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The paradox of social resilience: Explaining delays in water infrastructure provision in Kathmandu

Leong Ching
Institute of Water Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore; ching@nus.edu.sg

ABSTRACT: One of the enduring puzzles within the management of water and other environmental resources is the sustained under-investment despite their critical importance. This paper brings together two emerging lines of research in answering this puzzle: first, that the blame-averse nature of governments leads them to avoid tackling issues which are perceived to have low payoff, and second, that the paradox of social resilience by which acts of coping with natural disasters and adverse events have led to a self-perception of resilience. While the motivations behind blame aversion are well researched, how the paradox of social resilience contributes to and interacts with such bureaucratic motivations remains little understood. Using a quantitative investigation of narratives of a more than 10-year delay to the Melamchi Water Supply Project in Kathmandu, Nepal, this paper reveals the dynamics of this interaction; it finds that a self-perception of resilience leads to narratives of low emotional intensity or 'valence', which in turn feed the perception of low payoffs for governments. This accentuates motivations of blame aversion, thus creating a vicious cycle of inaction. In Kathmandu, the self-perception of resilience is partly due to the coping mechanisms provided by a large, informal water-vending market. This paper suggests that one way of breaking the cycle is to increase the emotional intensity of the narratives by focusing on the true cost of coping with the delay in water supply. Our study further predicts that this vicious cycle is generally extant in policies with low negative valence – that is, in most environmental policies.

KEYWORDS: Water policies, public perceptions, social resilience, Q methodology, Kathmandu