UNU-INWEH undertook an examination of the changing language of water in high-level declarations from eleven UN conferences on water and the environment over the past forty years. Both deepening and shallowing of key terms were evident throughout the documents and the report suggests effective strategies for highlighting and strengthening key concepts.
United Nations University – Institute for Water, Environment and Health
UN Declarations, Water discourse, UN declaration analysis, language of water, water scarcity, poverty, gender, climate change, health
UNU-INWEH undertook an examination of the changing language of water in high-level declarations from eleven UN conferences on water and the environment over the past forty years. Both deepening and shallowing of key terms were evident throughout the documents and the report suggests effective strategies for highlighting and strengthening key concepts. The report is a contribution by the Institute to the Rio+20 process.
The themes covered include: Water Scarcity, Water Security, Desertification, Water Quality, Sanitation, Science and Technology, Poverty, Gender, Food, Climate Change, and Health. Moreover, there is a four page ‘Summary for Decision Makers’ which distills the lessons learned from a synthesis of water discourse over four decades of UN Declarations.
For more please see: http://www.inweh.unu.edu/River/DeepWords.htm
The solution is global in nature with applicability to a wide variety of future documents including any statements from the 6th World Water Forum.
Download the pdf of the full report: Deep Words, Shallow Words: An Initial Analysis of Water Discourse in Four Decades of UN Declarations
The report contributes to the discussions around the environment that will ensue at the Rio+20 summit in Brazil and will facilitate efforts by ministries, delegates and policy makers to build on and avoid unnecessary overlap with work done at previous high-level meetings.
The findings of the report should assist drafters of future Declarations to ensure their outputs are effective, robust and reflect mindful and cumulative deepening of work undertaken at previous high-level meetings. This applies equally to UN declarations as to statements emanating from meetings such as the World Water Fora.
Building on previous reports and better uptake of recommendations. Not re-inventing the wheel.
Those interested in the report include ministers, policy makers, public policy experts/consultants, NGOs focusing on water-related issues, and various UN agencies with water-related programs (e.g. UN Water), among many others, including anyone trying to ensure clarity of messaging.
Costs to implement this solution are minimal, however organizations must avail themselves of good writers and editors who can ensure quality writing.
The strategies are:
1. Aim for a varied vocabulary. Tracing the key terms across the documents, terms appeared fresh when the vocabulary is varied. Even the simple change between “water”, “water supply”, “clean water”, “safe water”, and “drinking water” suggested a different emphasis each time and helped to round-out an often-used word. The risk with such an over-used term is that its repetition renders it dull, and there is a tendency to skip over such words when reading.
2. Choose active language that engages the reader. 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.
3. Stay focused by resisting the ease of lists. Burying a key term in a long list of other important issues proved to weaken it by distracting attention from the term itself. Lists were most effective when the listed terms were directly connected, with one item building on the next in a meaningful way.
4. Be clear and specific by avoiding vague or ambiguous language. One of the drawbacks of the shorter formats of the declarations and statements is that there is not enough space to offer extensive and comprehensive definitions of all the key terms. In some instances, however, vague language weakened the writing. Short definitions could help give the useful meaning to the terms and thus add strength to the documents themselves.
5. Avoid euphemisms, discuss issues frankly. In the case of sanitation, for instance, the sterility of the term itself does the concept a disservice by insufficiently describing the gravity of the need to contain human waste. The term “human waste disposal” is perhaps crude, but it is clear that it offers a more accurate description of the problem that may serve to better motivate action. Likewise, a more descriptive term may help us confront the taboos and stigmas that surround discussions of defecation.
6. Don’t homogenize, personalize. The use of person-first language should be encouraged in future statements and declarations as it acknowledges that people are the priority and that poverty is a material and economic state rather than a category of people. Further, effort should be devoted to recognize the diversity within the situation of poverty rather than paving over differences with homogenizing language.
7. Give each word its due by refusing tag-alongs. In many of the documents, for instance, the word “sanitation” mostly appeared following the word “water” in a repetitive manner. These types of tokenism made the word “sanitation” appear as if it were an afterthought rather than a genuine focus in and of itself. The tag-along does, however, successfully link two interdependent terms, like water and sanitation, and it can work if separate attention is given to the term at some point in the document.
The document has been posted on the Rio+20 website and has been widely acclaimed by a number of organizations and/or publicized on many websites including those of UN-Water, the Canadian Water Network, the United Nations University and UNU-INWEH. A separate article (“Liquid language: a global water discourse”) is also available on the UNU website.
Dr. Alex T. Bielak
Senior Research Fellow and Knowledge Broker
United Nations University – Institute for Water, Environment & Health (UNU-INWEH)
175 Longwood Road South, Suite 204
Hamilton, ON L8P 0A1
At the WWF6 please contact Alex during the March 14th CS3-T1 Session ‘Science and Water Policy Interface: When Science and Innovation Meet Water Policy”.