by Christiaan Morssink

Definition: Water literacy is the scaffolding that empowers individuals, households, communities, nations, and regions to protect and utilize water resources and water quality through ecologically adapted change and strengthen water resilience and security over time. It is composed of a collection of inter-related knowledge, skills and behaviors, and acculturated norms, values, morality and attitudes required to plan, manage, store, distribute and use water as well as to protect from water-induced threats to life and livelihood.

In Australia, water literacy is defined and measured as a tool to improve the attitudes towards water frugality among the masses of individuals who consume water. In Philadelphia, water literacy is approached by my friends in the world of Public Health as an aspect of environmental health knowledge that, if improved, can make consumers better equipped in protecting themselves from diseases and physical harm related to water.

Talking about that harm, in The Netherlands swimming instructions with tests and diplomas are a normal part of the curriculum in elementary schools. Different circumstances define water literacy differently. In most cases, water literacy is defined narrowly, functionally and befitting a hypothesis. I argue that Water Literacy is an old literacy, like food literacy, and unlike new literacies like computer or financial literacy.

Looking out over the Dublin Bay, Dublin, Ireland © pam lazos

“Cultural literacy” was added into humanity’s global dialogue in the 1980’s to address multi-cultural encounters in this modern world full of migration, global enterprises and world trade. I found it very useful to describe: a) what constitutes a legal adult, who is to know of his citizenship?; b) what bi- and multi-cultural awareness entails?; c) how global citizenship is an ideal that underscores the dignity and rights of each human being?; and d) how one can celebrate diversity and own’s own cultural heritage therein?

Cultural literacy lays bare the specificity of local forms of struggles that global emancipation movements are confronted with, whether around gender, sexual orientation, class, languages, race, age, or disabilities. And how water literacy is acculturated across the globe. Food literacy is an issue of much interest. For centuries it referred to the basic needs to survive, to prevent hunger not only tomorrow but also next week or month or year. Sometimes a reference is made to maintaining health, as in using salt to preserve, realizing that spoilage is less speedy in colder settings, and that variety is not only pleasant but seems to be “good”. Only in the last 150 or so years is there a trend to expand that literacy, when the distance between farm and table became longer, when technology breakthroughs brought more handlers in between the farm and the table and where the pantry of the kitchen was written out of the modern homes blueprints.

“don’t want no spots on my apples” © pam lazos

Food is so fundamental an issue that in each country one section of the government’s portfolio of governance is dedicated to assuring food for all, at all times, and in a form that is acceptable and can be shared. Governments fall when populations get shocked around food issues. Food literacy at the communal level, therefore, is much more about what the whole knows (and needs to know) than just what the masses of consumers need to know.

fresh food beats food insecurity © pam lazos

I believe that it is worthwhile to compare water literacy with food literacy and to look into that domain when drafting a conceptualization that can provide good guidance for peoples, policy makers, and governors of our watersheds. But whereas I believe that worldwide the culture around food reflects “food as a commodity”, I understand water to be a commons that needs to be governed with an eye to survival of human life and livelihood, as well as survival of the ecology of the watersheds that the communities therein share and manage. Pollution of our waterways and oceans is not a “tragedy of the commons”(Garrett Hardin, 1968). It is foremost a governance problem of the commons; preventable, correctable, treatable, but only when understood as a commons (borrowing from the food literature lingo and building on the work of Helen Vidgen and Danielle Gallegos’ definition of food literacy (2014), and the analytical essay of Emily Truman, Daniel Lane, and Charlene Elliott, 2017 (Defining Food Literacy, in Appetite; Elsevier). Also, Meghan McCarroll and Hillary Hamann recently published an age specific, concentric paradigm in What We Know about Water: A Water Literacy Review (in: WATER, October 2020)).

I understand the concept of water literacy to be a paradigm around which the educational and behavioral activities around water in all its dimensions are organized, implemented, and evaluated. It is also one of the core aspects of individual and community level capacities towards managing water. Capacities such as collecting and reading data and making sense of these data, but also the capacity to know what data are missing, what data are “fake”, and “what you don’t know that you don’t know (Rumsfeld), and what data you don’t like to know (Daas and Kessler), and where to look for more data elsewhere.” I like to see this concept as a platform from which to assess opportunities to build and improve water literacy worldwide, specifically focusing on a democratic and freely available use of such literacy.

This concept of water literacy has six themes (which are not mutually exclusive: knowledge; water/health choices; skills/behaviors; water systems; culture; and emotions (Truman, Lane, and Elliott). Functional skills include handling and choice making abilities; critical skills and knowledge include information acquisition, understanding and analysis; and culture and emotions include attitudes, values and norms in an emotional and spiritual sense making.

Water literacy is both a measure at the individual level and a collective measure at the community/(inter)national level and addresses both the consumer/citizens necessary level of skills and knowing as well as the distribution of knowledge at the professional level, reflecting all the dominant divisions of labor, (e.g. engineering, law, biology, public health, economics, communication, social science, etc.) at both the community/national level where a construct can be made for a necessary level of literacy that captures the full capacities of the nations and regions for being optimally water literate.

graphic by arianna rich

How to measure water literacy is particularly challenging for educational interventions designed to teach it. These include programs in which water literacy is the primary outcome, (e.g., WASH), or a factor contributing to another (e.g., health, economic, social) outcome. There are at least two key problems for intervention development: limited outcomes to describe, and lack of studies measuring functional water literacy.

In general, studies could focus on critical knowledge acquisition, and because of this, they may present limited outcomes in terms of health- related outcome measures (i.e., attitude and behavioral changes). Most often, outcomes will tend to focus on knowledge generating measures, such as facilitators and barriers, educational references, and policy recommendations. Dissemination of water literacy is another field where much change is happening, especially with the explosion of social media venues. Future research into intervention objectives need to shed light onto the relationship between intervention content, dissemination techniques and desired outcomes.

what food eats © pam lazos

Overemphasizing his appreciation for meat, my brother used to joke that greens is what food eats — clearly a consumer’s definition. At the EPA, water pollution is easily defined, but standards for measuring that pollution as well the governance of that measuring are constantly being updated, partly because of upgraded scientific knowledge, but mostly because of political struggles over what constitutes good governance regarding pollution. Parents of toddlers are struggling with health questions when they smell the strong odors of chlorine emanating from the public kiddie pool; what should one know and what is an appropriate risk to take?

I myself like the description of D.H. Lawrence: “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one part, but there is also a third thing that makes it water, and nobody knows what that is.” For me, that mystique is the lure for continuing on our path of knowledge generation and reproduction. There is no end point, it is the path itself that we as humanity travel, straight or bended, but hopefully never in circles.

Dr. Morssink is the President of the Global Water Alliance and his interests are as varied and flowing as water itself such as the effects of the built environment on health, the elimination of health disparities, urban farming to end hunger, and the campaign to ban and clear landmines and cluster bombs in communities around the world. Water is his first love.