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Conserve and manage water

Extreme weather events, population pressure, deforestation and groundwater decline place unprecedented pressure on global water resources today. A large percentage of this accelerated demand comes from an increase in agricultural production, which in turn intensifies pressure on limited resources and endangers livelihoods. Restoring and/or preserving the ecosystem functions of watersheds – systems for managing forests, water and land that can be traced back to the earliest human civilizations – promises an integrated approach to tackling the competing needs of people and the environment. Watershed management unites different land use arrangements and livelihood systems within a single framework. Water is in this sense an ‘entry point’ into reorganizing land use and livelihoods in a sustainable manner, minimizing environmental degradation and biodiversity loss on one hand, and ensuring quality water availability on the other.

Let us go on a 'Behavior-Centered Design' journey and discover how we can promote water conservation and management among farmers, ranchers, and herders.

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Identify the actors, behaviors, and context

Farming practices have historical, social, cultural, and environmental dimensions, which are in turn embedded in a complex macroeconomic milieu of international trade agreements, country specific land tenure arrangements, minimum support price mechanisms, subsidies, and inadequate access to credit.

The ‘Frame’ Step puts the behavior in behavior change by focusing efforts on the behaviors and audiences that will have the most meaningful impact on our goal, the adoption of water conservation and management among small-scale ranchers, herders, and farmers.
There are many ways of understanding farmers’ motivations and barriers to behavior change.

What is the problem?

Sustainable livestock grazing without simultaneous management of dams, canals and reservoirs negatively affects a region’s water supply and larger ecosystem.

Who is contributing i.e., the actors and institutions?

Small-scale ranchers Farming and herding communities

What are the actors doing or not doing i.e., behaviors contributing to the problem?

Overgrazing in high altitude Andean grasslands is degrading the puna ecosystem’s soil, water, and biodiversity, leaving it less resilient to the changing climate and threatening agro-pastoral livelihoods.

What do we want actors to do i.e., the target behavior?

Conserve and manage watersheds

These are the six levers of behavior change. Each lever represents a category of intervention strategies based on evidence-based principles from behavioral and social science. The levers are discrete and able to be “pulled” individually, or in different combinations for different effects, to craft solutions to behavioral challenges.
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Understanding farmers’ motivations and barriers

Match the correct phrases to the question

What are farmers’ values/goals/concerns/interests?
Which emotions are related to the target behavior ‘Conserve and Manage Water’?
Who are farmers' role models? Which social groups or identities are important to them?
With whom do farmers interact for this behavior?
How is the farmer’s decision to adopt this behavior affected by cost, convenience, and/or knowledge of water practices?
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Many challenges intrinsic to agricultural production today are behavioral. Some are more salient in developing contexts, but taken together, they point to the heart of the matter: agricultural challenges are also behavioral challenges.

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What do we know about life on land today?

Click on any box to identify the behavioral insight behind common trends in small-scale rancher and herder behavior.

Small-scale ranchers in developing contexts are less likely to adopt technologies and inputs they haven’t yet encountered or seen peers use successfully.

This is Uncertainty Aversion

The already-precarious nature of land-based livelihoods make ranchers especially averse to more uncertainty in the form of untested (for them) innovations.

Ranchers postpone investing in water conservation and management as a present-day savings measure.

This is Hyperbolic Discounting

The longitudinal effects of overgrazing on water supply are understood but ranchers discount the (slow) future cost of declining groundwater and increased vulnerability to climate change.

The possibility of new practices or inputs failing is experienced more keenly than their potential to succeed.

This is Loss Aversion

This possibility of loss shapes decision making to a greater extent than the (equal) possibility of gain and improvement in life conditions.

Ranchers are reluctant to experiment with new methods, or change their existing ways of doing things, even with the provision of subsidies.

This is Status Quo Bias

Pastoralists, like their farmer counterparts, prefer to stick to what they know. Keeping things the same promises stability in a world that is made deeply unstable by a changing climate, fluctuations in livestock prices, and now, a global pandemic.

Ranchers can selectively turn to instances of failure to justify their rejection of climate smart practices such as, for example, rehabilitation of water storage systems.

This is Confirmation Bias

A tendency to focus on, emphasize, and recall information that confirms prior convictions, and to downplay or ignore information that challenges them.

How ranchers’ peers are practising livestock herding shapes the choices and preferences of the ranching community writ large.

This is Conformity Bias

Predominant social norms push the adoption of practices because humans tend to take cues from the social groups to which they belong for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

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If we change...

Understanding ranchers’ motivations and barriers brings us to the task of building hypotheses. Let us examine our data collected during the ‘Empathize’ step, but this time with a behavioral lens. Which elements, if changed, might take small-scale ranchers and herders closer to adopting water conservation and management practices such as refurbishing traditional watershed systems?

Want a refresher on the behavioral levers?
Behavioral Lever
Behavioral Insights
Material Incentives
Social Influences
Rules and Regulations
Emotional Appeals
Choice Architecture
Potential Behavioral Strategies
Behavioral Insights
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This is a good moment to identify the relationship between program activities and the final outcomes we seek.

This is where you are now, strategizing about possible interventions.

Programs Activities.

Shift in psychological or social changes result from program activities...

Psycho-Social States


...will generate behavioral outcomes

Target Behaviors will consolidate over time to create

Enviromental and Social Outcomes

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If we change [ how pasture management is taught, practised, and supported ], we can create [ community investment ] which in turn will [ promote participation in the development, dissemination, and implementation of pasture management as a key element of water conservation. ].

Building awareness and understanding about water conservation, why it is important, and how to do it is a key behavioral principle. Information helps us identify, learn about, and improve upon our behavior. It can provide a foundation of knowledge that helps us take action.

Learn more about how to build a psycho-social theory of change.

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Solutions from around the world

Pre-Incan Hydraulic Systems are Breathing Life into Peru’s Puna Grasslands

Located in the Nor Yauyos Cochas Landscape Reserve 90 miles east of Peru’s capital Lima, Canchayllo’s ranching community raises sheep, cattle, alpacas, and vicuñas. Their livelihoods, food, and water depend on the alpine grasslands known as the puna. Melting ice and erratic rain patterns have caused the puna to shrink, limiting pasture and forcing herders to overgraze what is left - a set of changes in climate and traditional practices that locals now recognize as serious long-term threats to the puna. After winning an award in the Water Impact category in the global Solution Search: Farming for Biodiversity contest in December 2017, The Mountain Institute (TMI) partnered with Rare for a follow up behavior change campaign for 16 months (May 2019 - September 2020) to further expand adoption of pasture management techniques in Canchayllo.

The Mountain Institute organized its first meeting in Canchayllo in 2013, in which locals raised the idea of rehabilitating a pre-Incan hydraulic system widespread in the region 1200 years ago. The structures were designed to slow the movement of water through grasses and soils, replenishing aquifers and facilitating increased biodiversity.

TMI’s team of glaciologists, biologists, and archaeologists worked closely with the local communities to rehabilitate this ancient system in the form of a hybrid ‘‘grey-green’ solution that involves infrastructure such as PVC pipes, water valves and fences that would carry rainwater to pasture lands alongside ancient stone reservoirs and canals.

Community involvement was integral to TMI’s work in the region. The restoration was designed after months of consultation with herders and community members. The campaign to promote the adoption of these pasture management techniques across the community relied on education and engagement.

The chosen slogan of the campaign was: Conservar nuestras tierras que sostienen nuestra actividad ganadera, or 'Conserve the lands that sustain our ranching livelihoods.' The youth played an important role because of the former’s influence on community actions. Similarly, elders’ wisdom with regard to water and land management was highlighted.

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Canchayllo is an example of how one community chose to address the challenge of promoting a unique set of water conservation and management practices that built on the region’s indigenous heritage and addressed information deficits. This Step in the ‘Behavior-Centered Design’ journey is about brainstorming a range of possible ideas for solutions. You are ready to move to the next step when you have a prioritized list of solutions related to the target behavior i.e., conserving and managing water.

Next, you can develop a prototype (small-scale version) that captures your solution’s essential features without investing too much time or resources. You are ready to move to the next step when you have a prototype with the essential features of your chosen intervention.

Test your prototype and gain feedback on the solution from your target audience. It’s important to validate or invalidate your hypotheses about what motivates behavior and gain feedback to improve your solution.You might have to gain more insights and test your solution more than once before launching the solution at scale.

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Launch your solution and see how it performs in the real world at scale!

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The results are in! It is now time to measure the impact of your solution and monitor changes in the rate of behavior adoption over time.

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Behavior change is not quick. Social transformation in real time is messy. Let us take the case of the Canchayllo community in the Peruvian Andes. A year into launching their behavior change campaign - building awareness and understanding of ancestral water management techniques - where are Canchayllo’s ranchers now?


Number of households that could not be surveyed for post-campaign assessment because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Out of the original 74 households participating in TMI’s intervention, only 39 could be surveyed post - intervention.


Attitude of Canchayllo's ranchers successfully shifted to understanding how the benefits of proper use of grasslands can help tackle climate variability This is a 32 point increase in awareness from before TMI’s campaign.


Percentage increase in behavior change through participation in the selection, development, adaptation and dissemination of best practices in pasture management


Percentage increase in behavior change through implementation of practices as pasture rotation techniques, livestock feeding alternatives and/or optimization of existing infrastructure

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There is no one solution to the challenge of promoting the adoption of water conservation and management practices. Existing motivations and barriers in specific contexts come together to shape how water storage and distribution systems must be developed and maintained among small-scale ranching, herding, and farming communities.
To go on another 'Behavior-Centered Design' journey, choose any of the following behavioral challenges.