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Places where many people gather to work, study or live, and where they do not pay the water bill directly, are magnets for high water consumption.


Blocks of flats, shopping centres, offices and education institutions pose a serious challenge to managing water use, with many interventions weakened by the inability to monitor individual consumption.

This is where behavioural economics can provide valuable insight not only for universities, but any large building or complex.

Our team of resource economics researchers formulated a set of behavioural interventions that are low cost and high impact — they offer a long-term solution for property owners, managers and the municipality, as they specifically target behavioural change.

The Research in Behavioural and Experimental Economics (RiBEE) group believes that this type of strategy will solidly contribute to the water usage reduction fight.

The team’s intervention strategy was based on extensive research this year into water consumption statistics, reasons for water use and behavioural patterns among participants.

Research was conducted at one of the university’s new offcampus residences — the former Summerstrand Inn — and aimed at introducing behavioural change methods to students to help improve their usage patterns.

Through detailed surveys, their baseline analysis concluded that:

• Water consumption, ranging between 180-200L per person per day, was four times the recommendation levels of 50L per person per day.

• Students felt that they had “information overload” where water reduction messages were concerned.

• There was a disconnect between real action and incoming reminders and information.

The survey also revealed that most of the water usage was in laundry, bathing and toilet flushing.

The RiBEE team offered behavioural strategy training in several ways.

These included surveys (providing a cognitive trigger educating and reminding students about the water crisis), poster placement in relevant places, and cognitive trigger stickers at “point of action” spots, such as bathroom sinks or mirrors.

The intervention worked, leading to a per capita water usage reduction from 204L per person to 172L and 99L per person post-intervention in May and June respectively.

We will sustain this water usage “slump” by instituting more interventions, such as personalised mail with updates, stickers at all action points in all rooms, employing a laundry helper to wash clothes, and installing blocks in tub systems.

The survey brought to light some important lessons, which will positively influence the next phase of interventions.

For example, we found that a defining feature in any behavioural intervention was that much was highly dependent on personal introspection for a positive response.

Encouraging people to internalise the idea of “the common good” was key, while the use of both surveys and pointof-action stickers proved efficient as cognitive triggers about water.

Our strategies can be implemented across communities, greatly contributing to a reduction in water usage.

The more we understand about behaviour, the more we can change it.

This article appeared in the Weekend Post (South Africa) on 24 September 2022 ritten by Professor Syden Mishi, an associate professor and acting head of Nelson Mandela University’s Department of Economics.

Contact information
Prof Syden Mishi
Associate Professor
Tel: 0415044607