Set up in 2005, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) helps transform cities to benefit the millions of people who lack access to water and sanitation. Head of Communications Steve Metcalfe tells us how innovative communication strategies, for example, ingenious games can promote understanding and encourage action in the water sector.
Question: How do you think communication in the water sector has evolved in recent years?
Answer: Perhaps 10 years ago, the common image that people might have about water shortages was linked to disenfranchised rural communities struggling with access to water.
Now, the story is about cities as well as rural areas - think water crises in Cape Town; or Flint, Michigan; or Chennai – all well covered in the media. This, in turn, relates water to issues of politics and economics. So, communications has to absorb all this and still present a clear picture of what’s happening. It’s not about water shortage so much, as water (mis)management.
Q: Why do you think it is important to communicate about water?
A: The two biggest problems facing the world are COVID-19 and climate change. We know that the impacts of climate change are being largely felt through water, and that continuous water supply and handwashing can significantly slow down the spread of COVID-19.
These two facts alone should be enough to drive serious global action on SDG 6. And yet it is hard to see where that momentum is coming from. So, we need to keep communicating to highlight the water crisis and show what needs to be done.
It’s not about water shortage so much, as water (mis)management
Q: What are the most challenging aspects of communicating about Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor’s (WSUP’s) work?
A: Often assumptions are made that we are facing an infrastructure problem – not enough pipes, dams, boreholes etc. Yes, that is partly right, but much more than that, there are major issues like skills, governance, and policies which need to be tackled. That’s one of the messages we try to reinforce.
Bringing these areas to life in engaging communications can be a challenge. How do you visually show the impact of a new policy? Capacity-building is a particularly opaque concept – but giving institutions the resources to solve problems themselves, without recourse to aid, is the absolute key to making change sustainable and something that WSUP invests a huge amount of time in. How do we bring this to life on our communications?
Q: Could you highlight one of your organization’s communication success stories?
A: One of the things that WSUP is most proud of is that we really know how to create change in cities. We’ve been a driving force behind many real examples of progress in the sector.
We used this insight to create a game, called The Bottom Line, which aimed to demonstrate in an interactive way the challenges faced by sanitation businesses, and the trade-offs needed between social impact, profit, and government support. The game has been played thousands of times and was an engaging way of synthesising years of WSUP’s work into a five-minute experience for the viewer.
Q: Who or what organization inspires you when it comes to ways of communicating?
A: I’ve always been a great believer in the power of stories to engage, promote understanding and encourage action. There is nothing like a film to really get under the skin of an issue and change how people think about a topic.
The Stories of Change initiative run by the Sundance Institute and Skoll Foundation does an excellent job of supporting films which can drive social action - like Open Heart, which tells the story of eight Rwandan children who travel to Sudan for high-risk open-heart surgery. Another brilliant film is A Seed Of Maize, a thought-provoking short about the power of water access in rural Zambia.