What does it take to usher in a socially inclusive water future? A hundred and fifty professionals from the water sector pondered this question at the ‘Social Inclusion in Water Climate Adaptation – Making a Transformation’ event, held on the 12th of September in Utrecht.

This event, organised by Partners for Water and Deltares, opened a collective dialogue. “We need an open mind, heart and will.”

“I’m so glad to see all of you”, says the host Stephanie Janssen, researcher at Deltares specialising in social inclusion, with a welcoming smile. Among the attendees are people of all ages and genders, representing various countries, cultures and organisations. As they lower the volume from their animated conversations in the plenary hall, Janssen officially kicks off the event: “Our collaborative journey to enhance a socially inclusive water world is about to begin, and it’s something none of us can achieve alone.”

Joining her is Dennis van Peppen, the Lead Water Programmes at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. “Our journey towards promoting social inclusion and fostering transformation within the international water sector began in 2018”, he tells the audience. “Since then, we’ve witnessed growing enthusiasm at all levels of the water sector. Today, you are bringing a wealth of perspectives to this event, and I look forward to being inspired by your voices.”

“Over the last few years, I’ve seen various efforts toward mainstreaming social inclusion.
Today, I look forward to exchanging both our distinctive and shared insights.” – Participant

“I hope we leave the room not with confidence, but with a high level of enthusiasm to continuously learn, unlearn and re-learn.” – Participant

Read more about social inclusion in water and climate adaptation

Using a framework for change

But how does one foster transformation? To cultivate an inclusive water world, we can learn from proven changemakers strategies. United in both marriage and expertise, inaugural keynote speakers Martin and Aggie Kalungu-Banda provide the audience with a comprehensive explanation of a change-management framework known as ‘Theory-U’. Both are active members of the Presencing Institute, an organisation dedicated to developing theories and practices for systems transformation. “Theory U is not our creation,” says Martin Kalungu-Banda. “after numerous dialogues and opportunities for observation, it’s the name that was given to the process that change-makers worked with to bring about deep transformation.” With unwavering passion, he continues, “Applying the Theory U framework involves, among other things, paying attention to the questions and opportunities calling out for attention. It requires active listening and emotional connection to others and the surrounding environment and doing this with an Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will.”

Aggie Kalungu-Banda adds, “Change requires more, though. It happens when, apart from observing the world outside, we also turn the lens of observation inward, continuously enhancing our self-awareness at the individual, team, organisational and societal levels.”

The Dutch water sector has a longstanding tradition of acting like preachers. Let’s stop the preaching. Instead, let’s embrace humility, reflect on our role as outsiders and become curious.

Special Envoy for Water of the Netherlands

Meike van Ginneken

Deep Diving

To translate words into action, attendees break into small groups and embark on deep dives into various themes. These sessions offer the opportunity to explore different case studies, brainstorm, engage in discussions, or even participate in a ‘therapy session’ centred around inclusivity. Participants enter these sessions with enthusiasm and vulnerability, emerging with both newfound insights and the questions that arose during their discussions.

Participants participating in one of the ten deep dive sessions © Feike Faase Fotografie

5 insights

The deep dive sessions produced various insights that differed from person to person. Here are five overarching ones.

  • Acknowledge diverse approaches. There is not just one way to promote social inclusivity. The diversity among countries, villages and communities is reflected in the various potential approaches.
  • Step beyond your comfort zone. This can change your perspective and improve your understanding of inclusivity. A practical approach to gaining different perspectives could be to collaborate with someone from another background within the water sector to exchange viewpoints.
  • Address misconceptions and disagreements. These often arise when trying to identify those who are marginalised and those who are not. Achieving system transformation requires connection, openness, vulnerability, and engaging in conversations where everyone can both speak and listen about these differences.
  • Invest time in listening. Involving people in a project and working towards sustainable results necessitates investing time in active listening.
  • Find the knowledge within. The necessary knowledge sits within each of us and throughout our collective experiences. No single individual has all the answers, making our interconnectedness essential.

I believe we can push our boundaries. Meetings serve their purpose, but we could also explore other approaches. For instance, using games, such as role-playing scenarios or ‘putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes’. This could help us connect with the emotional aspect. It’s not just about making decisions on paper; actually experiencing what these decision mean can lead to significant change


5 questions

There are still many questions to be explored, such as:

  • When is something genuinely inclusive?
  • How do we ascertain whether we are working inclusively?
  • How do you strike a balance between a top down and a bottom-up approach?
  • Who defines the true needs and goals of a project?
  • How can we scale up socially inclusive projects?

“Sometimes, we think we know best because we are the practitioners. But it’s all about listening and being compassionate to each other. Let’s discuss how we can let go of our arrogance and how to embrace curiosity!” – Participant

Stepping into the future

Reflecting on the event, attendees express a deep sense of resonance, departing with seeds of hope and concrete ideas to continue the journey of improving social inclusion in the water sector. Many feel that they’ve forged stronger connections with each other, thanks to their willingness to engage in conversations with open minds, open hearts and open wills.

Everyone realises that enhancing social inclusion within water and climate adaptation doesn’t require a hurrid leap forward. Instead, it demands time for reflection and an embrace of diversity. Although it may seem like a complicated challenge with many unanswered questions, as one participant aptly put it: “it’s actually quite simple to start – just begin with listening.”

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