Research highlight

Understanding culture to conserve water

Nature Human Behaviour

August 22, 2017

The way cultural differences impact peoples’ responses to water conservation methods, and how this knowledge could be used to identify more effective interventions tailored for specific national cultures, is reported in a paper published online in Nature Human Behaviour this week.

Groundwater is critical to maintain global food security and millions of rural livelihoods in the face of climate change. The over-exploitation of this resource for agriculture has become a serious concern globally, but little is known about what would encourage groundwater users to comply with conservation policies. Monitoring and enforcing groundwater conservation is time-consuming, costly and politically difficult. Understanding cultural sensitivities is key to planning cost-effective management.

Juan Carlos Castilla-Rho and colleagues modelled farmers’ use of groundwater for crop irrigation in three regions where groundwater extraction control is needed: the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, the Central Valley in California, United States and the Punjab on the India/Pakistan border. They incorporate data on social attitudes to cooperation and rule conformity in the different regions. The results show that strong punitive measures are effective in cooperative cultures (like the Punjab), but much less so in more individualistic cultures (the United States and Australia). The authors find that the most effective intervention for tipping social norms towards groundwater conservation is increasing the number of role-model rule followers in a population, although the number of rule followers required to tip the scale of social acceptability varied strongly between regions. The authors conclude that the same model can be applied to other shared natural resources, such as fisheries and forests.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0181-7

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