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How to achieve community water literacy? Step back, expert says

Most water professionals know the difficulty involved in educating the community about prospective pathways for future service provision, but newDemocracy Foundation Australia Executive Director Iain Walker said increasing water literacy is possible with the right approach.

Presenting a keynote address to delegates at Ozwater’19, Walker said that while water experts understand the complex issues their communities face, expertise only goes so far in educating customers.

“In a room full of experts, expertise alone is not going to get us across the line. We need to involve everyday people from all walks of life in order for us to make long-term changes,” Walker said.

“It is possible to build water literacy within a community. But to do it, we need to offer the community a question, instead of trying to sell them a solution.”


Don't miss the final Ozwater'19 keynotes tomorrow morning from 9-10.30am. Hear from safety guru Sidney Dekker, innovation expert Dr Kate Raynes-Golide, and Lucas Patchett and David Tubb from Orange Sky.


Taking the topic of water recycling as an example, Walker asked delegates to consider a five-principle approach to engaging and educating their customers.

“In terms of having a conversation about water recycling, it is very important to speak to a representative group of people,” he said.

“You’ll tend to hear from people who are most affected, people who hate it, people who have passionate views, but they are probably not grounding their opinions in evidence.”

Walker said framing community engagement as a conversation, rather than a lecture, assists customers in learning about water and gives them the opportunity to form their own opinion based on evidence.

“The key is to go back to why you want to have this kind of conversation at all. In terms of water recycling, the issue is about paying for future sources of water,” he said.

And in terms of sharing information with community members? Walker said the key is to give your audience an incentive to seek more information.

“If you are a water authority, you should absolutely give your audience a document to read. The key is to design a process where you give your audience an incentive to read further,” he said.

“Share the problem, share the history of the problem: it’s extremely useful. Intensely educating a small but representative group of the community can make a huge difference.”

Furthermore, Walker said timing is also a key element of successfully engaging communities, which is something many campaigns fail to consider.

“We want to give people time to consider their options. There are so many engagements with the community that are done within 30 days. And small time frames affect decision-making,” he said.

“The issue is that we have too many five-minute conversations in life and we need to have a much longer conversation when we are dealing with decisions that have a huge impact on society.”

Another principle Walker advocated was ensuring the community feels clear in what your objective is, and educating them so they feel empowered to decide for themselves.

“Tell people what you are going to do with their decision and give them the resolution that is really at play,” Walker said.

Additionally, Walker said it is crucial to leave space for customers to respond, rather than tell them how you intend to fix the problem.

“When it comes to water recycling, many water professionals think: ‘I know the answer. We know how to fix this problem. If we could just get it through to a few politicians, it will work’,” he said.

“And this is a very natural way to feel. But people don’t like to be told what to do. The idea is to ask a question, rather than sell an answer.”

There’s still one day left of Ozwater’19! Don’t forget you can still visit the trade exhibition from 8.30am-2pm and check out the app to plan your final sessions.