Agha Akram

Research Overview

Water (Dissertation Research)

My research interest lies in the economics of water, specifically drinking water quality and water for irrigation in agriculture. My two major dissertation essays are:

Reducing Early Childhood Diarrhea: Enhanced Own-learning and Technology Adoption

My job market paper focuses on the issue of poor quality drinking water and child diarrheal disease. Diarrhea presents a major global health challenge and uptake of technologies that reduce this burden is seen as one way to meet this challenge. I designed an experiment in the spirit of an RCT which provided households with a novel tool (Info-Tool) that allowed them to better learn about the efficacy of chlorine tablets in decontaminating drinking water and reducing early childhood diarrhea. Info-Tool can be analogised to a thermometer where a detection device (the physical thermometer) is coupled with a norm (a temperature threshold above which a patient is sick). Info-Tool performs these two functions, allowing households to detect/track diarrhea and also provides a norm against which to compare their detected levels. Use of Info-Tool was withdrawn after an extended period of use and demand for chlorine tablets, presence of chlorine in household drinking water and diarrhea levels were measured. My results indicate that households do learn about benefits of the technology and are more likely (than a control group) to adopt chlorine tablets in the long run when they use this novel tool. This is a significant discovery as it highlights the possibility that uptake of health technologies (water decontaminants, anti-malarial bed nets, clean indoor cookstoves) may be significantly improved if households’ own-learning is engaged, which in turn can positively impact a number of large global health challenges. It is an important contribution to the literature in environmental and development economics, because many such life-saving technologies are under-adopted by developing country households, despite empirical evidence of net welfare benefits – the own-learning impacts that I measure may help to bridge this gap. Our results for self reported diarrhea are less clear, being subject to noisy measurement and the possibility of perverse behavioural shifts in other sanitary practices. We also test for spill-over effects (social learning) though we find no conclusive evidence.

Farmer Adaptation to Heterogeneous Surface Irrigation Water Delivery

I use a unique dataset to analyse the impact of heterogeneous surface irrigation water supply on farmer choices in a large canal irrigation system in a developing country (Pakistan). Surveys of farmers on canal irrigation systems, are able to capture the use of most inputs reasonably well except canal irrigation water. To counter this, proxy measures for water availability are used such as number of irrigations applied, perceived depth of a typical irrigation and position along a canal system. However, these measurements tend to be "rough". This paper uses actual physical measurements of both surface water delivered (in-season) and distance from the canal system’s origin. To motivate the paper, I related farmer profit on my measures of water availability. I expected to find that reduced water discharge (i.e. greater distance along the canal system) would result in reduced farmer profits. Instead, I find that as distance along the canal system increases farmer profit stays constant and that profit per acre of cultivated land increases relative to profit per available land. This suggests that farmers adapt to their surface water environment and I test for two possibilities. One adaptation farmers make is to scale back their operation by reducing the amount of land they plant in response to reduced irrigation flows resulting in larger net revenues per acre of cultivated land. This ties in with the idea of inverse productivity (a stylized fact in agricultural and development economics). I explore this adaptation and find that application of many complementary inputs is also reduced, including hired labour. A second possibility is that farmers change their crop mix as a response to reduced flows, substituting to more water efficient crops. The two major crops grown by farmers in this system are cotton (thirsty) and millet (water efficient). I find evidence that farmers switch to producing more millet the further along the system they are (the less water is available to them). Finally, I compare these findings across institutional boundaries in the canal irrigation system. The canal system in Pakistan consists of three tiers – primary, secondary and tertiary. The outlet gate marks the point where tertiary canals and secondary canals “meet” but also where the Irrigation Department hands off to farmers. I find that much of what applies to the primary and secondary levels applies to the tertiary level.

Other publications in this thematic area can be found under the publications link.

Other Interests

My other interests include air pollution monitoring technology. The original project I designed and helped implement, called Volunteer Internet-based Environment Watch (VIEW) is described here. I designed and wrote the (successful) funding application for the next iteration, VIEW2, described here. In collaboration with Dr. Jahangir Ikram I have designed and am applying for the latest iteration of the technology, VIEW3. We hope to gather rich realtime data on air pollution in Lahore, Pakistan.