Liquid language: a global water discourse

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  • 2011•11•17

    Alex Bielak and Dana C. Mount

    In a speech at the University of Waterloo earlier this month, UN Assistant Secretary-General Liz Thompson, Executive Coordinator for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), declared that Rio+20 is about “re-visioning, re-languaging and reframing” issues. Thompson also stated emphatically “water is the next big issue.”

    Thompson’s comments coincided with the timely release of new research by UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), published in the report “Deep Words, Shallow Words: An initial analysis of water discourse in four decades of UNU declarations.” (Download the full report by clicking on the linked file in the right margin and listen to the podcast

    Inspired by UN-Water’s efforts to increase accessibility to key ministerial declarations (that could help governments and participants in future international meetings ), UNU-INWEH closely examined the wording of eleven UN declarations related to water and the environment. Here, we present some of our key findings regarding the “deepening ” and ” shallowing “ of water-related terms within the declarations over the past four decades.

    “Deepening” refers to the depth of language surrounding water terminology, the strength and rigour of this language and the extent to which it mindfully builds on work done at previous international meetings. By “shallowing,” on the other hand, we refer to more cursory language, which may not substantially build-upon or take into account past progress. Although some of the shifts in water language may have been deliberate, based on global developments and emerging priorities, other instances of shallowing may have occurred by default, with resolution drafters not taking into account the outcomes of previous meetings and declarations.

    Our report offers an overview and analysis of the historic treatment of key water-related themes. The summary concludes by outlining effective strategies for highlighting and strengthening key concepts.

    Water: The essence of life

    A quintessential component for life, water permeates vocabularies and daily conversations worldwide, whether in relation to personal or societal survival, the status and health of the global environment, or to water’s importance in other realms of sustainable development including food and energy security.

    Beginning with the landmark 1972 “Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment” and ending with the “Dushanbe Declaration on Water” in 2010, such documents have outlined goals and directions for member states on important water and environment issues. We considered the following nine documents in our study:

    Similar in style and purpose, these declarations all offer windows into the conferences themselves, highlighting the elements that were considered most essential by the drafters.

    After identifying the texts, we then selected nine significant water related terms and tracked their appearance in the Declarations. The terms chosen all represented key issues related to the water crisis,, environment and health. They included: Water scarcity; water security; desertification; water quality; sanitation; science and technology; poverty; gender; food; climate change; and, health.

    We did not examine the selected documents from the perspective of policy analysts seeking to measure the impacts of the documents over time, but rather as language detectives, looking for clues about how strongly or weakly certain key words were represented.

    Typically brief (2-6 pages), the Declarations provided a good basis for comparison. Clearly, they did not represent the entire output of sometimes-lengthy associated documents and action plans, but they did enable us to trace the evolution of language and identify changes. In some cases the Declarations themselves had little if anything to say on an issue, but the associated documents – that were beyond the scope of our study – may have covered those topics in depth. We focused on the Declaration texts (not on the associated documents), however, as they represented the highest expression of the substance of the meetings.

    Signs of the times

    The change in language between the earliest and latest documents is striking and reflects the tenor of the times in which they were drafted.

    The Stockholm Declaration, on the heels of the first Apollo missions to the moon and the subsequent emergence of the environmental movement, was the most environmentally centered document of all the texts studied: water played a prominent role. Stockholm had a strong focus on natural resources and ecological health, underlying which was an uncertainty about the human place in the environment: if humans are largely responsible for so much environmental destruction, it asks, how can we also take responsibility for its regeneration?

    In contrast, as far as social issues go, Stockholm was the least developed, or perhaps more accurately, the most out-of-date. Its focus on poverty, for instance, is largely couched in terms of the threat of underdevelopment to the health of the environment. Also out-of-date is the sometimes moralistic, always flowery, and often highly rhetorical language that stands in contrast to the more neutral tones of the later documents. By contrast, though Dublin (1992) has a strong environmental focus, the difference being that it aligns this with an equal concern for, and engagement with, social welfare.

    Later Declarations include strong language that reflects concerns of the day such as gender (New Delhi 1990 and Dushanbe 2010), water security (Bonn 2001), and climate change (Dublin 1992, Dushanbe 2010). Although the theme of economy has made some appearances in past declarations, a recent statement, prepared by participants (including UN-Water) at the 2011 World Water Week in Stockholm, is unmatched in its determination to link water health with economic health.

    Another important link made in the Stockholm 2011 Water Week statement (which is the subject of a postscript in our report) is between water, energy and food, principally in four references in a single page to the need to provide “water, energy and food security”. Not only does this resolve the ongoing failure to connect food and water, but it introduces a new and crucial element—energy, which as this document suggests, will play an important part in defining the concerns of Rio+20.

    Although a handful of other documents also touch on armed conflict as an obstacle to providing water services, Dushanbe takes a different approach by framing water as a means for greater cooperation. Dushanbe argues that water more often brings people together than it does create conflict. This optimism could be borrowed to conceptualize water as a positive global tool, rather than as a perennial source of problems.

    Key Findings

    Among our key findings is that both deepening and shallowing of key terms were evident throughout the declarations. Although some of these shifts will have been deliberate, based on global developments and emerging priorities, some instances of shallowing may have occurred by default, with resolution drafters not taking into account what went before.

    We also found that words and the way they are placed in documents can make a profound difference in the meaning of the Declarations.


    Figure 1 illustrates the significant (deep) appearance of given terms in specific Declarations.

    Clicking on the Cities names will open the signed declarations.

    We identified several ways in which a word’s placement within the text contributed to its strength or weakness as a term. For example, where a key word such as “health” was “buried” in a list of other words, this compromised the impact of the word itself.

    In another instance, we found that while on the surface, a document appears to be about, for example, sanitation, when examined closely, the word “sanitation” may in fact just be tacked on to the word “water” (as in “water and sanitation”) and it rarely garners its own attention. Another concern about “sanitation” may be the euphemistic word itself, which constructs an enormous distance between the clean-sounding term and the messy facts of urination and defecation.

    In terms of changes over time, the term “water quality” proved very interesting to track. In earlier Declarations it was regarded as an environmental threat while more recently the focus has turned to global inequality, safety and security.

    Science and technology maintains a fairly consistent presence in the Declarations, however, this should not indicate stasis. The word “technology” appears far more frequently than does the word “science”, a fact that suggests, for their part, the Declarations are more concerned about the application of existing science (i.e. technology) than they are about research. This focus highlights the need to implement and activate existing research by providing capacity building, knowledge and/or technology-transfer tools, and links between the science and the policy in order to make the best use of this research base.

    Words Matter! Effective strategies to strengthen water terminology

    After compiling these findings, we were able to suggest effective strategies for highlighting and strengthening key concepts in future declarations. These include:

    • aiming for a varied vocabulary to ensure terms appear fresh;
    • staying focused by resisting the ease of lists which weaken terms by burying them;
    • taking care when using tag-alongs, and giving each word its due and adequate focus;
    • personalizing rather than homogenizing language to ensure that diversity is given its due;
    • avoiding euphemisms and discussing issues frankly; and,
    •  being clear and specific by avoiding vague or ambiguous language, and by providing concise definitions of terms (though this can be difficult to achieve in the shorter format provided by declarations or statements).

    Choosing active language to engage the reader was another key strategy. One of the best examples of active language is found in the Bonn Keys, which employs short, declarative sentences and the present tense to describe the water crisis and its solutions. An example of more passive language can be found in Rio, in which future-oriented statements are prefixed by the word “shall” instead, as in “Nations shall agree to…” with the difference between the two being that Bonn reads as an imperative and Rio reads as a suggestion.

    What’s next? Finding the deep water ahead

    The report is part of UNU-INWEH’s contribution to Rio+20. Ultimately, the upcoming Rio+20 Conference must look to the future by drawing on the lessons of the past, including those drawn from the wording of historic declarations. In order for Rio+20 to produce an effective, robust document, the language used in the declaration should reflect a mindful “deepening” that extends work done at previous high-level meetings.

    In the search for the “deep water” ahead, instead of sporadically referring to major water-related problems, it is our hope this study will facilitate the efforts of Ministers, policy makers and resolution drafters to focus more deliberately on what progress has (or has not) been made on water-related issues vis a vis previous declarations. Language should reflect a thoughtful and cumulative deepening from previous declarations. Implementing the recommendations of the “Deep Words, Shallow Words” related to the language used in crafting declarations both at Rio+20 and future meetings will help ensure clarity. In the longer term, it will also help advance important water and environment issues more cogently and swiftly.

    Anders Berntell, Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (that runs World Water Week) recently observed that: “understanding where we come from is essential when pointing out the direction for the future.” The analysis presented in “Deep Words, Shallow Words” supports this claim.

    Moreover, as the most recent statement from the 2011 World Water Week (Stockholm) showed, in the lead-up to Rio+20, there is growing recognition of the role of water as the “bloodstream” of the green economy. Understanding both the deepening and shallowing of water language will thus help recognize (and express) the strong role of water issues in debates on climate, energy and food security. In the pursuit ahead for meaningful, “deep” water words, one of the main challenges, then, is to identify and employ robust, active language that not only embraces these pressing issues, but does not forget ongoing, long-standing concerns like the interlinks between water, poverty and access to sanitation.

    Because when it comes to water, every drop, and every word should count.