This example demonstrates the importance of decentralised water treatment systems, such as the "Water Wall" developed by Eawag (see article “Autarky – ultimate convenience in a one-stop solution”). In locations where there is no mains water supply, these systems provide user-friendly infrastructure and allow wastewater to be treated in a self-contained cycle and reused for handwashing, for example. “Innovative technologies play a fundamental role, paving the way for key advances in relation to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene,” says Contzen. But they still don’t guarantee progress. “The key question is whether people accept, use and correctly apply these technologies in the first place.” This is where the environmental health psychologist’s research comes in. Since 2019, she has led the Environmental Health Psychology group at Eawag. “We’re interested in the human component. What behavioural patterns and decisions lead humans to put the environment and their health at risk? Are environmental and health risks even perceived as such? What does it take for people to change their behaviour or to accept and use new technologies?”
In the Indian city of Bengaluru, Contzen and her group studied which aspects of psychology play a decisive role in the success of decentralised water technologies. The city’s rapidly growing outlying districts are not connected to the central sewage system, and so decentralised water treatment at the individual building level is stipulated by law. Here, the costs of installing, operating and maintaining the system must be met by the residents themselves. “The perceived benefits – such as the positive impact on the environment or the positive image associated with using a system of this kind – explain the acceptance of these systems best,” says Contzen, summarising the results of a survey of people with and without a decentralised wastewater treatment system. “If you want to promote a system like this, you should therefore focus on highlighting the benefits, rather than on playing down the cost or potential risks.” In other words, cost needn’t necessarily be a barrier to a system’s acceptance. In fact, the greater obstacle is if a technology requires a change in people’s behaviour, as is the case with chlorination in order to disinfect drinking water at the household level, for example. “People first need to buy the chlorine, measure out the right amount, add it to the water, stir the chlorinated water and then leave it to sit for at least half an hour. In other words, it requires you to plan in advance,” says Contzen. It’s an elaborate routine that people first have to learn.
Collaboration leads to better solutions
Eberhard Morgenroth says that it is a significant challenge to develop technologies and procedures that not only ensure perfect water quality but that are also cheap and easy to use – without turning people’s lives upside down. As an environmental engineer at Eawag, Morgenroth accompanied the project in Bengaluru. “The input of social scientists such as Nadja Contzen is extremely important and valuable to us as engineers,” he says. This appreciation is mutual, with Contzen saying that “the interdisciplinary collaboration at Eawag is hugely rewarding.”
Though Contzen might not have revolutionised waste recycling (yet), her research represents an important contribution to the recycling of water, the sustainable handling of this valuable resource, and the improvement of health in the Global South.