A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change

Journal article and policy brief which test this theory in coastal Kenya


Global progress towards the goal of universal, safely managed drinking water services will be shaped by the dynamic relationship between water risks, values and institutions. We apply Mary Douglas’ cultural theory to rural waterpoint management and discuss its operationalisation in pluralist arrangements through networking different management cultures at scale. The theory is tested in coastal Kenya, an area that typifies the challenges faced across Africa in providing rural communities with safely managed water. Drawing on findings from a longitudinal study of 3500 households, we examine how different management cultures face and manage operational, financial, institutional and environmental risks. This paper makes the case for cooperative solutions across systems where current policy effectively separates communities from the state or markets. The contribution of this research is both a theoretical and empirical case to consider pluralist institutional arrangements that enable risks and responsibilities to be re-conceptualised and re-allocated between the state, market and communities to create value for rural water users.

Rural water sustainability is a global challenge as policy often separates communities from the state and markets. This policy brief explores institutional relationships combining government, communities and the market in a pluralist arrangement. Testing the approach in rural Kenya, results indicate pluralism may produce more sustainable outcomes and create value in operational and financial performance.

This work was supported by ‘REACH: Improving Water Security for the poor’ programme, which is funded by the UK Department for International Development.


  • Koehler, J., Rayner, S., Katuva, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2018) A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change. Global Environmental Change, 50: 268-277

  • REACH (2018) A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change, REACH Policy Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Published 1 May 2018