrous oxide. Combining safe wastewater treatment and other abatement strategies, especially in low- and middle-income countries where 80 to 90 percent of wastewater is not collected or treated, could drastically reduce this footprint.  

Behavioral solutions, when coupled with governance and other systems-level interventions, increase both the effectiveness and sustainability of water and sanitation investments—and thus, climate outcomes. The Water and Development technical brief lists behavior change as one of five key building blocks for climate-resilient, low-emissions water security and sanitation, joining policy and regulation; data and analysis; planning, budgeting, and management; and finance. Together, these building blocks provide the underlying foundation needed to create systemic change. 

The brief shares that effective programming must consider the underlying reasons behind the ways people behave, such as community and cultural expectations and economic incentives. Possible behavior change interventions include targeting policymakers to act as climate champions, encouraging utility managers to adopt new operational practices, and introducing household members to new technologies and conservation practices.

The brief also includes an example from the USAID Lebanon Water Project. The project team supplemented partnerships with public water utilities to improve water management with behavior change interventions. For example, the project helped grantee Qobaiyat Agricultural Cooperative install water drip irrigation systems in the water-scarce country. 

“Now all they need to do is open and close a valve,” said Tony Raad, head of the Qobaiyat Agricultural Cooperative. As a less labor-intensive system, the intervention has helped farmers increase their yields while adopting more climate-friendly practices, all by turning a valve.

In addition to helping farmers adopt water-efficient irrigation techniques, the activity upgraded water meters (enabling consumers to better track their water use) and used market incentives to encourage the industrial sector to recycle and conserve water. 

Resources like the USAID Water and Development Technical Series, which is available in full on GlobalWaters.org, provide the latest research and recommendations to enhance activity design, implementation, and monitoring. For example, Social and Behavior Change for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene details key terms and processes for developing evidence-based WSSH programming. Gaining insights into social and behavior change can further enhance USAID’s effectiveness in executing the Agency’s Climate Strategy across sectors, including in WSSH programming.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration
Climate-Resilient Agriculture, Climate Change Integration, Climate Strategy, Systems Change, Water and Sanitation, Water Management
Headshot of Alison Howard

Alison Howard

Alison Howard is a Communications Associate at Environmental Incentives. She provides writing, editing, and other communications support to several USAID-funded projects, including the Advancing Capacity for the Environment program.

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