© 2001–2003, 2002 WHO, implemented by IRC

Water and health advocacy: A practical guide for World Water Day 2001

Water is one of the earth's most precious and threatened resources. Health is one of each person's most precious resources. We need to protect and enhance them both.
Water for Health


World Water Day is held on 22 March each year. This was designated by the United Nations General Assembly, as a result of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Summit, held in 1992. The theme for 2001 is Water and Health.

Water is a basic requirement for life and health. Around the world over a billion children, women and men lack access to adequate and safe water to meet their most basic need. Water and health are intimately related in every way. Every decision we make is practically linked to water and its consequences on health.

22 March 2001 marks a key date for mobilising political will and encouraging society involvement in promoting water and health related initiatives across the world. The theme, ‘Water and Health’, is a call to reach out beyond the community and to link with world wide efforts by international agencies, multi-lateral corporations, NGO's, governments and the community at large. It is an opportunity to capitalize on people's energies and commitment and to achieve a common goal—in this case to bring global and local attention and galvanise action so that every person on this planet has the water they need for health.

Governments, decision makers and donor agencies are essential to continued progress for better water management and better health—which is why we need to direct our energies to effective advocacy. This is especially important for developing countries: but water is a valuable and under-appreciated health resource everywhere. Without basic funding and policy changes, on the world water front, countries risk ‘going under’. We should all be protecting our waters for a healthier tomorrow.

World Water Day is an opportunity to raise awareness about improving water and health and preventing disease. Only when people become aware of how it affects us can true social mobilisation and advocacy begin.

Users of this guide are encouraged to bear in mind that effective advocates often recycle successful ideas from others. They creatively adapt and apply them to their own situation and campaigns.

Why organize a World Water Day

Highlight the water and health situation in your region Remember that World Water Day on 22 March is above all a media event. This provides you with a tremendous opportunity to capture the public's attention and to raise awareness on:

Planning is key to achieving the biggest possible impact for WWD

There are two main outcomes to aim for:

It is advisable to start well in advance by setting up a World Water Day planning committee that includes partners, organizations and motivated people. Don't delay: get started by January at the latest!

Organize your planning efforts

Form a water & health planning committee

To make World Water Day a success:

Try and include members of these groups in the planning committee!

When selecting committee members you should consider the following:

In your water and health planning committee you should:

Collect information: Build a case for strong action

Why water and health are inter-twined:

Collect information on water and health in your city, country, or region: for example how is the water effecting your health and your well being. What are the positive impacts, the negative impacts.

Collect information on socio economic development, the consequences of cholera outbreaks, economic crisis, environmental change, disaster, droughts, floods etc.


Collect information on some of the water related diseases that are important in your area.


Anaemia Arsenicosis
Cyanobacteria in lakes and resevoirs
Diarrhoeal disease
Guinea worm disease
Infectious Hepatitis
IQ loss / lead (Pb)
Legionnaires’ disease
Methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby Syndrome)
Paraplegia from diving injuries
Rift Valley Fever
Typhoid fever

Develop key message

Transform water & health statistics into key messages

Types of messages and stories that are effective:

Example A: The Problem

Almost half the World's people have no acceptable means of sanitation, new WHO/UNICEF Report Charts “Shameful” State of World's Water Supply and Sanitation Services

Despite tremendous efforts in the last two decades to provide improved water and sanitation services for the poor in the developing world, today, 2.4 billion people world-wide still do not have any acceptable means of sanitation, while 1.1 billion people do not have an improved water supply.

These are just two of the major findings from The Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000, launched today by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The Assessment is being launched as 500 public health, water and sanitation experts meeting in Brazil call on the world to roll-out a major effort—VISION 21—to correct the “shameful” water and sanitation situation that plagues millions of people in developing countries. (see sample press release WHO/73).

Example B: Success stories

Intestinal worms (helminths) are one of the most common infections on earth

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, a school-based de-worming programme has had a dramatic impact on children's health and development. Among the children involved, regular low-cost treatment has led to an increase in height and weight, a reduction in the prevalence of severe anaemia, and improved nutritional status.

In 1994, a new de-worming programme was launched by the National Helminth Control Programme for about 30 000 primary school children on the island of Pemba, the smaller of the two islands that make up Zanzibar. The children were treated at school three times a year with mebendazole (an anthelminthic drug) in the form of chewable orange-flavoured tablets.

Throughout the first year, the children had regular check-ups to monitor changes in the intensity of infection and to study the impact of treatment on their health status.

The results were impressive. Although roundworm infections responded best to the treatment, the intensity of all worm infections was reduced. By the end of the first year, the programme had prevented over 1200 cases of moderate to severe anaemia, and over 270 cases of severe anaemia.

By 1996, the prevalence of severe anaemia had been reduced by almost 40%, iron deficiency fell by 20%, and there was a marked improvement in the nutritional status of the children. (excerpts taken from WHO publication ‘Health a key to prosperity, success stories in developing countries’.

Example C: Human Interest story

Researchers warn of impending disaster from mass Arsenic poisoning

Allan H Smith, professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley, USA, et al report that a long-term epidemic of cancers and other fatal diseases is facing Bangladesh because of contamination of water supplies by naturally-occurring arsenic. The catastrophe is on a vast scale and needs to be declared a public health emergency, the article's authors warn.

Arsenic contamination of ground water has been found in many other countries, including Argentina, Chile, China, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States, and is a global problem. But Bangladesh's plight is unprecedented, the article says—between 35 and 77 million people of the country's total population of 125 million are at risk of exposure to arsenic in their drinking water. At least 100 000 cases of debilitating skin lesions are believed to have already occurred.

“Bangladesh is grappling with the largest mass poisoning of a population in history…the scale of this environmental disaster is greater than any seen before. It is beyond the accidents at Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986,” says Smith. (see sample press release WHO/55)

Mobilize partners for actions

The art of getting noticed—activities and events

Develop ideas for activities and events that will create news, provide people with important and interesting information, and raise their awareness. Activities and events that create a sense of urgency can mobilize people to become new partners in World Water Day.

Mobilize private industry and business

Approach local businesses and industries with an outline of activities and events for World Water Day and ask for their involvement and support. Explain to them how their participation shows enlightened self interest! As well as supporting a good cause it will increase their profile and visibility in the community.

Organize information and education events

Discussions, forums, seminars and courses are useful events to provide and exchange relevant and interesting information with the public, NGO's, business groups, medical associations, and water associations. You can discuss the implications of not taking action, state what can and should be done to improve water in your country. Address any of their concerns.

Organize awareness and “infotainment” events.

Infotainment = information + entertainment

Parades, competitions, street events, quizzes with a water theme … create media attention and get the message out to large numbers in an interesting, entertaining and stimulating way. This is a good means of reaching people who might be attracted to more traditional events such as seminars or meetings.

Involve celebrities as spokespersons

Choose individuals who are well known and respected within the country or community and who can bring positive attention to World Water Day and in particular to water and health. Invite personalities in music, film, TV, politics e.g. environment minister, mayor, president, prime-minister etc. Find out if a well known person lives in or near your area—they may be more likely to give ‘local support’ to your event. Remember it takes time and preparation to get celebrities involved. Celebrities are often not aware of the causes and consequences of the subject matter. So make sure they are briefed in advance. Specify clearly to their agent/manager, or to them how you want them to contribute and the message you hope to put across.

Working with the Media

The News Release

Many published news and feature stories originate from news releases. Ask yourself the following questions before writing your news release.

If the answer is YES to all the above then you are ready to write your story.

The News Conference

Perhaps the single most effective means of winning media coverage for World Water Day event you are organizing is to hold a news conference. Generally speaking, 11 a.m. is a good time for journalists and preferably not just before the weekend as the papers are usually thin. The most important part of the news conference is the announcement being made. Regardless of how much publicity accompanies a news conference, if the announcement is not newsworthy, the coverage will be disappointing.

News Conference Checklist

Alerting the Media—what journalists expect

In approaching journalists for the first time, you must have something written in hand. There should be at least two main elements in your background information: first, a brief description of your event, and a good collection of striking facts and statistics on water and health. This text can be an advance press release about your event, or a longer, less structured “backgrounder”. Involving the Media to cover your event

The print press (newspapers and magazines)

If you live in a provincial city, rather than in the capital of the country, there may only be one or two major newspapers. A member of your event organising committee may be acquainted with one of the editors. This person should contact the editor, ask for an appointment, and tell him or her about your plans for participation in the World Water Day. If he/she is interested in the idea, the editor could be encouraged to write an editorial on the subject related to water and health. If not, then you can propose to write an ‘op-ed’ article on the subject. Op-ed page articles generally run on the page opposite the editorial page, and express the views of citizens. By limiting the length of your op-ed piece to 500 or 600 words, you stand a much better chance of seeing it published.

The news agencies—Don't neglect them

In addition to newspapers and magazines, you ought to get in touch with the national news agency, also known as wire services. If they put out a dispatch on water and health for World Water Day, the story will go out to every newspaper, magazine, radio station and television network in your country.

10 Important International Media (in addition to your national media outlets)

Broadcast media: communicating in pictures and sound

TV and radio

Hosts and hostesses of talk shows are almost always looking for people to interview on radio and television. So, just call up your local radio station, ask to speak to the executive producer of the show you're interested in, and suggest someone for an interview (ideally one with charisma and able to articulate the message).

When you have only a few seconds in front of a microphone either for radio or television, you need to use memorable phrases – soundbites – that will stay with your audience long after you have left. The best sound-bites get to the heart of the problem without lengthy qualified explanations. Broadcast producers can't resist them, and listeners and viewers remember them. The sound bite should capture and communicate the one key message you want to leave with the audience, if they remember nothing else. Try to repeat the soundbite at least once during an interview with the media.

Samples of Water and Health Sound Bites

Beyond World Water Day—keeping up the momentum!

World Water Day should not be the only advocacy effort of the year!

World Water Day should be a catalyst for bringing together new partners, generating media interest and mobilizing resources that can build on throughout the year. The World Water Day planning committee can continue to meet throughout the year on water and health as a taskforce to keep the issues at the forefront and to build momentum towards the next World Water Day! Every year the theme changes, but the theme is always broad enough to adapt to particular water interests.

An excellent way to raise awareness about World Water Day, and increase your programme's visibility, is to highlight water and health issues throughout the year. You can work with the organizers of other commemorative days such as World Health Day or national commemorative days. You can contribute to the preparation of “their” special events and vice-versa.

Other international days and events to celebrate are:

Make a splash on world water day! 50 ways of celebrating and promoting the day

Assess the impacts of your efforts

Lessons Learnt

In order to find out what impact your efforts have had to plan for follow-action, assess the success of the day:

Collect news paper clippings, TV spots, radio broadcast…

Organize a “Thank you” event for members of the committee. This is a way to build on the success of World Water Day, and to strengthen relations between the committee members. This can lay ground for the future collaboration.

Remember to keep World Water Day issues bubbling throughout the year!


Special thanks to the WHO Communicable Diseases Cluster (CDS) from whose guide “Planning World TB Day, guidelines for social mobilization” the text and ideas used for this kit are based.

This document is not a formal publication of the World Health Organization (WHO) and all rights are reserved by the Organization. The document may, however, be freely reviewed, abstracted, reproduced, or translated in part, but not for sale or for use in conjunction with commercial purposes.

For authorization to reproduce or translate the work in full, applications and enquiries should be addressed to:

World Water Day
Water, Sanitation and Health (WSH)
World Health Organization
20, Avenue Appia
CH-1211 Geneva 27

WSH will be glad to provide the latest information on any changes made to the text, plans for new editions, and the reprints, regional adaptations and translations that are already available.

Prepared by the Water, Sanitation and Health Unit (WSH), World Health Organization (WHO).

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