Collaboration and Communication

Sewage pipe. Photo © Joe Miller
Ocean sewage pollution is a complex problem; simply developing solutions and raising awareness is not going to be enough to tackle this enormous environmental challenge. To mitigate sewage pollution, marine practitioners need to look beyond our discipline of reef management and collaborate with colleagues in multiple sectors including public health and those who manage coastal lands and adjacent upland areas. Engaging local communities to be part of the process to identify and solve sewage problems is critical, requiring effective communication that goes beyond raising awareness of the problem to motivate real change in peoples’ behaviors.


There is an opportunity for conservation and WASH practitioners to share their expertise and work together to develop sustainable sanitation solutions that protect humans, ecosystems, and natural resources. Marine managers have a role to play in communicating their knowledge of ocean ecosystems and how they are impaired by sewage pollution. This understanding is essential for developing solutions that address threats to marine life as well as human health. Manager insight and cross-sector collaboration will contribute to field-ready monitoring tools and strategies to prevent ocean degradation. The more people (from different disciplines) talk about sewage pollution, the more inclined government officials and policymakers may be to support sewage-mitigating strategies.

‘ridge-to-reef’ management approach links management action on land with coastal waters for integrated solutions across watersheds and across agencies. Ridge-to-reef projects often improve sewage management and reduce land-based pollution, providing benefits to coral reefs, terrestrial ecosystems, and people. Freshwater retention strategies – such as increasing permeable surfaces, vegetation, and wetlands – slow the flow of pollutants into the ocean. Capturing polluted water as it moves downhill increases its exposure to treatment mechanisms reducing the amount of contaminants that reach the marine environment.

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Integrated approaches that link conservation action across watersheds provide benefits to coral reefs. Photo © Jordan Robins/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Another important collaboration is within local communities. Engaging local stakeholders to be a part of the process to identify sewage problems and implement solutions helps them see the problems first-hand and serve as champions to communicate findings and build support and participation in solutions. It also provides managers and scientists much needed support on-the-ground and can facilitate partnerships with universities, NGOs, government agencies, and local researchers. See this case study on the creation of Work 4 Water, a consortium of partners developed to create jobs and address sewage pollution through acceleration of the replacement of cesspools in the State of Hawaii.

Across the globe, local communities are becoming involved in  opens in a new windowwater quality monitoring to protect their coastlines.  opens in a new windowSurfrider Foundation and Hui O Ka Wai Ola are two examples of citizen science water quality monitoring programs. Localized water quality data provide conclusive evidence about where sewage pollution is occurring. This information can be used to identify the source(s) of sewage pollution and work with local planners or government officials to identify policy solutions.

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Hui O Ka Wai Ola volunteer training. Photo © Bruce Forrester


Technology options and implementation methods have historically focused on waste collection, containment, and treatment. However, successful and sustainable sanitary solutions require understanding of the community served, from behavior patterns, to resource availability, to cultural acceptance. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; sanitation solutions need to be tailored to each location or community.

The next challenge is building support or participation in implementing the sanitation solution. To achieve this, managers can begin by identifying who to convince or motivate to take action. For the example of implementing a cesspool removal program, two key audiences could include: 1) local policymakers who will need to allocate funds for cesspool removal, and 2) coastal home owners who will need to apply for a rebate program to cover costs of removing cesspools. Motivating people to take action does not happen quickly and requires careful planning and strategic communication.

Strategic communication is the purposeful use of communication to achieve a specific goal or outcome. It is about getting the right message to the right person (or audience) at the right time through the right channel to achieve a goal.

The Strategic Communication for Conservation guide for marine managers features a step-by-step planning process to help identify a communication goal and develop a strategy to achieve it. The seven steps outlined below guide users through creation and execution of a communication plan. Examples and worksheets for each step make the process clear and interactive. For sewage pollution, investigating the scope of the problem in an area is a great starting point to establish local challenges and identify appropriate goals. Data and statistics about the problem, understanding audience priorities, and awareness of resource availability will enhance the usefulness of this process.


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Explore the guide for examples of communication tactics to get your audience’s attention and motivate them to act. Many of the ideas shared are directly applicable to mitigating sewage pollution efforts. A communication tactic not included in the guide that is relevant to this topic, is using data to draw attention to sewage pollution. An example of this is the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS), a data visualization tool that allows practitioners to connect quantifiable measures of water quality with reef conditions and qualitative observations over time. The  opens in a new windowOcean Tipping Points tool coherently presents this data as well as findings about reef conditions, and can be used as a model for data science and ocean monitoring elsewhere.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

To increase support and resources for sewage mitigation from government officials, policymakers, and other high-level audiences, an effective communication strategy may involve showcasing how ocean sewage pollution intersects with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SDGs (created by the UN in 2015) present ambitious targets for providing human rights and protecting resources around the world. Included in the SDGs are specific goals and targets for both sanitation (SDG 6.3) and marine conservation (SDG 14). However, there are connections between the challenges and impacts of ocean sewage pollution and all 17 goals (see SDGs below).

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The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were established in 2015 for achievement by 2030. Source: United Nations

Significant resources are allocated for activities related to these goals worldwide on local, national, and global scales. Opportunities to simultaneously mitigate sewage pollution and advance progress toward the SDGs exist in managing fisheries to protect nutrition and livelihoods (SDG 2 and SDG 8); sustainable sanitation infrastructure (SDGs 9 and 10); climate and environmental protection (SDGs 13, 14, and 15); and interdisciplinary solutions considering environmental, health, technical, and social criteria (SDGs 16 and 17). Keeping these goals in mind can help make a case for why policymakers should support a sewage-mitigating strategy.


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Click on the above image to access the guide

Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group (ABCG), which includes IRC, Conservation International, and the Jane Goodall Institute, developed a  opens in a new windowFreshwater Conservation and WASH Advocacy Strategy Workshop Facilitator’s Guide. This guide prepares facilitators to lead a workshop that provides foundational understanding about the need for integrated WASH and water conservation efforts and introduces strategies for engaging with decision makers to generate policy change. The intent of the guide and workshop is to raise awareness and inspire advocacy in communities to support policy programing to promote WASH and water conservation solutions.

Although the ABCG Guide is specifically aimed toward freshwater resource conservation, the methods proposed are applicable to marine areas. The four-day workshop and tools presented in it serve as an example that can be adapted for and leveraged by coastal communities.

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