​Relationship-building: a core component of water management

In an interview, Chris O’Neill of Hydronumerics spoke about how relationships are fundamental to good water management. He emphasised the value of listening to others and understanding how people use and engage with water. Chris proposed a ‘red wine theory’ of relationship building. As water managers, it’s helpful to be reminded that water is about our lives and how we live and that we are all connected through water.

Water management is not all about technological processes, decision making, and highly technical research to support water management. A large part of affecting change comes down to cultivating relationships and perfecting the art of listening to both management stakeholders and water resource users. By truly connecting with the people whose lives are affected by a water management project, both the people handling management and those set to be impacted by any changes, water professionals can be assured that the project has everyone’s best interests in mind.

The importance of social connection

Hydronumerics’ Chris O’Neill has worked with stakeholders across the globe, spending a lot of time on water management in India in particular. Through his work, he has discovered the power of listening and making a social connection.

“Without that social connection, people really aren’t interested in doing any work, because work is completely secondary to the social connection that you’re building,” he explains.

Introducing the ‘red wine theory’

O’Neill’s experiences in water management have led him to understand that something as simple as sharing a few glasses of red wine, or cups of tea, with people, can make a difference in the success of a project and in how well each party understands one another.

Instead of meeting users on a formal basis, setting things up as project leaders versus the local community, O’Neill noticed the value in meeting people where they are at, on an ad hoc basis.

He recalls an experience in India, putting on the local dress and having tea with a farmer.

“There was this transformation of their acceptance of me into that environment. I think what happens particularly in developing countries is that they see these white men on shining horses, rolling into town there to save the world.

“It can be very scary for the locals… There has to be that social capital build-up that you have a cup of tea with them and find about their kids because otherwise how can they trust you? You need to build that trust. It’s fundamental in those relationships.”

By meeting people in their own environment, drinking tea or otherwise connecting with them on a person-to-person basis, water management professionals can break down barriers and learn a lot about a population’s water usage, values, and hopes for the future when it comes to managing important assets.

The art of listening

In India, and in other places around the world, the art of listening is vital in forming the relationships that will make water management projects a success. This aspect of management cannot be ignored. The goal of making and cultivating social connections through ‘red wine moments’ is to make space to listen to what users actually want and need.

However, it is important for those involved in water management to really listen to and respond to what users are saying in an authentic and honest way. If one arranges these meetings and then proceeds to ignore any advice given or requests made, it sends the wrong message to a community, who may then grow to distrust future water management plans.

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