Principal Investigators: Francisco Alpízar, Maria Bernedo, Paul Ferraro
Country: Costa Rica

Dates of Intervention: February 2018 - January 2019

Background: In high-income nations or urban areas of developing countries, governments and regulated utilities typically manage and supply water to residents and businesses. In contrast, community-based water management organizations (CBWMOs) are the most important suppliers of water in rural areas of low and middle-income countries globally (Madrigal and Naranjo, 2015). CBWMOs are often regulated by governments, but typically receive little or no government support. They are run by elected citizens and are involved in everything from billing to maintenance of infrastructure to protection of watersheds. We aim to evaluate a new strategy to improve water management and facilitate climate change adaptation in drought-prone areas of low and middle-income nations: provide the CBWMO management committees with internally-created, citizen information that comes from resident diaries that monitor local conditions and communicate these conditions back to the committees. This process of citizen monitoring and communication is hypothesized to improve water management through four mechanisms: (1) enhanced supply of information to the management committee on the real-time conditions of the water supply and water infrastructure; (2) enhanced scrutiny of the management committees’ activities and performance by citizens, (3) greater community interest about the water system and the management performance, (4) enhanced scrutiny of citizens actions. Using a mixed-method approach that includes randomized controlled trials and survey methods, the project aims to: (1) provide evidence about the institutional and environmental impacts of the monitoring treatment, as well as their moderators and mechanisms; (2) estimate the cost-effectiveness of the monitoring treatment as a tool for water management and adaptation; and (3) disseminate the results to local, national and global stakeholders who are working to address water scarcity and climate-change adaptation. The ultimate goal of the project is to help develop evidence-based solutions to water scarcity and climate change challenges, with an emphasis on solutions that can be implemented by rural communities and facilitated by national governments and non-governmental organizations.

Research Design: We run a randomized controlled trial (RCT) with approximately 150 CBWMOs in arid areas of Costa Rica. The study takes place in the socioeconomic regions of Chorotega, Pacífico Central and Huetar Norte in Costa Rica. We target CBWMOs in rural communities that (1) pump water from underground sources, (2) are located in areas that comprise the lowest five deciles of rainfall in Costa Rica (by average annual precipitation in last five decades), and (3) express interest in participating in the program. In these communities, water scarcity is an increasingly salient problem and locally-resolved climate modeling suggests the droughts in this region will be more frequent and of longer duration in the future (Imbach et al., 2015). From a list of over 200 CBWMOS, we sort the names in random order and will call CBWMO contacts sequentially. Our objective is to contact the main members of the CBWMO committee, i.e. the President, the Vice-president or the Treasurer of the CBWMO. In the phone call, we will describe the project (the treatment), ask the committee member if their CBWMO would be willing to participate, and conduct the baseline survey to all the CBWMOs so that we can characterize the CBWMO that chose not to participate. We will inform the CBWMOs willing to participate that we can afford to train monitors in only a group of CBWMOs and that we will contact them again to notify them if they were selected. Once we have confirmed the participation of at least 150 CBWMOs (up to 200), we will stratify them by district (geographic unit), by decile of electricity consumption in 2017, by the number of water connections served and by participation in programs to improve management abilities. We will then randomize half of the CBWMOs into treatment and call all CBWMOs to inform them of their treatment status. Treatment comprises training three monitors per community in the use of a mobile phone app that allows the user to monitor and report on the attributes of their community water system. There are two mechanisms through which monitors can communicate their monitoring information to the CBWMO management committee members: the monitoring app “SIMA” and a WhatsApp chat. Other citizens can also participate in the WhatsApp chat group.“SIMA” is specially-designed app to submit weekly reports on: (i) the number of days where the service was discontinued, (iii) the maximum amount of hours without the service, (iii) the number of days where water shows some color, (iv) the number of days where water shows a weird taste or smell, (iv) the number and location of new leaks in the pipeline, (v) the number and location of old leaks that have not yet been fully addressed and (vi) problems with other aspects of the public water infrastructure (e.g., unauthorized water uses, informal water connections). To encourage compliance with the monitoring protocol, monitors are paid $3 for every complete weekly report submitted and the total amount earned is paid monthly via a mobile payment (except the first payment, which is paid immediately to demonstrate to the monitors that the payment system works as advertised). The project will save the weekly monitor reports to measure compliance with the monitoring protocol. We will also use these reports to assess the frequency with which leaks are identified and repaired Every week, a computer program uses the information provided by the monitors through the app to create a summary report. This summary report is returned via the app to the CBWMO members, monitors and citizens. The app also allows us to keep track of whether reports are opened by the recipients.


Primary Hypothesis:

  1. The monitoring program reduces a community's groundwater pumping activities, as measured by the electricity consumption of their pumps.

Secondary Hypotheses:

  1. The monitoring program increases the "Degree of Conservation Pricing" (increasing block pricing that reduces water demand and maintains adequate funds for maintenance and investment).
  2. The monitoring program increases the "Institutional Count Metric." The Institutional Count Metric takes into account four of the “best management practices” recommended by the quasi-governmental association that manages CBWMOS (AyA).
  3. The monitoring program increases "Maintenance expenditures" as indicated by three measures of expenditures: plumber work contract (full, part-time or by service), self-reported expenditures in water system maintenance and the number of water quality tests that the CBWMO did in the last year.

Three other secondary hypotheses may be tested. We will also seek to measure six potential moderating variables in all communities: (1) number of CBWMO connections (customers ), (2) the average tenure of the management committee members (in years), (3) the gender composition of the management committee, (4) age of the management committee members (in ranges), (5) CBWMO’s belief about the severity of water scarcity and (6) the participation in the 2015 CBWMO Management Training RCT . The pre-treatment values are suspected of being important moderators of treatment effects, but we will also collect the values post-treatment when to consider whether the variables are potentially affected by the treatment.