Sport and water: Joining forces for change!

6 min read
Lua about to shoot

Why sport needs clean water and three ways it can help to get it

By Kylie Bates – from GameChangers. Reproduced with permission from

I am in sitting under a mango tree in Munda in the western province of the Solomon Islands, exchanging banter and observations with a group of teenage girls as they pull on their shoes and adjust their shin pads. The coach blows a whistle in the distance and within seconds the group is on the field, contracting and expanding again to run through kaleidoscopic drills. Three girls are left sitting under the tree and when I ask them why, they explain they each have their period. It is an awkward conversation and a common issue. Each member of this training squad misses one in four weeks of training due to menstruation.

Taking part in this soccer program also means the girls will probably be among the 20% to 35% of Solomon Islands teenagers who get to finish high school. One father boasts his daughter is the hero of their village when she teaches the boys new drills and tricks. He says she is starting to change people’s minds about what girls are capable of doing. The girls don’t know it yet, but they will eventually be the backbone of the national soccer team. Being on the field, not under the mango tree, sends their life on a new trajectory.

The other main thing holding these girls back from playing and performing in their sport is surprising due its abundance on this tropical Pacific Island: water.

People who play and organise games of sport need to be free from diseases that stop them in their tracks for days or weeks. They need to be free from bacteria spread by unclean water, poor hygiene behaviour, and open defecation. Adolescent girls and young women need convenient and effective ways to manage menstruation so they can confidently take part in all activities. They need the option of using hours usually absorbed walking long distances to water sources, or looking after young brothers and sisters who have infectious diseases, to train and play. In some countries buying water is expensive, leaving no discretionary income left for sport participation. More parents would support their daughters to play a sport if there was a toilet close to the playing field that was both clean and safe.

Reaching universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene will require US$24 billion, plus more to ensure sustainable water management. The effort pays off. For every $1 invested in water and sanitation, an average of at least $4 is returned in increased productivity. Hygiene promotion is the most cost-effective health intervention according to the World Bank.

Perhaps as important as monetary value, reaching water, sanitation and hygiene targets requires the mobilisation of more diverse organisations that have a vested interest in the well being of their associates.

There are over 700 national sports federations in the Pacific region that have the capacity to regularly convene players, organize events, and support representative teams. Over 30 regional confederations support the national federations. Many more organisations fund, provide services to, and partner with these federations. If the more than 700 organisations that look after games of sport in the Pacific region want to flourish, then they have a vested interest in the water, sanitation, and hygiene experiences of their players both at home and on the field.

Just as organisations that are interested in water, sanitation and hygiene are valuable to games of sport, sports have unique attributes to help progress community development objectives. Sports offer three platforms:

1. Platform for change

Sports bring people together regularly in situations where they are with their peer groups and usually a coach or mentor. For example, when girls and young women play games of sport they develop a greater ownership and understanding of their bodies. They gain access to a safe space to grow and explore and connect with peers for social support, and learn to challenge norms and stereotypes. This creates an ideal environment for behaviour change in other areas that matter to adolescent girls, including menstrual hygiene management. As a result of Women Win’s Building Young Women’s Leadership Through Sport program in seven countries, 84% of girls had improved menstrual hygiene management compared with 49% previously.

2. Platform for advocacy and influence

2.1 People

Captain of the PNG’s national netball team Mrs Lua Rikis encourages a new community to be healthy and active. When she is not on the court, Mrs Rikis is WaterAid PNG’s community development officer and work closely with the PNG Netball Federation to implement sport based hygiene behaviour change practices and policy. Photo credit: WaterAid Australia

The people who govern and lead games of sport often govern and lead in other parts of the community. Mobilising local resources is a key component of achieving the sustainable development goals. While there are varying reports on the degree to which they are effective in changing behaviour, they do play a role in raising awareness and contributing to highly visible conversations. In some cases there is the opportunity to train high profile athletes to play key roles in water, sanitation and hygiene activities. For example, Mrs. Lua Rikis, the captain of Papua New Guinea’s national netball team has joined the WaterAid office in Papua New Guinea. Part of her role is to engage and support Netball PNG in incorporating hygiene behaviour change and water and sanitation initiatives that are equally relevant to netball’s own mission and strategic priorities.

2.2 Policy

The organisations that govern games of sport care about the well being of people who play their sport. Many sports have child protection policies, gender inclusion policies, and disability inclusion policies. If protecting participants’ health and safety is seen as part of the sport federation’s role, then the case can be made for sports to have water policy that describe the standards of water, sanitation, hygiene required as a prerequisite for sport participation and, importantly, help sports achieve these standards. This is especially significant for events where travelling teams rely on organisers to provide satisfactory facilities.

3. Platform to raise funds

The work of both sport and water organizations is enhanced and enlarged when there is more money available. Together, the two make a strong proposition for a funder.

For sports, partnerships with development organisations provide the design, monitoring, and evaluation rigor needed to set up an effective program. For development organizations, sports provide the profile, reach, and accessibility needed to make an impact. All of these elements are attractive to donors that are also interested in diplomatic outcomes via sport. WaterAid’s sport-based program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Papua New Guinea is blazing trails for new forms of sport and development organisation partnerships. It is also piloting new ways to engage netball players in Australia in advocacy and fundraising via connections with netball players in Papua New Guinea.

Major sport events are also effective major fundraisers. UNICEF’s fundraising initiatives at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games raised almost AUD10 million. Tackle Hunger, a partnership between the World Food Program and the Rugby World Cup, raised almost AUD3 million. The potential of these relationships has not been thoroughly explored nor consistently applied. There is an opportunity for sports sponsorship to connect to sport event fundraising, that goes on to fund sports based programming that contribute to water, sanitation, and hygiene outcomes.

When I talk to colleagues in both the water and sport businesses, I hear that the hardest thing is knowing where to start. It is also the most simple. Ask for a meeting, figure out what you want, take the first step.