Recently, I have been doing a lot of reading on global water challenges. Considering that water is essential to life but finite, the importance of water management cannot be overemphasized. The world we currently live in is at the mercy of rapid population growth and urbanization. Whilst these are not entirely detrimental to economic development, mismanagement in different sectors of the global economy is a reality. For instance, many have critiqued the water sector as failing to successfully tackle the issue of increasing water demand, attributing this to poor water management. Many have also suggested that water utilities need to look beyond relying on administrative control and technological solutions to water issues. There have been recommendations to involve people in water matters using a sort of communitarian approach that supports people to take on responsibilities as citizens who own, and use and/or manage water wisely.
But how does a water utility implement its approach to motivating water responsibility amongst the public?
A friend of mine recently relocated from a ‘developed’ to a ‘developing’ country. He was moping about his electricity bill. There had been no power supply to his house most days of the month.
So I asked ‘how about your water bill’.
He replied; ‘what water bill?’ ‘Where will that come from?’
To which I replied; ‘your water company of course, your utility, who is your water utility?’
‘I don’t know them. We drilled a borehole in my compound. So I think I am my own (pauses)… what did you call it? water utility? Yea, we are the water utility. I and my landlord – we own our water’…; he replied.
My friend gave a real-life insight into the crisis of water inequality that many fail to acknowledge. On one hand, there is the failure of water governance in many catchment areas around the world; on the other hand, is the complacency of the people who are at the receiving end – the water users.
Some water utilities in ‘developed’ countries consider passive and active ways to nudge the ‘Water-Rich Public’ to become owners of water who use water wisely, and also maintain ‘visible’ relationships with their utilities. But in neglected catchment areas of the world, most water utilities alienate themselves from their ‘Water-Poor Public’, forcing people to develop their own initiatives to own and manage water, by themselves.
To say the least, my friend ensued a sense of pride for ‘his water’. A self-proclamation that he ‘owns’ his water in partnership with his landlord is somewhat impressive yet worrisome. This goes against the underlying principles of the human right to water and sanitation. However, if one stripped away the fact that my friend’s water treatment, storage and supply are all ‘managed’ in-house (literarily!), the remaining intangible responsibility of ownership and personal connection to water is what water utilities in ‘developed’ countries spend resources trying to instil in their Water-Rich Public.
I am drawn to a careful conclusion that whilst the ‘Water-Poor’ environment is appalling, there are lessons in there that the ‘Water-Rich’ environment can draw from. It is no news that utilities operating in ‘Water-Poor’ catchment areas can also draw invaluable lessons from the utilities in ‘Water-Rich’ areas.
So what is a good starting point?
I think that rather than typical conversations on how to ‘change’ the public’s perception of water and their water behaviours/practices, more than ever before water utilities need to look inwards, re(assess) how their water management enacted through public (dis)engagement significantly shapes the public’s perception of water and their water behaviours/practices as well as their perception of their utilities.
Sometimes, actions contradict perspectives and intended outcomes of actions.