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SAMJHDAR JAL SEVAK - How can 'thirst' make communities come together to save water?

A project to remember along the foothills of the Himalayas, where we intervened to include our planet's natural resources in humans' everyday decision-making.

That reminding the community about thirst is the key to mobilising them to come together or their changing behaviours to save water - was not obvious early on.

The project objective was: T​o understand the behavioural aspects to springshed management that include socio-cultural aspects of communities in Uttarakhand and Nagaland, across individual, family, community and administrative layers.

Individual layers involved deep diving into the aspirations of the youth, traditional emotional motives and thus their relationship with water and status of women. Family layers included at home habits, role of women, men and children separately. Community layer included water beliefs, cultural norms and influencers. Finally the administrative layer was a deep dive in to the coordination and co-operation between its 3 sub-layers: state level coordination committee, district level coordination committe and and village-level User Water and Sanitation (UWSC) committee headed by the pradhan of the village.

This across two states with diverse geological landscape and contrast cultures. For example, in Nagaland while the water practices may be similar to that of Uttrakhand, the people and their way of lives are diverse: there are still a few hunter gatherer communities, each of the 17 tribal in the study area speak different languages with some commonality to Nagamese. And they do not welcome outsiders attempting to communicate to them in their language., this owing to their lesser exposure.

Most importantly where there is land overlap with that of forest land, in Nagaland communities own the forest land. Whereas in Uttrakhand the forest land is owned by the Forest Department. This is a key consideration that could have implications on the community's sense of ownership.


Understanding this, a team of water experts, SBCC media experts and behavioural science practitioners were brought together. We started with stakeholder mapping, systems interactions, motives and needs were layered. Developed hypotheses from awareness through intent to actions. Conducted activity based FGDs across community members and water experts. Immersed ourselves in ethnographic observations and technical walk throughs.

What we found

There were gaps between current behaviours and desired behaviours. These gaps were created by fragmented awareness about best practices, zero technical awareness, non-aligned, sometimes non-conscious intents between community stakeholders and between communities living upstream and those living downstream. And so the gaps were created by undesirable decisions and behaviours.

Down stream members were blinded to the threat of water shortage by consistent ready access to water - tragedy of the commons. Women and children had more important role to play and they knew that. For they are the doers - from filling to commuting water to storing water. Men are supporters to filling and commuting when under snow. If the spring water dries up at the nearest springs, villagers ghost their village. Next generations reluctantly search for work in the cities, but end up also returning to live in their more familiar and affectively bonded locality. Those in power seek external motivations and incentives to commit to community actions, while others - women community members, upstream villagers and local water experts are intrinsically interested in bettering their water situation.

In this plethora of diverse motives, we stumbled to find a hook to drive our SBCC campaign. Until we searched for an emotional hook.


Our external socio-political-cultural environment and our internal thought patterns, identity and personality help appraise emotions that drive actions.

When there is no awareness about the outcomes of judicious water use or of hygienic practices towards spring management, there is no relevance and hence no directly relating emotions. Instead status quo and cultural norms habituate actions. And so external motivators are sought when non-normative practices are demanded. Especially when the impact of individual actions towards collective outcomes are not well perceived and nature's working are wrongly perceived or are invisible to the naked eye. For example, villagers attributed drying up springs were to reduced rains, And brushed off all and any control they may have in rejuvenating the springs. However what is not visible to the naked eye and so what they have not considered is: Aquifers (in mountains), groundwater (in flat lands), and open springs (in depressions) are all one and the same and act like a joint account. If every one with access to the account continues to draw money without limit, then one day that joint account (aquifer) is bound to dry up. If we follow unhygienic practices on ground, the under ground aquifers and spring lines will become unsanitized and unable to be used. Our actions, individual and collective, also drive outcomes in the natural resources we use and interact with. This is invisible to all.

In this, what can bring villagers with varied motives, to come together as a community to protect the resource they all use?

An easy answer and approach often taken is building awareness. But awareness alone does not drive actions. Merely becoming aware of the interconnected of systems, their dependence on each other and how our individual and collective actions can contribute to shifting systems are not easy to explain, and are topics that are not easily bought in. These are logical reasons. But humans are irrational beings, more so on topics that we are not sufficiently educated in. Emotions inform our decisions.

So the question then is, what emotion could trigger actions towards natural resource conservation and protection?

Affinity mapping and analyses from our qualitative research found one pattern:

"Even if we have only half a glass of water, we share if any other villager asks for water. No one should go thirsty." Villagers repeated this emotion in various forms. What they understood inside-out are the difficulties to accessing water in mountainous areas. And so they live by the principle that that no one in the village should go thirsty. Like fear, thirst to this community was their survival motive.

And so thirst became our primary emotional hook across our SBCC campaign.

Which was layered with:

comfort: the need for effort now, for their desired comfort;

curiosity: counterintuitive messaging and nudges to enable the community to choose actions within their control rather than brushing off all responsibility to natural rains;

play: to demystify nature, its workings and our interlinkages with its sustainability;

affiliation: to bring together all villagers, upstream and downstream, men and women, upper caste and lower caste.

Community and systems level behavioural transformation always require multi-pronged interventions as they involve altering the existing context that is not driving the desired actions. Which is why, even if thirst is a strong survival emotion, additional hooks are embedded for a comprehensive solution approach.

As for the differences between two diverse states of the North-east of India, our behavioural research identified that, since the Nagaland tribes were more conscious in their practices with nature, their emotional hook was not thirst, but 'anticipated thirst'. Their own actions and community practices on water quality and water conservation were favourable. However in the last decade the state witnessed alarming climate change impacts including significantly reduced downpour and reduced harvest. This has direct impact on their earnings and heightens the risk of water scarcity. Making the 'Anticipation of Thirst' a key motive to the Nagaland community. Whereas the Uttrakhand community were presently experience thirst owing their own non-judicious and unhygienic actions.

With this minor change in emotional hook and associated visuals, a successful SBCC campaign was run across the two states and their respective communities.


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