When hundreds of participants and dozens of speakers came together on September 16, 2011, at the International Water Forum at the United Nations, there was plenty of discussion of the severity of global water scarcity and water quality issues. If any of us needed to be reminded that a child dies every 15 seconds from preventable water-related illnesses, we were. No doubts could remain as to the complexity and magnitude of the problem.
The main take-home, however, was that water problems are solvable. None of the many challenges are outside of the ability of human-kind to respond and resolve. As with so many things, political will and money are needed, but the conference took it further; the general public has to understand and care before the political will and money will materialize. And the way to the general public’s heart is through effective communication.
This was the theme of the event: Building a Global Awareness and Education Campaign. The day-long meeting was intended to be the start of a collaborative process by which many organizations and individuals, public and private, can coordinate a campaign to increase the public’s understanding of the issues, and motivate them to take action. While recognizing that the crisis is global, the conference placed emphasis on reaching the US public, which would have the ability to mobilize significant resources.
To achieve that, Pat Mulroy, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in the keynote address, “At the end of the day it’s about our attitude, the way we talk about water”. We must make the journey from everyone thinking of their own independent local water supplies, she said, to embracing the fact that we exist in complete interdependence with each other. That journey will begin with our language, with making it an instrument of peace, not of conflict. She speaks from experience, having been part a process through which most of the southwest United States and parts of northwest Mexico learned to share the water from the Colorado River basin, upon which they all depend.
Columbia Water Center Director Upmanu Lall participated in the Global Water Issues panel, linking poverty, food, energy, and water. He recalled how, as a child in India, he had to wait in lines in hope that food would be distributed. Increased irrigation was part of the green revolution that made more food available throughout the country, but the price was high. Water use for agriculture is highly inefficient, and ground water levels are dropping, even as cropping is becoming more intensive. There is little understanding of this dynamic, even within India, and there is no strategy in place to address it. “I have come to believe”, he said, “that we first have to educate the experts about the dimension of the problem, both at the national and planetary scales, and then down to the farmer level and the individual user.” (watch a video of Lall’s presentation)
As an example of motivational communication, actress Jane Seymour, who narrated the Running Dry documentary series, introduced a heart-wrenching video promoting the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2011 (S.641), which is intended to increase US funding to resolve water problems in the developing world.
Other presenters gave examples from their experience of lessons learned in communicating with their constituencies about water. Just a taste:
- Jeff Mosher, from the National Water Research Institute, talked about moving from a negative reaction to widespread public acceptance of the ‘toilet to tap’ project in California that recycles waste water into drinking water.
- Carol Baker, from the Alliance for Water Efficiency, found that people in Texas certainly had reason to be concerned about water, but didn’t know anything about it, starting with not knowing where their water came from. The Alliance’s public education campaign started from there to eventually achieve remarkable water-saving results.
- In trying to influence policy makers, Anthony Fellow, of the School of Communications at California State University, has found that congress people don’t have time to read, and can best be influenced with targeted use of photos and videos.
- Christopher Rochfort, of Star Water Solutions, pointed out that while some people may be motivated by humanitarian or ecological concerns, the way to reach others may be to make sure they know that investment in water virtually guarantees a good monetary return. “Water isn’t a trend. It isn’t going away.”
- Peter Waite, of ProLiteracy Worldwide, raised the point that in the US and abroad, there are still significant numbers of people who can’t read. People who undertake public education about water issues should first keep that reality in mind, and second see literacy campaigns themselves as opportunities to raise water awareness.
The creation of a coordinated public education campaign involving a wide variety of sectors and approaches will be organized by the Chronicles Group, which hosted the conference together with the Energy and Water Institute of New York, with the support of the United Nations Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR), the World Water Organization and WaterAid America. Future events are intended to consolidate the contributions of this Forum into an actionable strategy that leads to problems solved.
Watch web-cast videos of most of the day’s presentations.