Enhancing the image of water development schemes

7 May 2010



Public awareness and acceptance will play significant roles in future water development projects. Peter Mulvihill believes that we should be working towards a long term commitment to enhance the lifelong image of water development schemes. It should not just be a quick fix obtained for project approval


One of the key elements to integrated water resource management (IWRM) is that water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policymakers at all levels. This was again highlighted at the World Water Forum V held in Istanbul in 2009.

Some of the outcomes highlighted in sessions that covered this subject showed the benefits of a ‘bottom up’ approach when planning and implementing IWRM. Governments need to ensure that meaningful stakeholder participation is a statutory requirement at all levels and phases of IWRM.

It was also suggested that donor organisations, when dealing with governments in the developing world, need to be aware of the needs of the beneficiaries of development projects at a local level. Problems were highlighted where the intentions of projects were well meaning, but the ongoing costs and charges to local beneficiaries were unsustainable. It was considered local stakeholder consultation would be beneficial to measure and assess the real needs and impacts of ongoing costs relating to such projects.

The inclusion of consultation with affected stakeholders and local NGOs, and the involvement of environmental experts in project design, is now generally part of any large water project - no matter what stage of development a county has reached. Rightly or wrongly, in recent years these processes have been driven by the expectations of the international public which in turn has been reflected in the policies of lending institutions such as the World Bank.

It is predicted that public awareness and acceptance will play a significant role in future water development proposals. There is no one size fits all approach. One must be aware of the governance structures and cultures that are unique to different countries and audiences.

When formulating strategies one must be conscious that water development projects are long term and have a life that can stretch over many human generations. There are many examples in New Zealand where during the development process for the sake of progress and ‘national good’, the rights of local stakeholders have been ignored. I am not questioning the correctness of these decisions or approaches as they were made in the context of a different era than exists today. However many of these grievances have been passed from generation to generation and are causing problems and resistance to development today.

There are also examples in New Zealand where projects have been promoted and a significant degree of agreement has been reached with stakeholders through a consultation and negotiation process. Others have achieved the same result through using the regulatory planning framework and a protracted litigation process. Both methods appear to have achieved the same short term outcome. However, I would suggest that the consultative approach will achieve a more positive and sustainable long term solution in the eyes of the stakeholders and public. In using this approach one ensures a degree of ownership of the outcomes by stakeholders. I believe this can result in significant long term benefits. I also think this approach will result in reduced long term cost to the project owner and a smoother path for achieving re-consenting or alterations to the project in the future.

For many projects there is a significant focus on public awareness to gain initial approval but less emphasis on ongoing public awareness programmes and enhancing the long term image of the project. As one speaker described the situation, it is a matter of building up and maintaining a ‘bank account’ of goodwill or positive image. This bank account can be very helpful to ‘draw down’ when embarking on a new project or alteration to an existing project, and can also soften the impact on public perception when things go wrong or not quite as planned.

As part of developing the bank account, ongoing credibility is the most vital element. To achieve this one’s approach to delivering information and promoting the project must in my opinion be honest and transparent. Apart from a professional moral obligation to the stakeholders in any project there are a number of other reasons to support this approach.

In the past there are a number of instances where public relation campaigns have successfully used ‘spin’ or an advocacy stance when promoting a project. This approach in today’s information loaded society is fraught with risk especially to the long term credibility of any project proponent.

With wide access to communication mediums in both the developed and developing world it is very hard to hide the facts for any length of time. As an example, in my travels with icold through many developing countries, despite varying levels of standards of living and technology, many communities have access to a satellite dish along with information and the views of the outside world.

In putting forward consistent messages and being prepared to address both the positive and negative aspects of any project, while not necessarily gaining agreement from all stakeholders, a project proponent does build credibility and a degree of tolerance from those with opposing views. This also has the advantage of avoiding any myths being created in the media by groups opposed to the project.

It is true in the past that the public have not been given balanced information by opponents to some water development projects. In countering this situation I think we must be careful of falling into the trap of either promoting balance using the opponent’s tactics, (ie publishing unbalanced arguments) or trying to indoctrinate any target groups. We must try and establish the high ground and credibility in the initial stages of any public relations exercise.

When promoting water development projects we should present all alternatives in an holistic approach. All alternatives to meeting the world’s water and energy problems have both positive and negative environmental and social impacts. It should be accepted that when choosing a preferred alternative some of these issues may remain unresolved despite the best efforts to remedy or mitigate. But at this point those irresolvable issues must be weighed up against the benefits of the project and the adverse effects of alternatives – one being no project.

By presenting a public awareness programme in this fashion we enable the participants to reach their own conclusions (or at least realise that the answer is not black and white) and limit the areas for opposition groups to target the effectiveness of any unbalanced arguments or information, and reduce the project proponent’s credibility.

Less trusting

I have lived through a period where the public perception (at least in the western world) and trust in professionals such as lawyers, doctors, bankers and, dare I say it, engineers has changed. There was a time when what a noted professional said was taken as gospel. Now people are far less trusting and there are many examples where professionals or experts have got it wrong, and the news media, with the assistance of rapidly improving worldwide communication, have ensured the public are aware of these failures. The days are gone (even in developing world) where the public will accept a professional’s argument on the basis of rank or qualifications.

Despite this, as part of building credibility with the public, I support the concept of having the technical people involved when presenting the facts to the public and media. To be successful in this approach these individuals usually require a certain amount of media training. In my opinion the use of technical professionals in this role adds significant credibility to the information being passed to the media and the perception of the public at large.

Positive manner

Along with more rigorous study and appraisal of the impacts and benefits of water development, participation of the public and beneficiaries in these projects in the early stages is evolving. It is a key element of successful integrated water resource management. For technical professionals and project promoters this presents significant challenges. If approached in a professional and positive manner the outcomes of stakeholder participation can have significant short and long term benefits.

Peter Mulvihill is the Chairman of ICOLD’s Public Awareness and Education Committee and ICOLD Vice President for the Africa Australasia Zone. Email: [email protected]




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