How the Center for Sustainable Water might be replicated in other contexts

By Simon Ross, IWCAN

In an interview with Virak Chan, he spoke about his inspiration for founding the Center for Sustainable Water, which stemmed from his experience studying in Australia and motivated him to address problems in his home country, Cambodia. However, his motivation for change did not appear to be a good fit for a traditional project development approach. He wanted to get ‘ordinary people, students, volunteers and junior water practitioners’ excited about water. This article discusses what may help to achieve this.

Getting people inspired by water and sanitation in Cambodia

Virak explains “I decided to establish the Center for Sustainable Water with a sense of the passion and knowledge I have gained from the different places I have been and the people I have met, rather than just what I wanted to do. So, it is going very well with how it is an open structure and people can come to the Center and can really learn about water.”

Getting people excited about water and sanitation is not something that you would usually approach alone or by sourcing money from a donor. Inspiring sustainable grassroots change for improved water management requires more than funding and one person’s vision. These two elements provide a good starting point, but what next? This was a question asked of Virak recently by another water champion returning to her home country from Australia to attempt a similar feat.

Getting people excited about water sensitive urban design and sanitation in India

Urmi Burogohain is an architect and urban planner who has had significant success in attracting private sector engagement in water sensitive urban design initiatives in Victoria. She has recently returned to her home state of Assam in India to try her hand at developing these concepts in the Indian context.

She captures the challenge of getting people inspired by water. “In India, public space is contested. People will keep the inside of their homes immaculate, but rarely venture out into the public due to the waste and dirtiness, especially of the water”. Urmi is interested in developing small pilot Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) projects to inspire others in the community and “get youngsters talking to each other”. She talks about how her professional colleagues cannot see the value in what she is doing as they can’t see how it is going to be financially successful. She suggests that getting people together that are passionate about these ideas is the key to sustainable change in the way water is managed.

Getting some insight into the conversation that Urmi and Virak had regarding making their ideas happen was enlightening. The similarities were striking

Urmi and Virak’s list of ideas for doing things differently

Having the confidence to back your own leadership — It can be challenging to find opportunities to put time and resources into a self-identified initiative. Urmi and Virak both initially were privileged to be able to use their own resources initially to get started. Urmi adds, “Donors and local governments want something that is already up and running and successful. It can be very hard to initiate something new or risky that might not succeed”. One opportunity that this presents is that it enables you to appreciate the undervalued resources that already surround you. This is part of the mindset that needs to change about solving problems. Looking for donors as the first step can be counterintuitive.

Find the right people who have a commitment to ideas and who are prepared to support them is essential when starting a new people-centred initiativeVirak explains “I use my relationship with others. We started in a resource-scarce mode, but in that way, the people that become involved are really quite committed to the common purpose of strengthening the capacity of the young generation who want to work in water and sanitation. In a short moment of time, with this approach, we can achieve things are quite motivating from what we have experienced before.”

Make the right connections — Urmi identified the importance of identifying the people that can open doors for you. Once you have gathered a group of people with a shared vision, providing some direction to the vision is the key or people can lose interest quickly. “How you get people together is the key. You need to find key influencers and people who also want to see things change”. Both Urmi and Virak identified that they could not approach their idea alone and were aiming to create a pivot point to build a community of practitioners around.

Start small and collaborate — Both Urmi and Virak brought with them significant expertise in their chosen fields, but the challenge was targeting that expertise to the population they wanted to see change for. Urmi explains “Collaboration is the key but usually everyone is attuned to trying to do things for themselves and things never get done individually. There is a need to create a platform for dialogue to happen.” Virak identified the importance of a new initiative maintaining its independence if it is to attract people with a passion for change. Urmi then gave an analogy of how this works for public performances in Manipur, India: “There is no control over this process. It just happens. Someone blocks a road, sets up a tent for a cultural show and everyone else comes. Nobody complains because they see the value in it, and the rest of the things just happen.”

Although the initiatives of both Urmi and Virak are relatively new, momentum is building. Both initiatives have seen a sharp increase in engagement and success over the past few months. You can find out more about the Center for Sustainable Water through the contact details on their website. You can find out about Urmi’s initiative in India through contacting her directly about her idea.

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