Communications at the Core of Water, Sanitation Reforms

Communications programs often take a back seat to technical and financial issues when governments’ undertake reforms of their water and sanitation sectors. Increasingly, though, they’re seeing that communications are a critical ingredient for success.
To build their expertise and share lessons learned, government officials from 21 countries gathered in Lima, Peru to help build the case for bringing communications programs closer to the center of water and sanitation projects.
“People don’t always understand the resources it takes to treat water and bring it to people’s homes,” said Angelica Casillas, Secretary of the State Water Commission of Guanajuato, Mexico. “We have worked hard to build a ‘culture of water’ in Mexico and build awareness around the responsibilities of both utilities and consumers. Open dialogue helped the government build consensus around issues that customers and providers don’t always agree with, such as tariffs and private sector participation.”
“Water and sanitation are a basic need. We need to bring expertise from all sides to the table and make sure we’re doing everything we can. Communications programs will help everyone in the long run so we want to help governments build up their professional skills in this area,” said Jae So, Program Manager of WSP.

Officials from Pakistan, Mexico, and Colombia shared their experiences from placing communications programs closer to the center of design, planning, and implementation of water and sanitation and other infrastructure projects.
Lessons Learned
  • Effective communications is good business. Studies demonstrate how communications can increase a project’s cost effectiveness. For example, Colombian Water Utility Aguas de Manizales successfully implemented a communications campaign to reduce household water consumption, resulting in a decrease from 15.49m3 to 14.75 m3 in 2009.
  • Communications can prevent social conflicts by promoting dialogue and filling information gaps. A WSP Study reviewed 39 cases of water and sanitation projects where communications contributed to foreseeing social conflicts in reform processes, enabling dialogue and generating citizens’ awareness of their duties and rights.
A powerful communications tool
Syeda Maheen Zehra, a senior specialist from WSP in Pakistan shared a case study on a grading system that gave citizens an opportunity to cast their vote on the water utility’s performance. “The Citizen Report Card showed us that a simple and creative communication tool can contribute to gathering credible and objective customer feedback on water services. The “grading” process also created an opportunity for the government to partner with the media to open up a platform for public debate and improved transparency.”
The road to ownership
In Colombia the government has made sure to integrate a strong communications program as they overhaul the mass transportation system in more than 16 cities. “We need to create a sense of ownership among the citizens, saidCarolina Camacho from the Transport Ministry. “If we don’t listen to what people need and want, the project will be a failure, no matter how many roads we build.”
Some communities in Latin America continue to prioritize verbal communication as their ancestors have for generations. “We need to take this into account as we develop communications strategies and technologies,” said Enrique Cornejo, the Minister of Transport and Communications of Peru, "We hope our new infrastructure reflects their needs and expectations.”
In addition to acknowledging preferred communications methods of customers, the Guatemalan Vice Minister of Public Health and Social Assistance, Victor Guerra, reminded the group that we also need to acknowledge the different time-frames that can exist between different stakeholders and that these time-frames can impact on how we communicate with each other. “As project managers, we have certain time-frames and expectations, as politicians we have other time-frames and expectations, and as communities we have other time-frames and expectations,” commented the Vice Minister.
“Communications programs also help governments identify constraints in early stages of the project and mitigate social and political risks,” said Felipe Jaramillo, Regional Director for Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela of The World Bank. He sees the evidence that that strategic communications programs are essential for stimulating public debate, enhancing a common understanding around development challenges, and promoting transparency and accountability.
Participants agreed to continue to exchange knowledge and keep others updated on their progress. Already nine participants have reported new communications initiatives as a result of the Lima conference. In Colombia, as part of the Manizales Sanitation Plan, the government has hired a communications expert to mitigate the political risks surrounding elections, tariff increases, and impact of the construction plan. In the Dominican Republic, the government has already implemented training workshops based on ideas they learned at the conference. Similarly other participants have reported that they are bringing on communications consultants to help mainstream communications into their programs.