You'll never go in the water again

Posted in Sustainability on 15 May 2020 By Christine Colvin, Climate Resilience and Sustainability Senior Consultant

Drawing on her first hand experience of the Cape Town drought disaster in 2018, Christine Colvin argues that we, as communicators, will be tasked with navigating ourselves through the current crisis and ultimately making sense of the post-COVID world.

Christine Colvin with Michael Bloomberg and local water experts visiting a Cape Town dam during the 2018 drought.

COVID-19 has given us all a terrifyingly tangible taste of real crisis. Our lives have turned outside-in. We don’t go out, we have lost friends and colleagues, we work long days in our bedrooms, and most of our human connection is technologically mediated. Changes that were impossible, when I started working at Emperor two months ago, have been implemented in a fiscal heart-beat.

In contrast, a drought doesn’t creep up on you in the middle of a cold, dark winter like a virus does. It’s like a mirage on the horizon, shimmering just out of view. Is it there, isn’t it..?

Like all the best horror movies, it starts with those with power ignoring those with evidence. ‘Close the beaches!’ [Ponders…] ‘Nah – it was a freak shark attack... and, the summer season is just beginning!’ 

Working in Cape Town during the 2018 drought crisis felt like a ‘dry run’ for climate breakdown at a global scale. There were some critical lessons learned during that regional crisis that are also relevant to our current pandemic, as well as to the climate crises that are looming on our medium-term horizon and that are certainly no mirage. 

We have all been astounded by the pace at which we have been subsumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with nationwide disaster responses kicking into action. Disaster response is summarised by the experts into four phases: mitigation; preparation; response; recovery. Disaster professionals work to this sequence and understand how to implement it. But human behaviour does not match this sequence, during a crisis it follows the phases of grieving: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. Sadly, with COVID-19, many were still denying or trying to cast blame; playing the stats game to work out how they won’t be affected, when they should have already accepted the facts and prepared at pace.

We were losing time to save water. Instead, all hell was breaking loose with denial and anger from the residents of the city.

This is why we have the familiar horror movie opening sequence – the ‘bite’; the couple of Crazy Scientists who recognise the signal; the Suits who won’t change because they’ve got too much skin in the status quo. The rational cog of what we need to do to save ourselves runs counter to the emotional cogs that drive our behaviour. 

One of the most important tools we have to align these cogs and change behaviour is communication. But we first need to accept that the threat is real, and understand how it will play out if we change and if not. This requires communication to be credible and trusted, as well as coherent and make sense. Experts are there to bring credibility, and as leaders define the ‘signal’; they are critical in minimising the contrasting or dissenting background noise. But alongside this, creatives are desperately needed to bring it to life and bring coherence. 

As George Monbiot showed in his book Out of the Wreckage and TED talk on developing a new narrative: ‘When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity… Does it progress as stories should progress? A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story.’

In the Cape Town drought, at WWF we filled a communication gap that existed in the early stage of the crisis. We were losing time to save water. All hell was breaking loose with denial and anger from the residents of the city. The signal wasn’t getting through the noise and some credible communication was urgently needed. We decided to publish a weekly water advisory for business and citizenstelling them how to prepare for the worst and what to do to prevent it. This contributed to building a new narrative that showed: The danger is real; It will affect you but you have the power to change and prevent it.

This narrative had two endgames: #DayZero, with no water in our homes and long queues for our most basic need; or a #NewNormal, a future Cape Town still ravaged by drought in a changed climate, but surviving and then thriving because we adapted and used and valued water differently. We had a new story about water in our future, and we were no longer complacent.

Like that crisis, we are emerging from the COVID-19 crisis, fundamentally changed with a new appreciation for so much that we have become complacent about. Organisations, cities and countries that adapted fastest based on the best evidence, have shown their resilience. They will quickly set a new course, navigating with a new narrative that is relevant and credible. Those who wasted too much time denying the signal, and whose leaders only contributed to the noise, will suffer most. 

We are all enrolled in a master class in change and adaptation, our cross-hairs focused on the COVID-impact curve. If we have time to catch our breath before we refocus on the climate crisis, we may lose our momentum. We have already taken some difficult steps in letting go of the old normal, we now need to work harder to help our sector and our clients build our narrative bridge to the new. A return to the old will be a fatal step backwards. We've seen Mandela proved right again: ‘It always seems impossible, until it’s done.’

Christine Colvin live on France 24 News discussing the end of the drought in Cape Town in 2018.

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