Water, Water, Actually not Everywhere

Fact: Namibia is dry. Very dry. Especially for many of the isolated rural communities, water is an extremely limited resource and will present an immense struggle in the not-so-distant future. Rain is rare and sporadic The unpredictability of climate change combined with the desertification caused by unsustainable farming practices makes for a challenging environmental situation.

On a public poster in Windhoek

What I love about water-education at NaDEET is the way that it’s so entrenched in social psychology. (Actually, I’ve been designing studies right and left for tons of things here…it’s that Envi-Psychology connection I keep taking about!)

As I mentioned in the last post, Sustainable Living Teams (SLT’s) work together to manage their water usage. Each group of 4-8 has a full 150 liter water tank in their bathroom at the start of the week. Over the following days, they must work together as a group to decide how they want to divide their water between showering (bucket showers!!), washing, teeth brushing, etc. Every 24 hours, we monitor how much water has been used and all the groups come together to compile our data and graph it (this is a GREAT math application for the school kids). 

The first day of the audit is always a bit of a surprise. Everyone knew it was coming, but they have no sense of what an appropriate water use should be. There’s always one SLT that uses way more water than the rest. One idea was to make some sort of recycled Water Waster Hats of Shame (THAT would teach them), but that idea wasn’t too popular with the staff as a whole; we’re trying to avoid public humiliation here at NaDEET.

The water monitoring twist: each group also has access to solar-heated water…but they share the spigot and meter with one other group. This creates an AMAZING “diffusion of responsibility” type of effect. As opposed to the cold water tank--which holds the individual team clearly accountable--the hot water spigot provides no real way of knowing how much water each of the two teams use.

I’ve observed a similar pattern between Audit Day 1 and 2. Nearly every time, groups’ cold water use decreases and their hot water use increases. Partly, it may be due to the fact that they’re actually taking bucket showers now (sometimes they’re intimidated on day 1).

A staff member models the bucket showers

Or it could be that they see there is no need to “deprive” themselves by showering with cold water; since the hot water is passively warmed by the sun, it has no extra “cost.” However, I’m convinced that the main reason comes from people getting clever--they realize that if they use the hot water, the blame can’t be as clearly linked to them. They can use more water and then try to pin the increased consumption on the other group…and there’s no sort of evidence to prove anything either way.

Diffusion of responsibility, Tragedy of the Commons -- different names (and, admittedly, nuanced differences in meaning too), but the same general idea of the inevitable challenges that come with community. How can you hold people accountable and inspire responsible/sustainable behavior when there’s no real way of monitoring them? This is one of the fundamental dilemmas of the environmental movement. How can you create a paradigm shift that’s sustained by internal motivation and not a Big Brother fear or system of external rewards? Or maybe Big Brother/rewards are not so bad?

Interestingly enough, last year at NaDEET there was only ONE hot water spigot for all participants to share. Since the installation of semi-private spigots, average water use per person decreased from 20 liters a day to only 16.  I bet that if they installed one for each team, the water use would decrease even more, with the increased accountability.

One thing on my mind, though...I really love the whole bucket shower thing (and solar cooking, etc.), but I suspect that's because it's so new to me. It's like a challenge, but in the back of my mind I know that, ultimately, I'm going back to a place where I will have reliable access to gas and electric appliances and hot, high-pressure showers. I like to think that I could solar cook and bucket shower forever, but I also know that I'm not about to install a bucket shower in a home with a well-functioning 'normal shower.' I would like to construct a solar cooker! (Yet, I know it won't be quite as practical without the abundant sun that Namibia has...) I think, ultimately, that what I'm going to try to take away from this is an awareness of the minimal resources that I actually need to get by, and the powers of accountability, transparency and always finding ways to make a small difference.