This study evaluated a rapid and relatively inexpensive programme to increase transparency on water quality in Ecuador. The intervention aimed to improve water treatment, management and storage at the household level in the context of oil related contamination.
Globally, 30 per cent of the tropical rainforests overlap with conventional hydrocarbon reserves. The Amazon rainforests are an example where hydrocarbon extraction coincides with unparalleled cultural diversity and ecological wealth. More specifically, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, there is strong evidence of the impact of severe oil related and other water pollution on health of populations living in the areas surrounding oil extraction. There is a need to find alternative ways to minimise the health effects of the environmental impacts of oil extraction. One rapid and cost-effective approach would be to achieve a set of behavioural changes that limit communities' exposure to toxicity. This study evaluates one such rapid intervention.
The key evaluation question is whether the group receiving the intervention would adjust their behaviour and reduce exposure to contaminated water in the face of better and credible information on water quality. This is captured through observing the outcomes such as the share of respondents that boil, chlorinate, and/or clean the rainwater harvesting system.
One of the key features of the intervention studied here is providing credible information on water contamination and the associated health hazards in the context of oil spills in the region. The study team and the implementing agencies organised workshops on water treatment, handling and storage which were preceded by the collection and testing of water samples. The water quality results were also shared with the treatment group at the workshops. This was followed?up by the distribution of a report concerning water quality and a short video to communicate the rationale and practicalities of improved water management practices.
Theory of change
The intervention was based on the assumption that access to water quality data, information on the effects of polluted water on human health and social pressure, among other factors, would lead to behavioural changes. Therefore, the hypothesis was that the information on drinking water quality, coupled with information on the health risks associated with consumption of contaminated water will inform and shape individual preferences, cognition and behaviour leading to the choice of treating water. The expected outputs of the intervention were increase in boiling water, using chlorine, and/or cleaning the rainwater harvesting systems regularly.
Of the 60 communities included in the study sample, 31 communities were randomly selected to receive the treatment and the remaining 29 communities received only information regarding the water quality. Water testing to detect coliforms and E. coli had been carried out taking three samples from three water sources per treatment community. Results from the water source testing indicated widespread biological contamination.
The results show little impact on behavioural changes on the treatment group except for boiling water in the last 12 months in very modest absolute terms. The study cites insufficient intensity and duration of the intervention, and structural barriers to behavioural change as the reason for lack of impact. One of the key learnings of the study is that providing scientific facts (transparency) alone is not sufficient to induce choices that result in improved health and safety outcomes.