How Does Climate Change Effect Rural Water Use and Payment Behavior?

During the MDG era, it was predicted that by the year 2020 more than 250 million Africans will be living in extreme water stress, lacking access to portable water, due to climate change. The prediction was not only true, rather, it was an under-estimation as more than 300 million live without access to clean drinking water, in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Extreme changes in rainfall patterns, temperature hikes and rising sea-levels are the most significant contributing factors to the region’s water insecurity. This calls for immediate, sustainable and adaptive approaches to improve water security, access to drinking water and at the same time avoid over-abstraction of aquifers.

Climate Change in Our Focus Countries

Our focus countries, Ghana and Kenya, are experiencing their fair share of the “wicked” effects of climate change. Ghana is set to suffer extreme water stress by the year 2025, with an exponential decrease of 2.8% to 18.6% in annual rainfall between the years 2020 and 2080. Extreme droughts, particularly in the upper sections of the Volta region and three northern regions, are expected. This is caused by a general reduction in annual river flows by 15-20% for the year 2020 and 30-40% for the year 2050 and a reduction in groundwater recharge of 5-22% for 2020 and 30-40% for the year 2050.

Similar climate change effects have emerged in Kenya, where severe droughts continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Since the 1990’s, the country has experienced four spells of extreme droughts that were declared national disasters in 1997, 2000, 2004, and 2005, mainly owing to irregular and reduced rainfall. Inevitably, such prolonged dry spells diminish the possibility of groundwater recharge in Kenya. Moreover, experts claim that per capita available water is predicted to decrease from 650 m3 to 235 m3 per year by 2025 in the east African country.

Impact on Water Use and Water Payment Behaviors

Water supply alternatives

Naturally, as climate change exasperates unpredictability around the availability of water for daily needs, it leaves a profound impact on water use and water payment behavior among rural communities. Research shows that water use behaviors vary across water supply alternatives, rainfall extremes and economic conditions, all of which are in turn shaped by climate change. Regular wet periods are likely to increase the availability of surface water and allow for rainwater harvesting, decreasing reliance on paid water points, wells and handpumps. This has led experts to claim that water use behavior mirrors rainfall patterns.

Our Kenyan Project Manager John Otieno describes how unpredictable weather patterns are affecting our operations:

“We aim to take seasonality into account when forecasting water sales, but in recent years rainy periods have been highly unpredictable and often completely opposite to the average rainfall statistics that weather experts have collected over the years. In other words, climate change has seriously changed weather patterns, and this requires us to monitor our data even more closely and find solutions to these challenges.”

Alternatively, prolonged dry spells can bring to the fore the importance of “accessibility” and “reliability” of a water source. Evidence from Bangladesh shows that rainfall delays or shorter rainy season can cause water fetching patterns to shift in favor of waterpoints that were previously considered too far off. Therefore, waterpoint density must be mapped to gain insight in effective rural water access to leave no one behind, in particular with increasing occurrence of droughts.

Water needs hierarchy

WASH literature presents overwhelming evidence that water insecurity triggered by climate change sets in motion a prioritization of water needs, often at the expense of women and children within households. Generally, users tend to prioritize consumptive needs such as drinking and cooking, while forgoing personal hygiene practices that requires abundant water. Research conducted in the Ethiopian highlands affirms this pattern, where poorer households with less labor for water collection and fewer storage and transport assets reported a decrease in water use for personal hygiene during dry season. This phenomenon has been succinctly described by John Otieno, our Project Manager in Kenya:

If you live on 5 litres of water a day, you do not think of ‘wasting’ water to wash your hands. You will use it to drink and to cook your food.”

More importantly, women buffer other family members from experiencing water insecurity by forgoing their own share of water. In western Kenya, women cut down on their own water consumption to ensure that male partners had enough water for bathing and drinking. Needless to say, the rationing of their own water needs does not come without physical, emotional and psycho-social costs for women residing in a water insecure life world.

Willingness to pay

WASH experts believe that a behavioral approach in understanding the determinants of willingness to pay in the rural water sector is the most viable to understand this dynamic concept. Simply put, this approach looks into what rural users’ value most in a water provision service and what would motivate them to pay for it. Climate change has a direct impact on the value rural dwellers place on a water point as the variability and unpredictability of prolonged dry spells forces rural users to turn to paid water points, simply because they have run out of alternative water sources. In other instances, willingness to pay for high quality paid water sources may only be restricted for drinking and cooking while communities continue using scarce unimproved sources for washing and bathing purposes during dry spells. Thus, competing needs and broader expenditure preferences shaped by climate shocks also play a role in shaping willingness to pay for water.

Our Environmental Approach

For safe water enterprises like Project Maji, climate change is a puzzling challenge. Not only does it continue to shrink groundwater availability, it requires all entities in the sector to ensure providing clean water to vulnerable populations does not come at the cost of local groundwater depletion. Therefore, we recognize that adverse impacts of climate change already put big pressures on waterscapes and trigger water scarcity, severe droughts, and unpredictability of rainfall as a result of changing weather patterns.

Across all Project Maji sites, we adhere to sustainable groundwater practices, avoiding the risk of over-abstraction to ensure future generations will have access to groundwater. As part of our site selection strategy, we prefer existing aquifers as opposed to drilling new ones. We aim to mechanize borewells with broken handpumps to reach communities currently deprived of a clean water source. A pre-installation pumping test helps us to ensure the extraction does not exceed the replenishment rates.