Steering Water through Environmental Behavior: Urban Water Management Decision-making in Mumbai's Strained Ecosystem of the Mithi River

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Vuppuluri, Richa, Constructed Environment - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Klotz, Leidy, EN-CEE, University of Virginia
Mondschein, Andrew, AR-Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia
Bassett, Ellen, School of City & Regional Planning, Georgia Tech
Hernandez, Morela, Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan
Singh, Binti, KRVIA-ES, Mumbai University

Building on the fundamental proposition that community stewardship is integral to the success of any urban design and engineering intervention, in this dissertation, I investigate how people-centric approaches can help decision-makers in urban water management better intervene in strained ecosystems. The study deep dives into the case of the polluted Mithi River in Mumbai, which gained traction only after the devastating deluge of 2005, laying bare the gravity of pollution and urban flooding. These issues will further exacerbate climate change's impact on the coastal city of Mumbai. This empirical research engages a representative subset of decision-making community members (n=30) to rethink their urban water management practices from an environmental behavior framework, probing mechanisms beyond the conventional large-scale designs, and hard-engineering solutions. For instance — incentivizing positive behavior of communities, businesses, and entities, establishing a social support network to reinforce pro-environmental behavior, and recruiting change agents or role models within the communities.

In this study, the decision-making community is the primary data point or unit of analysis, and the polluted urban river postulated as a consequence of anthropogenic factors is the broader unit of analysis. The study draws on a mixed methods research design of semi-structured interviews, assessment surveys, field observations, and secondary data. An essential part of this research is defining the decision-making community, guided by frames of equity, representation, and agency while acknowledging that people close to the urban problems are often closest to the solutions. Furthermore, in exploring behavior change as a tool in steering urban water management, the research builds upon the Pro-environmental Behavior (PEB) as a methodological framework to engage decision-makers, analyze current practices, and identify opportunities. Driving on the primary research question of how the decision makers are thinking about behavior change in light of their current practices and experiences of the Mithi river since the deluge, I attempt to (1) construct the problem through the perspective of the decision-making community and their relationship with the river, in conjunction with the spatial dimension through an overview of the environmental history of the urban river, (2) gauge the potential to influence environmental behavior at the individual, collective and policy levels, and (3) assess the effectiveness of river restoration through a behavior change framework. Findings show that the decision-making community identifies "Fractured governance" as the highest responsible factor contributing to river pollution, followed by "Domestic level discharge of untreated sewage”, and lacking "Solid waste disposal services." The governing landscape of the river's 17.84 km (11 mi) stretch is highly complex, often favoring a pro-development outlook and viewing the river body as something that needs to be fixed or treated. When the governing agencies that are the most critical change agents in the river's future are also a crucial part of the problem, there emerges a need for a fundamental shift in the perception driving their interventions and presenting a vital opportunity. Further, the decision-making community identified "Service delivery" and "Shaping Knowledge and Training" as the most effective Behavior Change Techniques for river restoration, making a case for a systems-level approach to infrastructure projects through service provisioning rather than surgical interventions like the retaining walls, by creating collective awareness through ownership of this urban resource. The analysis revealed themes of Systems Approach, Governance, and Narrative Shift in understanding the gap between the vision and the outcome of the Mithi River.

The Mithi River is an urgent issue confronting Mumbai city and its climate future. Several research participants are currently at the forefront of driving solutions. For them, this research attempts to make a viable case for shifting their perspectives and prioritizing interventions to target collective behavior at multiple levels of society that inhabit the river basin rather than solely focusing on the river body. Moreover, the research methodology situates various response strategies through a behavioral framework, fostering consensus-making among working groups representing wide-ranging interests by foregrounding behavior change in urban water management.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
environmental behavior, Mumbai Mithi river, urban water management, decision-making, people-centric , governance
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