Tzu Chi Foundation

 Some members of the Tzu Chi Foundation in Sydney are working as volunteer “water ambassadors” to share information and encourage water conservation practices in the community. Originally the educational information was delivered to the Chinese community via bilingual environmental educators. When the Tzu Chi adopted the program it was delivered to Chinese, Indonesian and Malaysian communities and the Sri Lankan community through Tzu Chi’s close relationship with the Lak Saviya Buddhist Foundation. Now the water ambassadors take advantage of any opportunity whether it be neighbours, festivals, language schools or dharma class to encourage people to rethink the way they use water. This is a good example of working with community leaders and supporting them as agents for change and inspiration within the community.

How the project evolved

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a large international non-profit organization founded in 1966 in Taiwan. It is a spiritual and welfare organisation, run by volunteers and dedicated to charity, medicine, education, environmental protection and community volunteerism.  The Tzu Chi developed their own peer training program for volunteers at their centre with the assistance of Chinese bilingual environmental educator Jenny Tang Luis who provided training sessions in English and Mandarin.

Environmental protection is a key part of the Tzu Chi Foundation’s mission. After talking together about the issues of water shortage, a group of the Sydney Tzu Chi members decided to form a project team to help encourage more people in the community to adopt water conservation practices. The Tzu Chi became ambassadors after they were invited to participate in the Water for Life Community Partnership Program funded by the Department of Water and Energy with assistance from Sydney Water and the Office of Environment and Heritage.

40 water ambassadors, including Tzu Chi and Lak Saviya Foundation leaders and members, were initially trained by staff and Chinese bilingual environmental educators from the Ethnic Communities Sustainable Living Project (ECSLP).  Many of the ambassadors had previously been involved with the ECSLP as participants themselves in sustainable living workshops delivered by the Chinese bilingual educators. Part of the training included a field trip to Warragamba Dam which, as one ambassador said, “gave them a further understanding of how serious the water shortage was”.

"I now feel more empowered in delivering the concept of water saving to people around me. As environmental protection is one of Tzu Chi's missions, the (training) presentation on water saving has provided us with practical tips and given Tzu Chi a solid foundation with its environmental work."

Wenley Ho, Water Ambassador and representative of Tzu Chi Foundation

The water ambassadors deliver presentations to Tzu Chi Foundation events and hold information stalls at shopping centres and local festivals. They present to school groups and have developed a skit for presentations to primary school students and audiences at festivals and a slide presentation with more technical information pitched at high school students and adults. The ambassadors also host tea parties for friends and members of their communities where they demonstrate the installation of do-it-yourself water saving kits.

The key messages promoted by the water ambassadors are about the simple and realistic actions that people can make to reduce water consumption in their daily lives, such as taking shorter showers and using a bucket to wash cars. The ambassadors are keen to talk to anyone and “plant the seed” in people’s minds.  Some of the ambassadors have even had conversations with people while waiting at an airport or on a plane. Others tried handing out pamphlets at train stations, although this did not work well. As observed by one of the ambassadors, perhaps people were not willing or available to stop and listen at that time. “If people have agreed to come to a tea party, information stall or workshop, then they have already committed some of their time and are more prepared to listen”.

Having something to give to people also helps break the ice and start a conversation. The ambassadors find that distributing free shower timers helps them to encourage people to make a commitment to change behaviour, in this case, by taking shorter showers. In some cases the ambassadors have even encouraged people to sign a pledge to have 4 minute showers from now on. The 4-minute shower is the most important message for the Water Ambassadors.

“For my community it is better to focus on one action rather than many things. Everyone uses a shower – it doesn’t matter what sort of house you live in or whether you are young or old or rent or own a house or unit. The shower uses the most water in the home. Everyone can make a difference this way.”
John, Tzu Chi Water Ambassador.


Unexpected outcomes

Through the Tzu Chi’s extensive networks they have taken the water conservation message internationally with information being broadcast to 31 countries via TV as well as radio coverage in Taiwan and Sydney. The 4-minute shower message has become part of Tzu Chi’s global environmental mission and action.

Why this project works well

The passion and commitment of the water ambassadors makes them powerful agents for change.
The sense of ownership the water ambassadors feel about the sustainability message is inspiring and their enthusiasm is infectious. The success of the project is attributed to the belief that the communities respond to their own leaders, and so meaningful messages developed by community members for their own communities will have a greater impact.

The ambassadors, like any group of community volunteers, require ongoing support to keep up to date with information and to feel part of a bigger network of sustainability educators. The Ethnic Communities Sustainable Living Project provides technical information and training on how to run seminars and deliver presentations. On a personal level for Water Ambassador Wenley Ho, plucking up the courage to talk to strangers about water conservation has been “a humbling experience” and a confidence boost. Wenley is heartened by the interest and response of many people she talks to. After one year of asking the building manager to fix a leaking tap in the toilet at her work, Wenley organised for a petition to be signed by all of the tenants in the building. And it is not surprising, the tap was fixed shortly afterwards!