A turtle with a plastic bag around its neck

The annual World Water celebration aims to engage the public to emphasise the importance of freshwater. New research at the University of Birmingham argues that one of the key tools for raising awareness and tackling the water crisis will be language. From a scientific point of view, there is no question about the central importance and all-pervasiveness of water for human life. Paradoxically, it is exactly this all-pervasiveness of water that makes many facets of it easily overlooked. It is always the familiar that is less visible. But everyday perceptions of water may hold the key to successful communication, behavioural change, and the implementation of policies to ensure concerns about safe freshwater are on everyone minds.

Professor David Hannah, UNESCO Chair in Water Science, and Professor Michaela Mahlberg, Chair in Corpus Linguistics, have just received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

for a cross-disciplinary pilot study on tackling the communicative challenges of the water crisis. The 2022 World Water theme ‘groundwater – making the invisible visible’ resonates particularly with the linguistic approach to water proposed by the team at the University of Birmingham. What our researchers aim to make visible are the different types of meanings that are associated with water – the range of ways in which we talk about water. Language provides insights into how society values water. It shows us how people perceive water in their everyday lives.

To discover the social value of water, our team at the University of Birmingham studies large collections of language, also called corpora. Based on several millions of words from newspapers, UN reports, documents to inform policy, fiction etc. the team are describing typical patterns in which the word water occurs. They use quantitative methods to automatically identify collocations – the words that repeatedly occur together in texts. Once retrieved, context words of water are analysed in detail to identify thematic areas of water discourses.

One of the important themes in the collection of reports and policy information is, for instance, ‘water management’. Words like system, future, capacity, conservation, supplies, report, programme, governance, impacts, requirements or planning provide insights into how water is conceptualised as something that requires managing and organising. Such meanings are no surprise as the annual UN World Water report – one of the documents in the corpus – explicitly addresses water management. Things get interesting, however, when water discourses are compared across different data sets. For this reason, the team are also looking at several millions of words from a corpus of newspaper articles. The way newspapers talk about water management is more localised, as illustrated by context words such as east, west, wessex, yorkshire, northumbrian, bristol, anglican, south, thames.

In newspapers, there are also more examples that illustrate the everyday perceptions of water. Water is relevant to domestic contexts – recipes describe how water is use for cooking, water occurs as hot, cold, warm, and sparkling or bottled water. People experience water when enjoying leisure activities such as going to the pool, and water is talked about for its health benefits - we’ve all seen the articles that tell us to drink enough water every day. Water bottles can even become a fashion statement. In contrast, the kind of water challenges that are referred to in the reports and policy information belong to themes that are framed in less personal terms.

Everyday examples are seemingly not related to the big challenges of water management, but all of these meanings describe facets of water. And these connections are in fact part of what makes the water crisis such a complex or ‘wicked’ problem. Raising awareness of the connections – between individual health goals of drinking enough water each day and the management of the global resource – will be important to bringing the value of water closer to home. The curious thing about language is that even when we are proficient users of it, we are not necessarily aware of what we say or in which exact words. Would you be able to say how often you’ve used the word water today? By using millions of words from a range of texts, it is possible to get insights into the range of word meanings and so its value to society. Once identified, these meanings can then provide pointers as to how we need to talk about water so urgent messages do speak to people. Our researchers at the University of Birmingham are working together with policy makers to consider new ways of communication. Raising awareness of the full range of perceptions of water is making the invisible visible through language.