Water Action: What’s Holding Us Back?

June 26, 2023


Exploring the Role of Narratives and Storytelling in Catalyzing Cross-Sector Collaboration for Water Action

The global water problem: we know it when we see it, right? Perhaps not. Human water use is complex and underpins virtually every other sector: health, environment, agriculture, energy, regional development, income inequality, and many more. Clearly, cross-sector collaboration will be critical in solving our water crisis. But so far, progress has been limited.

At Purpose, we are movement builders who know and believe in the power of stories. There’s no cross-sector collaboration without cross-sector communication. In this post—the first in a 3-part series inspired by a cross-sector discussion we hosted for UN Water Week 2023 – we explore how narratives,  storytelling, and multi-stakeholder collaboration can supercharge action on water.


What we heard

1. Water is most visible during a local crisis.

The most common storytelling for water responds to a single local or national crisis. This approach fails to convey a long view that inspires global, rather than local, solutions. And in moving quickly to react, we miss the chance to engage audiences thoughtfully with messages, frames, and values that resonate. 

Cities drying up without water action

2. What about equity?

There is a persistent failure to raise questions of equity and honor the perspectives and experiences of groups most impacted by water crises. Global platforms for engaging audiences that do attempt to address equity are not solutions-focused.

“People still feel reluctant to talk about people and equity. It’s fine to talk about water in the abstract, but when it touches real people, folks get uncomfortable with that reality.” Discussion participant


3. Unfamiliarity with water challenges puts us at a disadvantage before we even start.

Despite water’s intimate connection with every aspect of how we live, the lack of public awareness on the urgency and severity of water issues means that most audiences are starting with a basic information deficit that must be filled. This is a stark difference from issues like health and education, which are routine parts of public discourse.

In addition, because water is not front-of-mind for most audiences, it’s hard to mobilize decision-makers to support change.

Global water action

4. We’re not singing from the same hymn sheet.

A big reason for limited public awareness of water issues is the lack of a shared language or narrative about what we face as a planet that is sensitive to local experiences with water issues. (Think, in contrast, the 1.5-degree target for climate.) Many disparate groups are working on similar issues without alignment around a shared goal.

“Unlike the way we understand global emissions, our discussions on water have to be much more localized. It’s hard to thread that global and local story on water.” Discussion participant


5. We need everyone’s voice.

The lack of a shared narrative is exacerbated by a widespread lack of trust and accountability, which manifests in a reluctance to share information and data. Youth advocates in particular, who are widely recognized as potentially powerful environmental champions, are calling for increased intergenerational solidarity so that they can become stronger partners in tackling water issues. For example, consider WaterAid’s Future 15—an inspiring selection of trailblazing  young people who are taking action on environmental issues and fighting to save our planet. One member of Future 15, the 24-year-old Ugandan activist and founder of Rise Up Vanessa Nakate, argues for the value of new voices:

“Solving these interrelated crises of climate and water, and therefore saving lives, will take a radical change in all our societies. We can all demand accountability from our leaders. Our voices are all powerful if we use them.”

While there is more work to be done to deepen trust, elevating youth voices and improving participation are necessary first steps towards greater intergenerational solidarity. 

What’s next for Water Action?

To campaigners like us, these challenges present clear opportunities for impact. To seize these opportunities, we must:

  • Develop multi-sectoral initiatives that foster trust among stakeholders. 
  • Work toward a common language and narrative, including exploring creative collaborations. 
  • Engage a wide diversity of stakeholders to build this language and share this narrative.
  • Increase the capacity of organizations to participate.

Let’s mobilize to build groundswell support for water action. Purpose is bringing our narrative change know-how and our decade-plus of experience supporting movements around the world. What can you bring? 

Watch this space for more examples of powerful storytelling Purpose is seeing in the water movement—and what we want to see. 

To read the second installment of this three-part series, please click here.

The Purpose team will be at Climate Week and UNGA in September hosting and participating in a number of events. We’d love to see you there! Come meet us for a coffee, attend one of our events (invites to come), or let us know if you’re hosting something you think we’d enjoy.  

Talk soon!

Corina Kwami Strategy Director
Prachi Rao Strategy Director
Alex Hammer Ducas Senior Director, Private Sector Lead
Alessia García Associate Strategist
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