Saving Water Requires Changing Public Attitudes About Its Use

Published December 10th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

In many countries, water is a scarce commodity. Harsh climates, environmental degradation, and poor infrastructure are just a few of the reasons that developing countries can find themselves running short of this essential resource.  


Conserving water can be especially difficult for countries faced with rising demand and economic constraints. Backed by many years of experience managing water-related projects around the world, Chemonics International Inc helps governments achieve lasting results in their conservation programs by communicating to their constituents the need, as well as the ways, to conserve water.  


Introducing WaterCOM:  

When Chemonics International Inc began working on water projects almost 20 years ago, clients mainly needed the company's assistance with engineering solutions -- improving the efficiency of water-delivery and disposal systems, water-use techniques, and the like.  


Though effective at treating the symptoms of water waste and misuse, engineering solutions alone were not enough to solve the causes of these problems.  


Realizing this, Chemonics International Inc expanded its offerings, helping governments administer water services more effectively and formulate better water policies, laws, and regulations.  


Though these solutions establish a foundation for more-effective water programs, an essential component of sustainable water-system improvements is lacking: an effective communications program.  


After all, efficient engineering and enlightened policies to conserve water are ineffective if the public is not aware -- and convinced -- of the need for them, and of the role that each individual can play in solving water-shortage problems. To address this, Chemonics International Inc. created WaterCOM, an integrated communications approach to water conservation.  


Through WaterCOM, Chemonics International Inc  

works with local policymakers and stakeholders to develop a communications strategy tailored to the needs and cultures of local populations. It's a two-way process -- by conducting surveys, the program provides data about public knowledge, attitude, and behavior to policymakers.  


At the same time, it uses the media and other means to encourage the public to reduce water consumption.  


How does WaterCOM do this? Staff members work with clients to:  

Formulate an integrated communications strategy. Chemonics helps analyze water-use policies, prioritize problems, and create a communications plan that takes into account social, economic, technical, policy, and political concerns.  


Collect baseline data on target audiences. To design effective programs and monitor their progress, Chemonics experts survey local populations to find out how much they know about the need for water conservation, what their attitudes are about it, and how they use water in their everyday lives.  


Establish supporting elements. Successful communications programs require easy access to accurate technical information; competent, well-trained staff; and efficient implementation.  


Chemonics helps clients manage data, educate staff, and create efficient processes.  


Design and implement the campaigns. To effectively reach and motivate each segment of the target audience, WaterCOM creates and conducts a variety of campaigns, using a custom-made blend of mass media and one-on-one communications.  


Monitor results. Using the baseline data collected by survey during the audience-research phase, WaterCOM helps track changes in knowledge, attitude, and practices achieved by the campaign.  


The company's communications experts then use this information to refine and improve the program.  


WaterCOM emerged from Chemonics' efforts to relieve water-scarcity problems in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  


In the early 1990s, the company worked with Jordan's Ministry of Water and Irrigation to prepare a water-management study and master plan for water use that served as the foundation for the country's subsequent development.  


Though it included the kind of supply-and-demand information normally found in such studies, the plan also included a unique component: a comprehensive public awareness program.  


This, according to John Woods, managing director of Chemonics International Incs' WaterCOM program, was the first time this kind of master plan included a communications strategy.  


"Water is so scarce in Jordan that the country really had to go beyond technical solutions and get public cooperation with the technical improvements," recalls Woods. "  


Chemonics International Incs' work to integrate communications and public participation into the water master plan was really a first-of-a-kind move."  


Did it work? "Jordan adopted our recommendations, including those involving communications, and after seven years, the plan is still guiding the country's water-management efforts," he says.  


For example, the country is using WaterCOM techniques to reach urban water users as well as small farmers in the Jordan Valley, explaining the causes of the country's water shortage, and encouraging users to prevent pollution and conserve even more water than they're currently saving.  


A Great COMbination: The work of WaterCOM has continued under the USAID-funded Environmental Education and Communications (GreenCOM) project in Egypt, where the effects of a 1959 treaty with Sudan -- which limited Egypt's share of the Nile's water supply -- began to be felt in the early 1990s because of rapid population and industrial growth.  


To help make Egyptians aware that they needed to conserve water and prevent pollution, the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources established, with Chemonics International Incs' help, a Water Communications Unit in 1995 to reach out to key groups of water users.  


Chemonics International Inc. helped the ministry prepare a water communications strategy that began by targeting farmers, who, because they use more than 85 percent of Egypt's water supply, are key to water conservation.  


Chemonics International Inc led a two-pronged national communications campaign. First, ministry field engineers worked to reach farmers directly to promote a variety of water-saving practices.  


These include shifting away from water-intensive crops, such as rice and sugar cane; irrigating by night to reduce evaporation; and introducing land-leveling and other water-saving practices.  


Second, GreenCOM staff members used mass-media messages -- including public-service announcements and feature stories on TV, radio, and in print -- to raise awareness of the water shortage.  


These messages have supplemented the face-to-face communication work of the field staff, as have materials distributed to students and teachers by the country's Ministry of Education.  


Surveys to determine the effectiveness of the campaigns are underway; watch future issues of Foreign Exchange for results of the surveys.  


Changing Behavior: The WaterCOM program has continued to expand, based on lessons from these public-awareness efforts in Egypt, as well as from Chemonics International Incs' many other successful water projects.  


Today's program includes detailed case studies, as well as a practical manual for creating communications campaigns in the water sector and other environmental fields.  


The biggest threat to an communications program, says Woods, is the belief that raising public awareness of a problem is enough to fix it.  


"Yes, the first step in WaterCOM involves raising public awareness about water issues," he admits. "But the program then works to change people's attitudes, so they value water as a limited commodity.  


Once we've shifted attitudes, we then work to shift their actions, telling them how they can work conservation and pollution prevention into their daily lives. We then follow up to see if our messages are effective.  


"In the end," he stresses, "we must change behavior if we are going to make a difference. "  

Note:This information is provided courtsy of Chemonics International Inc. , a consulting firm based inWashington , DC with branches in Cairo and West Bank/Gaza. 




© 2000 Mena Report (

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